A crucial shift

Designing in such a way as to minimise the use of resources is far from enough now, argues Gina Lovett. To safeguard our future, we need to rethink the whole social model and work to eliminate waste completely

Until now, sustainable design has been all about eco-efficiency. Re-using, reducing, recycling, reformating, lightweighting, dematerialisation and less energy use are, we are told, good for business. And, of course, this is true. But the simplicity of this perception is a little convenient. In truth, sustainability is a social, environmental and economic headache, which makes designing for sustainability a whole lot more complicated.

With the aim of business still being to sell as much as possible – and with the world’s population rising – even if business is more eco-efficient, the growth in consumption (through expanding markets and the number of consumers) will maintain or increase overall resource-consumption levels. Material changes only slow the pace of oncoming crisis.

The aim now is to make resources usage totally sustainable, and to eliminate waste. Design approaches such as William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s Cradle-to-Cradle philosophy work towards the creation of closed-loop, rather than linear, production-consumption models, replicating the symbiosis and sustainability found in nature.

With this in mind, companies such as Aveda, having certified seven of its products as C2C last year, have begun striving towards this notion of sustainability. Designing retrospectively – applying sustainable thinking to old products and processes – is limited in what it can achieve. What’s needed is innovation. As such, development organisations and the Government are advocating a Green economy, with innovation (in clean technologies, renewable energies, water services, Green transportation and construction, and waste management) as the saviour of sustainability.

Countries like South Korea are leading the way. The UK’s Green economy initiatives, led by UK Trade & Investment, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, and the Technology Strategy Board, are token by comparison, even though they create design opportunities.

Along these lines, emerging economies – lacking much of the hard infrastructure of Western countries – are in a strong position to leapfrog environmental degradation through such innovation, and this will set new parameters for the design and implementation of Greener systems elsewhere.

But while the Green economy sounds like the answer to our prayers, the compatibility of current economics and sustainability is yet to be resolved. Can corporate business models, which use the cheapest supply chains they can find to pump out cheap goods for distribution in global markets to feed a consumption society, ever be truly compatible with sustainability? Can unfettered capitalism and its corporate infrastructure, which wields all the power, become truly sustainable? The launch of Wal-Mart’s Sustainable Product Index in July last year has raised as many questions as it has provided answers to.

Those leading the debate in sustainable design – like Ezio Manzini, John Thackara and Alastair Fuad-Luke – argue that it is only by changing human behaviour that the world will shift towards a more sustainable future. So designing for sustainability will be less about material changes, and more about pulling all of the elements – eco-efficiency, innovation, Green economics, ethics and social equality – together. And social innovation will be the space where all of these elements come into play.

The real breakthroughs will not be around product innovations, but product service systems, which, by drawing on inclusive design methodologies, can begin to address all facets of sustainability. One such success to date, which has growing support, is the Slow Food movement – a reaction against the effects around our current industrialised food system.

Concepts designed around product-sharing and co-working using innovation, technology and clean energy will inform the sort of social enterprise needed for sustainability across housing, healthcare, transport and education. An imminent US Social Innovation Fund, and a similar set-up in the EU, would expand the reach and effectiveness of such non-profit programmes.

And as social innovation will mean doing business in a radically different way, it will mean designing in a radically new way, too. Social enterprise, with its emphasis on the greater good, requires user-centric, participatory approaches like co-design, or the understanding and manipulation of complex systems, such as metadesign. The need to work in this multidisciplinary, multilateral way will be greater than ever.

The role of the designer will be facilitator and interpreter, rather than solitary creator. The increasing participation of design in social innovation – from the Design Council’s collaboration with Ideo on iTeam to the Audi Design Foundation’s Sustain Our Nation competition and former Design Council sustainability leader Clare Brass’s social enterprise organisation Seed – speaks of the possibilities that design, through facilitation, can create.

As we move to a society of sustainable services, sustainable design will no longer be the do-gooder add-on, but it will be inherent in all design thinking.

Latest articles