How Design is Making the World More Sustainable

It is fair to say a growing number of companies are becoming aware of the need to understand and implement sustainability. But once you get to that point, how do you implement it? How do you turn dreams into tangible, measurable reality?

On my recent trip to New Zealand it became clear that finding ways to implement sustainability was just as important as defining what sustainability was and putting project plans together – probably more so. It doesn’t take long to realise the scale of the issue at hand.

Given that non-sustainability has been a part of our lives for so long, it’s become deeply ingrained in our thinking. Furthermore, it’s become deeply ingrained in how we do things. So much has to be seriously looked at and fundamental changes made in order to move to the model of sustainability that is necessary. This includes the supply chain, any products used, transport, the way your employees get to work …. and much more.

While in NZ I met Dr Idil Gaziulusoy, who runs the Master of Design programme at Auckland University of Technology. Dr. Gaziulusoy describes herself on LinkedIn as “an academic researcher with a change agenda”. At first I found it hard to see what design had to do with sustainability – until I gave it some thought. And the more I thought about it, the more apparent were the connections. “So”, I asked Dr. Gaziulusoy, “what sort of things do you design”?

“Everything.”

It took a while but over the next few weeks I started to get it. To create a sustainable world –  to manage the world we now live in responsibly – everything will have to be redesigned. Everything. And it will be.

We already have eco-cities like Curitiba in Brazil  with bus networks used by 70% of the working population. About 99% of the population wants to live there, too!

That includes packaging, sewage systems, drainage, transport systems, tables, chairs, fridges, vehicles and everything else you can think of. It also includes huge opportunities for the designers of the future, and many others.

Design strategists use design tools in order to manage transition to a sustainable model. This involves looking at what a sustainable system looks like, and working back to what we need to look like now for this to happen. Rather than working with data from surveys designers might visit users of a product and observe their interaction with them.

“We use design tools to create business models”, says Dr. Gaziulusoy. It reminds me a bit of how economic tools are used to look at, say, social problems..

Perhaps surprisingly it is often small companies leading change. “Often innovation in sustainable thinking is coming from start-ups that might only be around for a couple of years, and social enterprises” says Dr. Gaziulusoy.

The sustainability issue is extremely challenging and very complex, for one. A company that holds itself up as a beacon of responsibility by making incremental changes might not in fact be doing enough. It is – literally – back to the drawing board.

And redesign in itself is only part of the solution. “Clearly technology is essential to meet our needs, but we shouldn’t rely on it too much – we need to reduce our consumption too.” Ideas like products made from recycled materials are not a solution in themselves but they inspire and motivate people – and of course reduce landfill use.

The great thing about design is that it is a positive response to a problem many find overwhelming. But everyone has to play their part. In a global, branded, interconnecting world companies cannot exist any longer as profit-making entities conveniently distanced from the rest of us. We are all in this together.

Clive Margolis

Clive Margolis is the owner of Solar Traction (www.solartraction.com) , a weekly blog about corporate sustainability and sustainable development. The blog is founded on positive suggestions, enabling technologies and forward-thinking business plans and takes a positive outlook, emphasising the need to recognise the holistic relationship between humanity and its environment.
Clive has a Bachelor degree in Applied Economics, specialising in natural resource management. As a freelance consultant he uses his speciality areas of Business Intelligence and economics and flair for writing to help individuals and organisations map out a path towards a more sustainable future.

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3 thoughts on “How Design is Making the World More Sustainable

  1. Sustainable urban design is a big challenge not only for designers, all citizens too, including politicians and big investors. Urban designers will enhance existing buildings, design efficient & sustainable new buildings reducing environmental impacts and public services consumptions, but it’s necessary from governments to implement incentives for those strategies and to explain and teach citizen to be responsible. Sustainable cities or buildings are not the new “Look”, are one of our main challenge to survive!

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