Five years ago, I found myself with more than a hundred eminent scientists at the Royal Society’s annual Zuckerman Lecture. The subject was the current and future impact of climate change.
Even then, there was overwhelming agreement among that exceptionally well informed audience that we were already in uncharted territory – the unintended consequence of the carbon-burning era, and of an industrial revolution Britain had started.
Design was not mentioned. However, in its many forms and disciplines it has played its part in getting us to our current environmental predicament. After all, where and how we live, where we work, how we travel, how we make things, what we buy, how we power our industries, how we consume energy and water, what we throw away, how we dispose of our waste – all are influenced greatly by design.
Take a walk round the Science Museum to see design and its relation to the triumph of our nation in the fields of science, technology and engineering. Take a look at all those wonderful wealth-creating, society-enhancing, life-improving fruits of human ingenuity, as well as the exploitation of carbon. Then look again, only this time consider the unintended damage these technologies have done.
Now is the time to reinvent our impacts and consciously move towards a new future. And it is design, and more specifically, the principles of intelligent anticipatory design, which can help us solve these problems.
Intelligent anticipatory design dispenses with the notion that governments, companies or individuals should cause ‘less harm’ to people or to their environment. This is no longer acceptable. As US architect, sustainability thinker and activist William McDonough told a conference on sustainability and the built environment in London recently, being ‘less bad’ is… just that. Adopting concepts of ‘good growth’ and abundance, based on technological and natural cycles and inextricably linked to concepts of social equity and environmental benefit, is the future. For example, new design principles that lead to ‘waste is food’ and product design for reuse, dismantling and recycling. Let’s design out waste.
The Hannover Principles developed for Expo 2000 have evolved into the increasingly widely accepted ‘cradle to cradle’ framework, recognised and adopted by various governments, cities and companies around the globe. These, then, are among those early adopters who are moving us all on from more supine ‘less bad’ approaches to the design of commercially and environmentally beneficial ones, as the first wave of the long-term sustainable revolution gathers momentum.
Such new concepts as ‘eco-effectiveness’ are finding increasing support among business leaders and influencers, sustainable development practitioners and investors, as well as design professions.
The weight of strategic sustainability priorities can be very different from organisation to organisation. One company might seek to win competitive advantage; another to strengthen the market position of a global brand; another to influence major planning decisions, or to increase efficiency and reduce costs. And we are now witnessing, as the larger players move into substantial programmes, impacts being felt further down the supply chains.
In another five years, all design consultancy businesses will most likely be sustainable. Most will be working to briefs in which sustainability is a crucial factor. And you will need to have a firm grasp of the short- and long-term consequences of any transformation of the environment that your work might effect.
So, I would argue, designers should now be differentiating themselves by helping shape the development and sustainability agendas of their clients or employers through the design brief. Don’t wait for it, just do it. It’s a matter both of intelligent anticipatory design, and plain common sense. If the best way to predict the future is to create it, the question is, ‘Are you?’
Matthew Pudney is chairman of The Hannover Consultancy, a hybrid sustainable development and communications consultancy
The business of sustainable design
• Design consultancies will soon all need to run sustainable business models
• Design groups will factor sustainability into project briefs as a matter of course
• Consultancies will need to be savvy about the potential environmental consequences of their projects
• Many consultancy offers will become differentiated by their sustainable credentials