Les Hirst, P. Eng.
Design Guide, Berlin KraftWorks Inc.
In this article we discuss sustainability, lay down a vision beyond sustainability, consider the role of design, and offer a few tips and questions that address the practical aspects of design for a healthier planet.
When engineers think of design and sustainability, what often comes to mind for us are straight technological fixes: energy efficiency in products and processes, reduction in toxic materials, recyclability. Although these are important, they only present a partial view of what’s necessary to solve the problems that we’ve created - to shift to a healthier physical and social environment.
Let’s first look at the concept of sustainability. What is it that we want to sustain? In the developed world, we’ve mastered taking care of our material survival needs – at least for those who can afford it. We’ve created a world where entertainment is literally at our fingertips, or at the command of our voice. We can travel at high speed and in comfort to almost anywhere. The list goes on. We’ve also created a world of (mostly exported) wars, depletion of land, species extinction, oceans choking in plastic, huge landfills, rapid climate change, social disconnection, and alarming rates of addiction, anxiety, and depression. In this context, what does sustainability mean? Do we want to keep this going for another 100 years? 500 years? We might ponder this thought: Maybe if we were to only to do half the harm, we’d be able to carry on more or less like we have been.
Change our perspective. Change our world.
The world and the products that we create are a reflection of what’s going on inside of us, of our society and of our corporate and work environment. As Indian teacher Sadhguru says: “How can we create a world of peace, when we have no peace in our own minds?”
As designers, when we increase our own awareness, our compassion and self-compassion, our empathy for all living beings, our capacity to listen, our accountability, integrity and honesty – we begin to change our definitions of what’s important. When we combine these soft skills with our technical ability to create safe, functional, and cost-effective products, we create products that are more supportive of life and healing of the physical and social environment.
This may all sound like wishful thinking, however I believe it’s the shift that’s necessary to begin turning things around. After all, isn’t doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result the definition of insanity? Changing our approach only sounds so radical because the promotion of the current approach (faster, cheaper, more, …) is so entrenched in our systems of education, media, government, and corporate culture.
When we begin seeing beyond what we’ve come to believe, the creative space opens for new possibilities.
Where Do We Start?
A good place to start is to consider the world that we’d love to inhabit and create, then refocus our thoughts and efforts toward that. For each of us, this will be different. And it will not take place overnight. What is your vision? For me, this world and my place in it includes:
Some Questions to Ask When Designing
The Product Itself:
What are we designing? How aligned is it with the vision that we hold for the world we want to live in?
The Design Process:
How are we designing? Is the work environment supportive or depleting? Are we rushing to get the product out to the market or taking the time required to produce something brilliant? Are we considering what our customers truly want?
What are the social and environmental impacts of production (from raw material extraction and processing to manufacturing processes and assembly)?
Is the product designed to be durable? Is it serviceable? What is the impact of the packaging? How much energy does it consume when it’s used? When its life is over, how will it be transformed (recycled, burned for fuel, re-purposed, composted, …)?
We can design, as MIT professor Otto Scharmer writes in Theory U, what the emerging future is calling of us. Successful companies of the near future will be the ones who inspire. Who inspire the very best designers and makers to work with them? Who inspire customers who are thirsting for well designed, well made, and affordable products that truly enhance their lives? Who inspire their suppliers to co-create with them? Who are in right relationship with the planet and the beings that live on it?
Let’s wake up to possibility. Realize that we’ve all had a hand creating the current reality. It’s time to create a new one. I’ve laid down a vision. I’d love to hear yours.