In this week’s special Earth Day episode, host Kristin Hayes talks with Amer Jandali, founder and CEO of Future Meets Present and a consultant to the New York City Office of Nightlife, about climate solutions for the nightlife industry in New York City. Jandali discusses how major metropolises can promote sustainable practices in the service industry and advocate for climate policy, how the New York City Office of Nightlife is engaging nightclubs in climate efforts, and the climate solutions that the nightlife industry in New York has been pursuing to date.
Listen to the Podcast
- Nightclubs in New York City are new to the climate conversation: “[Nightclubs in New York City have] never been a part of the climate conversation in any deep way. There is, of course, awareness and conversations around eliminating straws and plastic cups and the low-hanging fruit, which is great … [But now] they realize, ‘Hey, we should be stepping up and recognizing the immense social influence that the nightclub scene has.’” (6:25)
- Step one is clarifying the connections between the climate challenge and local action: “Demystification is the first objective … lift the veil and help people contextualize, have a context through which they can see climate solutions … [help] people understand the sources of carbon emissions, the sinks of carbon emissions, what interventions look like, what the path to scale looks like, and what your role is in scaling some of these solutions and taking accountability for your own footprint.” (21:28)
- Sustainable practices in nightlife can have ripple effects: “What I’m more excited about is when we can transcend the impacts and solutions in our own footprint and pull our social and cultural levers to a place where nightclubs can be a source of policy advocacy, where they can be talking about their financing and who they’re banking with, including their vendors, their partners, and the places they’re renting their chairs and their lighting equipment from ... That’s where you start using your social and cultural capital. I’m excited to see how that evolves in the coming years.” (25:57)
Top of the Stack
- Climate Solutions at Work from Project Drawdown
- “New York’s Scoping Plan for Climate Action, with Maureen Leddy” from the Resources Radio podcast
- Leave Looking Up podcast
- Atomic Habits by James Clear
- “We Need the Right Kind of Climate Optimism” by Hannah Ritchie
The Full Transcript
Kristin Hayes: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I’m your host, Kristin Hayes.
My guest today is Amer Jandali, founder and CEO of Future Meets Present, a social design company that uses graphics, digital world building, and other communications tools to visualize a more sustainable future. As the Future Meets Present website puts it, the company is aiming to design the world’s vision board. Amer is also a consultant with the New York City Office of Nightlife, which sounds very exciting. That work will be the focus of our discussion today: what does it mean to bring a sustainability lens to the nightlife of the city that never sleeps? Stay with us.
Hi Amer. It’s great to talk with you.
Amer Jandali: Boom, boom, boom—I love that. That’s such a good intro. You sound so good on the mic, Kristin. I love it.
Kristin Hayes: I’m going to take that as a high compliment from someone with your background, which we will get into in just a second—actually, let’s start there. I am excited to hear more about your backstory, both as an artist and as someone passionate about sustainability. Can you say a little about how your personal and professional trajectory led you to supporting New York’s Office of Nightlife?
Amer Jandali: You’re catching on—this is so fresh. Our first webinar was yesterday. I’m definitely still in the afterglow and the awe—always in the awe, actually, to be truthful with you—seeing how the dots have been connecting.
I’ll open up with this quote from Steve Jobs: “The dots connect backwards.” That quote has become ever more meaningful for me and effervescent over the last decade or so, because of how I started out. I’m from southern New Mexico, from a town called Las Cruces. If any of my Cruces homies are listening, we’re still rapping hard. I’m from southern New Mexico, and I used to DJ in El Paso, Texas. I had a career as a nightclub and festival DJ for almost four years after college. I was DJing for a minimum of four to five nights a week for four years.
That was the life, and it served me personally, because it was an avenue for me to talk about social change and things that were important. My family is originally from Syria, so I’m a first generation American in my family. The war had started in Syria around the time that my career as a DJ was peaking. I used my DJ platform to raise awareness. I would wear T-shirts that would promote freedom in Syria and raise awareness like that. It was that headspace of using my platform for good.
I was in that headspace when I watched a documentary about plastic bags. Long story short, that heartbreak was a revelatory moment for me and an insightful moment where I was like, “Hold on a second.” Everything that I thought was normal suddenly isn’t. That was enough dissonance to galvanize me to move forward.
I moved to New York City, and I got my master’s degree in design for social innovation. Originally, my thinking was that maybe I can use design or branding as an inroads to work with different brands and solve this plastic thing while maybe branding myself better as a DJ. It made sense in the line of thinking that I was in.
Kristin Hayes: In the line of dots.
Amer Jandali: In line of dots, yeah. I would have never known what was around the corner. But I took that step, I got my master’s degree, and that’s what set me up here to start working in the climate space in New York City.
Kristin Hayes: That is such an interesting set of dots of this combination of artistry and sustainability. We’re definitely going to talk more about that intersection, but here’s another baseline question, and this one’s about the office with which you are working. What can you tell us? My colleagues were super jealous when I was talking with someone from the New York Office of Nightlife. Everyone was like, “That sounds amazing.” Can you say a bit more about the mandate of the New York City Office of Nightlife, because it sounds like a fascinating place.
Amer Jandali: I’m still navigating that space, as well, but it makes sense why it exists. There’s somewhere between 40 to 50 cities around the world that have an Office of Nightlife. Berlin has one, and I think the first one might have started in Amsterdam. It’s a government entity that exists when the nightlife sector of a city has reached a certain critical mass, and they exist to upkeep the culture of the nightlife sector. In New York City, there are around 300,000 jobs attributed to nightlife: bartenders, everything in hospitality, servers, club owners, DJs, performers, artists—all across the board. It’s such a part of our cultural fabric. We have this entity that exists to upkeep it and also to act as touchpoints with other government agencies, promoting awareness campaigns around preventing drug overdose, how to react to noise pollution in your area, or how to keep night clubbing safe—that kind of thing. That’s really what they’re about.
Kristin Hayes: That’s a good transition into the issue that you are working on with the Office of Nightlife, which is around sustainability. My understanding is that you are working with them to design a curriculum to green New York City nightclubs. Do I have that general principle of what you’re doing right?
Amer Jandali: I think so. Let me preface this with a bit of an experimental spirit, which is really beneficial to me, because this is a blue-ocean territory for a lot of us. Their intent and what they realize is that they’ve never been a part of the climate conversation in any deep way. There is, of course, awareness and conversations around eliminating straws and plastic cups and the low-hanging fruit, which is great. It’s your gateway drug. They realize, “Hey, we should be stepping up and recognizing the immense social influence that the nightclub scene has.” It’s in that spirit that I was approached.
Kristin Hayes: You mentioned a couple of those sustainability issues that the nightlife scene has faced in the past, things around waste and energy use. Are there other issues that you’re considering when you’re thinking about the broad sustainability of the nightlife sector?
Amer Jandali: That’s a good question, and I’m also newly orienting to what’s beyond the low-hanging fruit and connecting the dots with what I’ve come to understand as larger climate action and seeing the low-hanging fruit and the larger actions as one and the same. I’m looking at a nightclub not just as a club, but also as a building. Most club owners lease their space, they’re connected with their landlords, and they know their local communities.
I talk to the House of Yes frequently. It’s a club in Bushwick, and the owner, Justin, and I had an informal interview for me to gather some data before putting this webinar together. He was very proud of the community that is built around the club. He’s like, “Yeah, the cops come by every once in a while, knock on our door to wave.” Nightclubs are a cultural center.
I’m looking at this, and I’m seeing it in a few different lenses. I’m seeing eliminating plastic, yes; compost as much as you can, yes; take a look at your partnerships and your procurement. Where are you getting your materials from? Can you talk to your vendors and see if they can be more climate oriented? Who are you banking with—are you banking with a bank that is investing in fossil fuels? Can you divest from that? I’m looking at these in a few different lenses in addition to the building context.
This is so fresh for me. Last night I was up until two in the morning doing all kinds of things. I’m literally looking on my right monitor at passive house criteria and certifications, because I’m suddenly obsessed with building efficiency. As of 24 hours ago, I’m obsessed with building efficiency. That’s the top lens through which I’m looking at it.
Kristin Hayes: That makes a lot of sense. They are buildings, and I would’ve thought that a number of the issues facing nightclubs and other nightlife venues are similar to those that are faced in other types of building stock. It sounds like that’s where you’re starting, too—determining how to pull in some of the lessons from broader energy efficiency efforts for buildings. I’d love to hear a bit more about what you’re learning there. I also wanted to ask—are there building-related issues that are unique to nightclubs that aren’t necessarily exact correlations with other types of buildings, but that are special to the type of institution that we’re talking about now?
Amer Jandali: It’s interesting to think about electricity usage and what that looks like, considering nightclubs only turn their lights on at night. That’s fascinating to me. That’s something that I don’t know yet with this experimental lens.
If I take a step back, we—Future Meets Present—are a social design studio, and I think that gives us permission to try things and run pilot programs and let the research and the data define what the design intervention should be. I don’t want to position myself as the expert on building efficiency. I don’t want to position myself as the one with all the answers. I want to position myself as the team that is here for the discovery process of mapping out New York City and New York State regulations; of mapping out the fees, penalties, and goals as mandated by Local Law 97, which is something that New York City now has as a part of our Climate Mobilization Act. Local Law 97 is like New York City’s version of the Green New Deal, and the law has these benchmarks for building efficiency and decarbonization.
That’s super exciting and something that nightclub owners haven’t seen themselves in—as part of that story. I’m down for the process. I’m here for the process of mapping this out and also going in and learning how this community sees themselves, which I am very intimately aware of, because I’ve been in this scene for a decade. I want to reconnect with that community.
Then we get to ask the questions like, "How many employees do you have?" And we say “Great, can we run these culture change workshops and get a sense of everyone’s internal sentiments around climate change? Cool.” Then, we can say, “Hey, club owner: eight out of ten of your employees are eagerly waiting for climate action, so this is going to be an easy job for you to tell them that we’re converting our gas burners into heat pumps, and we’re going to start doing this in X, Y, and Z.” I don’t fully know exactly what will set a nightclub apart from another building in terms of its climate interventions, but I’m down to find out.
Kristin Hayes: That’s great. I hadn’t thought about it in terms of that very specific point about how they are using energy at different times of day compared to most buildings. Although, for the city that never sleeps, I guess there are probably more buildings in New York that are up at night than there are in most places. Still, that has interesting potential in and of itself in terms of how electricity is used at different times, time-of-use pricing, and that sort of thing. It’s going to be great.
I should have said at the beginning—I know that you’re in the relatively early stages of this work, so we’re getting you as this is evolving, which is really exciting. But I want to share with our listeners that this is the time when things are coming together on this, and they can also get involved.
Elizabeth Wason: This Saturday is Earth Day—let’s celebrate our planet and commit to tackling the challenges of climate change. At Resources for the Future, we make that part of our daily work. In honor of Earth Day, we’re asking listeners to make a donation and help us fulfill RFF’s mission of advancing a healthy environment and a thriving economy. Make a gift at rff.org/donate on or before Earth Day and you’ll receive a print subscription to Resources magazine. Thanks for being a Resources Radio listener! Now, enjoy the rest of the episode.
Kristin Hayes: Let me talk a bit more about community engagement, because I know a focus of yours is how to work with the broader community—whether it’s the folks who work at nightclubs, who own them, or who enjoy them—to inform your thinking here. I was fortunate to listen to your webinar yesterday. It was fascinating, and I wondered if you could say more about what that community-engagement strategy looks like, how you’re thinking about engaging with those folks, and—to the extent that you’ve had sufficient conversations—maybe some of what you’ve learned so far.
Amer Jandali: That’s a beautiful framing. This goes back to that original, dominant feeling of awe that I have, and how it was completely unforeseeable for me how all these initiatives and projects would work together. My spidey sense felt it, but even if we were to sit down a year ago and with a pen and paper map out how all this stuff is connected, I couldn’t necessarily do it. But now I can.
To answer your question, a good starting point I can frame this around is Climate Week. In New York City, we have the largest Climate Week on the planet. It’s every September, usually on the last or the second-to-last week of the month. It’s at that time, because that’s when the United Nations General Assembly happens in New York. There are super high vibes, and tons—hundreds—of events are happening. It’s like the South by Southwest festival.
My organization has been running an event during Climate Week called the “Marketplace of the Future” since 2017. We’re one of the longest-running consecutive events in the history of Climate Week. It’s super cool. “Marketplace of the Future” is inspired by the 1939 New York World’s Fair, which was the first World’s Fair to be future oriented. It was called the World of Tomorrow.
Kristin Hayes: That’s a familiar phrase.
Amer Jandali: If you remember that, maybe some of our listeners might be familiar with the World’s Fair. It’s particularly inspiring to me, because of the cultural need of the time in history around the Great Depression. People needed something to look forward to; they needed something aspirational. The World’s Fair gave a glimpse into a future; there was this box with a glass screen on it where you could sit down in front of it and watch moving pictures with sound; and they called it a television. There was a brand there called Kodak, and they produced photographs. The photographs weren’t black and white; they were in color. That was the first time the public saw these things. That’s so special, powerful, and meaningful for people to remember that our normal is constantly evolving.
I appreciate you taking a walk on this stream of consciousness with me, because it’s all connecting, I promise. It’s in this spirit that we created the “Marketplace of the Future”—so that we can give the public a glimpse of what will be normal in a net-zero future. That’s “Marketplace of the Future.” We bring startups together. We have live jazz, beautiful skyline views, a zero-waste bar, brands that are working on carbon sequestration and making products out of sequestered carbon, brands that are creating bike-operated compost-pickup programs, solar panels that you can hang out your window and charge your phone directly from the sun, and community outreach and activism groups. All that exists at “Marketplace.”
That’s been running since 2017, and it’s been a beautiful vehicle for us to attract and build community around people—solutions-oriented people—seeking positive visions of the future. This year is the first year that we’re running many events leading up to Climate Week in September. We’ve already had three.
The strategy here is creating conditions in which a community creates itself. The way we approach that is in experimental mode: we allow the audience of one event to choose the topic for the next one through Post-its and voting for various topics that we put up on the wall. What we found is that about 20 to 30 percent of the people that arrive at one event have been to the previous one.
We’re seeing things like, “I voted on buildings at the ‘Future of Food’ event in January, so that’s why I’m here, and I brought my friend.” That’s cool; it shows our strategy is working. It keeps our volunteers engaged, it keeps our attendees engaged, and it lets us dive deeper with different thought leaders. It lets us derisk our event planning process.
It also lets us fundraise here and there and build deeper relationships with sponsors so that we can ultimately lift up this entire thing. What I’m seeing now is that my past self has set me up beautifully to have an avenue for public outreach and engagement and be able to talk about the breakthroughs and interventions that we now are poised to create with the private sector and these nightclubs. This is such live processing right now with you, Kristin, I have not even written this into my journal yet. So that’s how the dots are connecting.
Kristin Hayes: There’s a classic set of community engagement–type activities that I’ve been aware of, but your answer to that question emphasized for me that the more creative you can get—and obviously you’re in a very creative landscape—and the more that you can actually get people invested in driving the agenda, the better off you are. That was a great answer. Hopefully, if we can, we are going to post a link to the webinar that you hosted yesterday, so that folks can understand a bit more about the ways that you’re trying to reach out to the public outside of Climate Week, too.
I want to pivot and ask about the word “curriculum.” Feel free to tell me if that’s not the right term, but that was a term that you and I talked about early on. Curriculum, to me, implies education of some sort—taking information in—but then, in the long term, the goal is to give that information back out, as some sort of education process.
Recognizing that you’re still in the early stages here, do you have any sense of what that education will look like or how that will occur? Another thing that I want to highlight from your webinar yesterday is that you’ve mentioned that there are sources of funding behind this, too. It’s hard to say to someone, “Look at all the amazing things you can do. I have no idea how you’re going to pay for them.” But one of the things that you emphasized is that there may in fact be opportunities to tap into some federal funds or other funds. How are you thinking about the education piece of both the strategies that you’re identifying and how people can actually afford them?
Amer Jandali: It is happening in real time, but I think the way we’re setting it up makes sense. I was pacing around the other night thinking about this. This project originally started when I was talking to the Office of Nightlife, and they opened the door for a webinar series. They’re like, “Let’s just have you be there and talk to people and help them understand.” Through my conversations with people and collaborators in my community, they would say, “Do you know you could also get that funded? That’s what the Inflation Reduction Act is all about.” And I was like, “Oh my God, obviously; this is literally what the law is for.” Now, it has evolved from an awareness and educational piece to something that’s turning into more of a concierge, brokerage, and matchmaking avenue of work.
There’s a feedback loop that is important to honor, in that you have to let the process be the strategy. The objective and theme yesterday was quite simply—and I made this very clear on slide number two—to demystify. Demystification is the first objective. Remove that, lift the veil and help people contextualize, have a context through which they can see climate solutions. I think yesterday was a success in doing that, in helping people understand the sources of carbon emissions, the sinks of carbon emissions, what interventions look like, what the path to scale looks like, and what your role is in scaling some of these solutions and taking accountability for your own footprint. That’s the first educational piece there—demystification.
Now, we’re going to see. We have people that have opted into a pilot program where we get to work with them on a more bespoke, concierge-type basis and dive into, for example, the House of Yes venue. We’ll run those user interviews and find the vendors and service providers that can come in and do an energy efficiency audit and give us the information that we need to be able to identify the clear intervention points. Based on what we learn there, we design a webinar 2.0, where the demystification is abbreviated; it’s more like, Great, we’ve demystified, and we started working with this partner. Here are the experiments we ran, here’s what we learned, here’s what we’re doing next. Given this process, we’ve increased our workforce capability, we’ve hired two more designers, et cetera. We can now take on three more pilot projects. Any takers?” That’s the vision.
Kristin Hayes: That sounds fantastic. I want to ask you when those pilots are starting—is that a real-time thing? It sounds like you’re starting at least one of them already, but is that a near-term prospect? Is this something we should record a subsequent podcast on?
Amer Jandali: That would be super sick. I would love that. I think the process has already started. I think it started, philosophically speaking, the night I watched the documentary more than 10 years ago. This process here, I think, has definitely started. I’m super excited to bring my findings back to you.
We have to start immediately, Kristin. The urgency is real, and the time is right. We need to get this system and this process templatized, we need to make it public, and we need to do our work. We need to also make it available for other people to replicate. We need to work with other offices of nightlife around the country and around the world. This has to galvanize the movement so that we run toward climate solutions—toward the future we want, rather than away from the one we fear. That’s the whole point here. That’s the vision. Society is fed up with the doom and gloom. We’re sprinting and dancing towards the future we want.
Kristin Hayes: I like that we’re both sprinting and dancing.
Amer Jandali: Sprinting and dancing, Kristin.
Kristin Hayes: That’s right. I love it.
Amer Jandali: That’s the vision.
Kristin Hayes: It’s going to be a great visual. Speaking of sprinting and dancing, I’m going to close the substantive part of our conversation by talking about some of the solutions and some of the amazing things that you highlighted in the webinar yesterday about sustainability strategies that clubs and restaurants around the world are already employing. You mentioned some really fun things. To round out on a positive note, can you give us a few examples of some of those exciting things that you’ve seen happening in other jurisdictions?
Amer Jandali: I’m super excited to dive even deeper into this. I’m a glass-half-full kind of person, and I think the fact that we’re collectively over the straws and cups, and how it’s now almost like an eye-roller, is fascinating to me. It’s super great that it’s no longer a hot topic to us. I’m very excited about that. I’ve seen, just in our brief research, that a lot of bars and clubs in the United Kingdom are powered by their own renewables and have battery storage with them. Some of them have dance floors that generate electricity. Some of them are conscious about where their food ingredients come from and make sure no food goes to waste. They're securing those baseline needs, keeping things circular, keeping up with using renewable energy, keeping things regenerative—that’s very exciting that that’s starting to become a cultural norm.
What I’m more excited about is when we can transcend the impacts and solutions in our own footprint and pull our social and cultural levers to a place where nightclubs can be a source of policy advocacy, where they can be talking about their financing and who they’re banking with, including their vendors, their partners, and the places they’re renting their chairs and their lighting equipment from. What do our partnerships and procurement look like? When do we start getting into conversations around, “This is a nightclub, this is our emissions disclosure, this is our carbon footprint this year and where we’re aiming to be; we’re cutting it in half next year.” I’m referencing a resource called Project Drawdown, specifically something called the “Climate Solutions at Work” guide, which includes these levers that every entity can pull to go net zero and beyond. That’s where you start using your social and cultural capital. I’m excited to see how that evolves in the coming years.
Kristin Hayes: That is fantastic. That feels almost like a Top of the Stack in and of itself. I know you’re a podcast aficionado, so I imagine you’ve heard of Top of the Stack. I feel like you gave us one, and I definitely want to invite you to share any other Top of the Stack resources that you would want to recommend, whether it is a book, a podcast, anything you’d like. Your recommendation could be on this topic or something else—anything that you might want to share with our listeners for additional content.
Amer Jandali: Beautiful. Before I even answer that, I want to say that I’ve been pseudo-obsessed with this podcast and Resources for the Future for a while. I mean, it’s in the name. I don’t even remember how I came across y’all, but it was years ago. I started Future Meets Present years ago, and I was just thinking about what my sources of truth are going to be. The website drawdown.org is one. I’ve looked to rff.org as a source of truth, as well, and that’s how I’ve learned a lot about carbon taxing and these next level nerdy things that—
Kristin Hayes: We are next level nerds.
Amer Jandali: And you do a good job at making it accessible to the masses of the world.
Kristin Hayes: Thanks.
Amer Jandali: This podcast is where I learned about the scoping plan. That was a huge part of yesterday’s webinar. What you’re doing is working. Thank you very much. I just have to say that.
Kristin Hayes: That’s super kind. I appreciate it.
Amer Jandali: For the top of my stack, in addition to this podcast here, I’ll share a shameless plug for one that I cohost with one of my closest friends named Neil. It’s called Leave Looking Up. We just launched our first season, and it’s uplifting conversations about the state of the world. We talk with musicians and cancer survivors. We talk to the United Nations Champion of the Earth. We talk to climate activists and influencers. We talk to women creating movements of gender equality. It’s great. It’s really more of a full-spectrum conversation series. So, that’s one.
I’ll go in your order of podcasts, books and articles. So, second, I love Atomic Habits by James Clear. The main takeaway that I’ll offer and the most beneficial thing for me has been to focus on systems rather than the goal. Build your systems such that your goal is naturally reached, and then you can improve the system by one percent each time to increase your goal. Make sure that building those systems for yourself is the precondition to reaching the goal. I love that from Atomic Habits.
Three, and the last thing I’ll leave, is this awesome article that I found a few days ago by Vox about the right kind of climate optimism. The argument is that the right kind of optimism is about that which is changeable—where the future is changeable, not passively approached, like everything’s just going to work out. It will be better if we work hard to change it. Hearing that has given me so much validation to keep my horns down, keep them sharp, and keep running forward as fast as possible.
Kristin Hayes: And dancing forward.
Amer Jandali: And dancing forward. Nailed it. Beautiful note.
Kristin Hayes: This has been fantastic. Thank you so much again for joining me. We’ve got a lot of great things to recommend to our listeners, and it’s been a pleasure.
Amer Jandali: Beautiful, Kristin. Thank you.
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