Real world sustainability

Nico Macdonald asks why sustainable design is in vogue, and says debate has to consider practical issues and the need to maintain economic growth

Irrespective of the trends and arguments that have informed the sustainable design movement, the concept itself is a very unambitious philosophy, and one which tends to assume the worst – a very contemporary trait. Its most pessimistic proponents essentially argue that we should stick to our current consumption level, or even reduce our living standards.

On what basis would one calculate the optimal level of consumption for the human race? The factors in this calculation are rarely examined. In reality, the key variable is us. As humans we design our environment to best suit our lives, and in this process we seek to optimise the things around us. At its most conscious level we call these processes innovation and design, and their successes free us to engage in higher pursuits. We have the leisure to debate sustainability today because our predecessors’ mastery of innovation and risk helped create a society of previously unimaginable culture and wealth.

If, today, we ought to be particularly worried about securing the future of humanity, we should demand that businesses and governments invest in serious, long-term research and development. Designers should become more familiar with developments in science and technology. And, crucially, we should facilitate the integration of design with real innovation, of the kind that leverages people’s power and abilities, and improves their lives. This is hard work, and lacks the kudos that attaches to championing more ephemeral causes, but it is sorely needed.

We also need to sustain the understanding that our ability to solve problems, and designing ways to improve our lives, is key to our humanity. This has to be combined with ambition, and today China is its best exemplar. If it can sustain its growth based on innovation it will pull a sixth of the planet out of poverty. And if the people of China succeed, may they all have the chance to drive Rolls Royces.

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