With a few notable exceptions, designers have taken a somewhat jaundiced view of calls to take more account of the environment. The hair-shirt approach of many environmentalists is unappealing to a profession that earns its living developing ever more products, packs and other goodies for a consumer society.
This is a shame, for two reasons. First, achieving sustainability (where the net impacts of human activity on the environment are in balance) can be entirely compatible with offering consumers an increasing choice of products and services. Second, designers themselves have a key role in achieving sustainability. Indeed, far from being a threat, environmental pressures provide an opportunity for the design profession to flourish in terms of prestige as well as affluence.
The explanation for this optimism is simple: resource productivity is so low that only 6 or 7 per cent of the materials entering the industrial chain end up as useful product. So extensive is the room for improvement that it is not difficult to envisage a doubling of industrial output combined with a halving of the use of natural resources and pollution (pollution being a resource in the wrong place).
This is the basis of Factor Four – Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use (Earthscan Publication Ltd, London, 15.99), a new report to the Club of Rome. Written by three doyens of the hi-tech approach to environmental problems – Ernst von WeizsÃ¤cker, President of the Wuppertal Institute in Germany, and Amory and Hunter Lovins, the husband and wife team who run the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado – the book has considerable significance for designers.
Crucially, it places design at the very centre of the battle to reverse environmental degradation. Designers even have the answer to that apparently most intractable and dangerous of environmental challenges, climate change. The book claims that the paradox of the demands from climate scientists for a halving of fossil fuel use while worldwide electricity demand is predicted to double, can be resolved by designers improving energy productivity by a factor of four or more.
Best of all, Factor Four is not merely theory, for the book begins by detailing 50 examples of how resource productivity has, in practice, been quadrupled or better. The examples range from domestic appliances and cars to the retro-fitting of Sixties office blocks and new-build council houses.
Two other themes of significance to designers run through the book. First is the contradiction of the orthodox view that resource efficiency requires a high capital investment. The authors do not hide behind the fact that the conventional payback period for investing in energy-efficient appliances may be as little as two or three years. Rather, they argue that an integrated design approach can, for example, deliver a highly energy-efficient building and all its ongoing savings for no more than the cost of a traditional building. This insight depends on the multiplier effect achieved when the benefits of individual efficiency gains are aggregated: the overall reduction in waste heat and electrical consumption from low-energy lighting, efficient equipment, good insulation and optimised passive solar heating/cooling so reduces the need for expensive air-conditioning, heating and cabling that the capital cost evens out.
The second – and linked – theme is an attack on the increasing specialisation of engineers and designers and a demand for a return to designing systems first and components second. The message of the book for designers is perhaps best highlighted by the authors’ assault on current car design, dismissed as “the highest expression of the Iron Age”. Car designers have become so specialised that the crucial integration between design elements has been lost, say the authors. As a result, “Cars… have gradually become incredibly baroque, piling one add-on gadget atop another to solve problems that better design should have prevented in the first place.” The result is that just 1 per cent of the fuel is used to move the driver – a clear case for a factor four rethink.
And that is just what is happening. The Rocky Mountain Institute has defined a “Hypercar” that will achieve current performance and safety standards while reducing fuel consumption by a quarter or more. The hypercar will use new materials – composites in place of steel, for example – to reduce weight, a hybrid power-plant using a small liquid-fuelled engine to drive a regenerative electric propulsion system, and an ultra-slippery body design to reduce air resistance. The multiplier efficiency effect will come into play: because the basic weight of the hypercar will be a third or less than a current car, power steering and braking become unnecessary; parts such as alternators, transmissions, axles and clutches all disappear too. In full-scale production, the hypercar will, at worst, cost no more to build than a conventional car.
Is this cloud cuckoo land? Amory Lovins claims not, pointing out that some $2 billion has already been invested in developing cars of this kind. What is more, the investment is coming not just from automotive manufacturers – other major companies see this leapfrogging of technology as their opportunity to get into the motor industry. The book quotes some experts forecasting the mass-production of hypercars by 2005.
Factor Four has lessons for almost every kind of designer. Fashion designers can eliminate the need for dyeing and the resulting pollution by specifying cotton that has been genetically engineered to be self-coloured. Office furniture manufacturers are already looking for designs that can be re-manufactured, retaining the structural elements while upgrading the visual elements. Entirely novel refrigerators using less than a tenth of the power of current models are being developed.
Will these products sell? Yes, say the authors. But not just because they are more efficient but because they are better in every respect.
Elegant frugality is the aim.