A change is gonna come

Product design must evolve to address sustainability issues, and a Welsh educational initiative could point the way forward, says Emily Pacey


If the world’s consumers and manufacturers of products are to continue to have their cake and eat it, design must generate some radical new answers to questions of sustainability. Ecodesign Centre Wales is asking where better to start the debate than with the current generation of product design students?

In 1994, guidance emerged from a research meeting of the German Wuppertal Institute suggesting that, by 2050, industrialised societies must use materials ten times more efficiently to meet consumer demand in a sustainable way.

With this in mind, Open University senior design lecturer in sustainable design Emma Dewberry is working with Ecodesign Centre Wales on a project that could see Wales set the pace for sustainable design education in the UK.

‘Because design lies between consumption and production, it plays an absolutely pivotal role in making products more ecological,’ says Ecodesign Centre Wales director Frank O’Connor. He claims, ‘Many of today’s product design students are inspired by teachers who designed for mass consumption in an age before we were aware of sustainability issues.’

Founded in 2006, Ecodesign Centre Wales is funded almost entirely by the Welsh Assembly, to the tune of £750 000 over the past two years. Its remit is to embed sustainable practices into product design courses at Bangor University, Glamorgan University, Swansea Metropolitan University and the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff.

Ecodesign Centre Wales’ design education programme is focused on training the trainer, in part because today’s product design students are often more familiar with the facts of climate change than their teachers. Bangor University’s director of BSc courses John Hughes is the first to admit it.

‘The younger generation is far more environmentally conscious than mine,’ says Hughes. ‘Working with Ecodesign Centre Wales has definitely broadened my outlook on these issues and our relationship to them as product designers’.

After laying the groundwork by giving teachers and students the facts about climate change, Ecodesign Centre Wales’ mission is to challenge the traditional view that sustainability can be addressed at only four points of a product’s life cycle – materials, energy, transportation and recycling.

‘Addressing these traditional areas is all well and good, but altering those alone is not going to allow product efficiency to increase by a factor of ten or 20 by 2050, which is what we need’ says Dewberry. ‘We need to get radical about design education.’

Last month, Dewberry led a day of discussions between Ecodesign Centre Wales and the four universities. They met at Cardiff Castle to assess how the ecodesign education programme is going, one year on from its foundation. Dewberry reports mixed reactions to the programme.

‘The universities can see our point, but they also emphasise the fact that it is very difficult to challenge the traditional education system and embed sustainability into it,’ says Dewberry.

Ecodesign had been given nothing more than ‘lip-service’ for some three years before the arrival of Ecodesign Centre Wales at Bangor, according to Hughes. All six design and manufacturing modules over the three-year degree course allocate 20 per cent of marks to ecodesign criteria. But until last year, the emphasis on this section was too soft.

‘We are making changes,’ says Hughes. ‘Now, in the third year when students develop business plans for products, we also address eco-considerations. One such might be is it cheaper to manufacture a product in China or the UK? If it is cheaper to produce in China, but the product is destined for the UK market, we talk about the moral, social and ecological implications in that. After all, how can design be good or successful if this information is neglected?’

Ecodesign Centre Wales intends to continue working with these universities for a further three years, to hone the education model that O’Connor believes is simple enough to be applied to any product design course anywhere in the world. Yet he believes that this project has worked so well precisely because it was forged in Wales.

‘Every time we speak at conferences overseas, people are amazed that we can speak to a businessman in the morning and talk with a policy-maker in the afternoon. Because Wales is small and devolved, you can develop meaningful partnerships at all levels.’

Running parallel to Ecodesign Centre Wales’ product design education programme is its industrial project. The centre is working with four product manufacturers, selected from a list of about 250 potential subjects in Wales, on embedding sustainability in their business strategies.

‘We are taking a three-pronged approach to the problem of product sustainability – dealing with education, business and policy-making – I believe this capacity-building approach is unique to any project of this kind in the world,’ says O’Connor.

He is aware that change ultimately rests in the hands of the product manufacturers and designers of tomorrow. Some admit fears that as the world gets Greener, the product design sector could shrink. Self-preservation for product designers is likely to mean innovating all the way down the line, from concept to consumption.

Ecodesign centre wales

• Ecodesign Centre Wales was set up in September 2006 as part of the Welsh Assembly’s commitment to sustainable development
• The centre received £750 000 from the Welsh Assembly for its first two years, and has just secured a further three years of Welsh government funding
• It is working with four universities and four businesses to embed ecodesign values in their structures

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