The Accidental Environmentalist: CNG in Pakistan

by Ahmed Riaz

Summer in Lahore, Circa 2005

As my friend, Mohammad, opened up the truck of his car I noticed something rather strange. Inside was large metal canister with a gauge and pipes sticking out. Obviously seeing something that looked like homemade rocket attached to inside of your car was a cause for concern. As it turned out it wasn’t an explosive but something far more subtle at work.

“What’s that?” I asked Mohammad stepping back a little from the car as he started fiddling with the pipes.

“Yaar, it’s CNG. We had kit put in last month!”

During the years I had been away at University learning about art, design and innovation people in Pakistan had been hacking their cars to run on Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). Natural Gas, basically Methane, is an alternative to fossil fuels like gasoline and diesel. While not zero emissions, CNG produces significantly less pollutants than petrol. If coupled with electronically controlled stoichiometric engines Natural gas offer the lowest emissions with relation to the highest possible power output.

As I looked around the gas station I noticed we certainly not the only ones filling up on CNG. All the cars seemed to fueling up both petrol and CNG. Not only were these CNG cars were all over the Pakistan, CNG was available at almost all the gas stations all over the country. The infrastructure had grown up organically as people needed it. In fact currently Pakistan has more CNG cars and stations than any other country in the world.

I was shocked. Silently, within a year or two a nation fighting poverty and terrorism had done what the west is trying to figure out. They had changed their dependence on oil and moved environmentally friendly fuel source and they were completely unaware of it.

“Dude, you’ve got a hybrid!” I said to Mohammad.

“What’s a hybrid? It’s just cheaper yaar.” (Prius was not known in Pakistan back in 2005).

“That’s awesome!”

“umm… okay?”

People in Pakistan had found themselves an ecological coup but no on seemed to care.

We got back in the car and Mohammad started up the car. He laughed at my incredulous excitement, flipped the switch and the car changed from Petrol to CNG and we puttered on to the future.

As I sat back in the car, rolling down the window to let the wind help with the humidity, I couldn’t help but think… Here we had a nation of accidental environmentalists hackers. I couldn’t escape the lesson that the strongest motivations for change, on a large scale, has to be motivated in the economies on a individual scale. Horsepower versus drastically lower price in gas. The choice was easy. This wasn’t invisible hand abstracted away from human behavior quantified far removed economist but real choices about money made by real people that collectively was able to move mountains.

The whole world is always softly shifting beneath us all time. Even economically minded people will change to create a world that is sustainable to them on a human scale. The power of design is the making apparent the new paths available to people, but ultimately it’s the combination of design and business that empowers individuals to take control of the change they want to see in the world.

An MBA in Design Strategy allows us to look for strategic opportunities on a ‘human scale’ that combine the empathetic and prototyping abilities of design with the financially sound and actionable solutions provided by business.

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Riaz is a user experience designer with a background in industrial design and  design research, an expertise in visual thinking and a passion for making objects that dissolve into behavior. He is currently trying to combine all these in a MBA in design strategy at the California College of Art.


These articles were created as part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. Read more about the project here.