Can We Achieve Truly Sustainable Design?

One of the most prestigious academic journals in the field of design history, theory, and criticism is Design Issues, published by MIT Press since 1984. It is a toll-access journal, meaning that you have to pay to access its contents. Luckily for you who don’t have access to a university library, for every issue they publish they also share one article for free.

The article Active, Local, Connected: Strategic and Methodological Insights in Three Cases by Nicola Morelli says that environmental sustainability cannot be achieved without a focus on social and economic sustainability and that there are great social innovation opportunities for designers, industrial companies, and institutions. You can download the full article here or access it through the website.

A short excerpt from the article:

Questions of Strategies: Activating Local and Individual Resources
In the past few decades, the debate on sustainability has explored many directions for improving the environmental health and efficiency of our planet. In the past few years, though, it has become clear that environmental sustainability cannot be achieved without a focus on social and economic sustainability. The most recent economic crisis has further clarified this connection by bringing to light how the failure of large multinational companies has influenced the social and economic traumas. For this reason, any social and economic strategies for future development must be applied in the area where social quality, environmental quality, and appropriate and sustainable forms of economic development converge.

This area defines a complex landscape of solutions that describes different and interwoven paths. To understand this paper, some of these paths need to be better described:

Localization of solutions
Although globalized companies are a reality that economic crises cannot wipe out, the most relevant factors for competitiveness are placed in the local context (Becattini 2004). The need to provide context-specific solutions is forcing companies to develop their global strategies in alliance and cooperation with those in the local contexts in which they operate. Although the environmental, social, and economic sustainability of strategies developed in this context should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, some essential characteristics of these strategies are intrinsically sustainable. The decentralization of production, indeed, tends to reduce the environmental costs of transport, but in addition (and this is probably more relevant) those strategies tend to activate human, material, and natural resources in the local context. In particular, the activation of local human resources (i.e., through local services, manufacturers, institutions, and users) makes it possible to realize a regenerative process: together with the final outcome of the production process, the activation of such resources also stimulates the regeneration of values, of knowledge, of the institutions, and of the natural environment. When related to a specific context, such as industrial districts, such local co-production processes have proven to be a source of competitive advantage, both for local contexts and for companies participating in it (Becattini 2004).

Networking resources
In a centralized industrial culture, large companies produce solutions for larger or smaller target groups. This “top-down” structure clearly separates producers from users. Producers are creating value, whereas users (or consumers, as defined in this logical framework) are “destroying” such value (Normann and Ramirez 1994; Ramirez 1999). This logical structure dominates the paradigm of traditional industrial production and has been the guiding star for the development of industrial economies. According to this logic, the industrial system progressively relieves people from many of the tasks and responsibilities in their daily routines, from washing clothes to organizing parties (Normann 2000). The hidden risk in this idea is that, together with responsibilities and concerns, people are also deprived of their own practical, operative, and even social skills, thus generating a progressive waste of human resources (Manzini 2005). However, some signals are emerging that reveal the emergence of opposite trends, from both the production side and the consumption side. The signals from the production side come from companies that are revising their strategies through the direct involvement of users in the production process. Many companies are now considering such strategies to increase the flexibility of the production process and to generate highly personalized solutions, which ultimately push the boundaries of mass customization toward individual solutions (Morelli and Nielsen 2008). The same need for highly personalized and context-related solutions is stimulating individuals, groups, and organizations on the demand side to undertake individual and collective initiatives to solve very specific problems. Once again, the social and environmental quality of these initiatives should be analyzed case by case but their intrinsic characteristics are consistent with the main strategies for sustainability because they create networks among human and material resources in local contexts, thus allowing for short production chains. These new signals, both from the production side and from the consumption side, suggest a progressive shift in social and economic systems, from value chains (i.e., top-down production systems that clearly define and separate each value production phase) to a value constellation – a networked production system in which the value is coproduced by different actors, including producers, service providers, local institutions, and individual users.

Distributing solution potential
The shift from centralized models to networked ones also implies a shift from a model in which the power to generate solutions is concentrated in few places and social roles, to a model in which a relevant part of this power is distributed to local communities and individuals. The new model tends to increase the problem-solving capabilities of local communities. Such problem solving power is not an alternative to the traditional industrial production models, but rather is complementary to them. Industrial production’s strategies are based on top-down provision of clearly defined solutions (business and governments provide products and services to citizens), whereas the horizontal networks allow for an exchange of sticky resources – resources such as tacit knowledge, mutual understanding, and solidarity, which cannot be codified, institutionalized, or prescribed. The activation of such resources often discloses a landscape of new opportunities.

You can download the full article here or access it through the website.

Nicola Morelli is Associate Professor at the Department of Architecture, Design and Media Technology at Aalborg University (Denmark). His main research interest is on strategies and methodologies for service design in the perspective of social and environmental sustainability. His recent research and teaching activities focus on the exploration of design strategies to support participation and activation of local resources in public services.

Image credit: tobiastoft CC:BY