Profile: Valerie Casey

Fed up with media hype about Green issues and increasingly disillusioned with the ethics of product design, this former Ideo luminary is rallying creatives and other specialists around a global sustainability accord. Gina Lovett talks to her

To start a global sustainability initiative, you’d presume that the drive would come from an ambition to change the world. But for Irish-born American Valerie Casey, Designers Accord – a global coalition of designers, educators and corporate leaders, working to create positive environmental and social impact – was born out of her curiosity for creativity.

A growing awareness that the ’issue attention cycle’ of the media around sustainability was just creating an ’illusion of action’, together with a personal disillusionment with designing products, led the 37-year-old former Ideo head of digital experience practice to rally the global design community around a charter almost three years ago – one that would harness creative potential, remedy that community’s ’discordant legacy’ with the environment, collectively build intelligence and catalyse innovation around sustainability and social change. Designers who sign up to the accord commit to actively ensuring sustainability is embedded in all briefs they work on.

’I see it more as a creative exercise. It doesn’t come from a desire to be a sustainability expert, it’s more of a test in crowd-sourcing and new kinds of collaboration that just happens to be based around the topic of sustainability, which is ethically aligned to what I believe,’ says Casey.

Although the Designers Accord has touched diverse audiences as far afield as the Middle East and South America, Casey has yet to make an impact in this country. ’I haven’t done a lot in the UK,’ she admits. ’In the US there’s a natural tendency to join things – people want to be part of a big movement – whereas in England there’s greater reluctance and more scepticism. Designers Accord will help organise meet-ups, creating connection between designers, educators and businesses in the UK and globally, but the motivation has to come from within that UK community, as it has in dozens of other countries.’

Reaching out to those who feel sustainability is nothing to do with them and making it relevant is one of Casey’s key strengths, and goes some way to explaining the success of Designers Accord. Indeed, just last month, she gave a keynote presentation to interactive designers at SXSW, the ten-day film/interactive/music festival in Austin, Texas, showing them that their role, as disseminators of information, is vital, representing the ’connective tissue’ that has the potential to bridge industry and sustainability.

Casey, who counts sustainability guru Paul Hawken and the late graphic luminary Tibor Kalman as inspirations, explains that when Designers Accord first entered the dialogue, debate was focused on material adaptation, rather than behavioural change. But as comprehension of sustainability has now evolved into a much more holistic – and, therefore, creative – understanding, an array of new approaches such as systems-thinking, metadesign and biomimicry have begun to be explored. Empathy with the end-user brings interesting insights, says Casey, but the most radical innovation comes from collaboration with experts in different fields.

’By collaborating with biologists on biomimicry, we can learn from nature all the questions we grapple with in the design world. Nature has greater intelligence than we ever will,’ she points out. Casey refers to the possibilities that could come out of a day’s brainstorming session with a biologist at the table, helping to solve all sorts of design problems. ’The cross-pollination could be enough to radically change the course of a product or policy,’ she says.

Talking to Casey, you imagine someone with boundless energy and fresh ideas, but she admits that she, too, gets tired. Keeping the momentum going of something that has grown so much comes with a lot of expectation. ’At one moment, I thought I really didn’t want to do this anymore – to be this champion for the environment – because you get browned off doing it. But what Paul [Hawken] helped me realise is that once you “see it”, it’s impossible to “unsee”.’ It is this ’unseeing’, as well as her curiosity for innovation, that has kept her going. The initiative, which is due to expire in 2012, she says, will grow into something different. Casey’s enthusiasm for innovation will no doubt shape what comes out of Designers Accord into something else.

’At that point, I want to have softened the ground for new ideas, and that’s when we’ll evolve from a global coalition promoting awareness into a community turning these ideas into social enterprise,’ says Casey. ’I firmly believe that social, cultural, environmental and economic sustainability will be the guiding force of the creative community by 2012. I’m focusing on helping develop new business structures around open innovation, agile problem-solving and radical collaboration. There is tremendous potential to redesign the traditional corporation to yield its wealth and influence for more direct positive good.’

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