Design for Sustainable Development

Interview with Anders Emilson, Ph.D. candidate in interaction design with a focus on social innovation. At Medea he has, among other things, organized a series of workshops dealing with the establishment of a social incubator in Malmö, and been involved in a pre-study about innovation forums for the City of Malmö. He has also collaborated with the Herrgård’s Women Association.

This post was originally published in the Medea publication Prototyping Futures.

Nowadays we hear a lot about design for social change, and the potentials of design actions to contribute to sustainable development. But what does that actually imply? How can designers contribute to sustainable development and positive social impact?

I think designers can contribute in many different ways. The first way, which I guess is the more mainstream kind of approach, is what we call eco-design. Designers look at the stuff that they design, and try to make it more sustainable, for example more energy and resource efficient.

You mean to look at product life cycles, apply the cradle-to-cradle principles, and change to way we handle and make use of resources and material?

Right, and this is hopefully what most designers already are aware of and trying to achieve. The only thing is that 10-15 years ago this approach was declared insufficient by people like Ezio Manzini (a ground-breaking Italian designer, and co-founder of the DESIS network). They suggest that another way for designers to contribute to a more sustainable development is to shift from product-centric design to more service-centric design. This can be achieved by designing systems for sharing resources: e.g. carpools and shared housing. By focusing on services and functions instead of products, companies can start to look at business from a new angle. It will be in their best interest to produce sustainable products that have long life cycles, products that last for a longer period of time and can be used by many. This switch to product-service-systems is happening right now. We see initiatives coming from traditional companies, but also from new entrepreneurs that see business opportunities in developing these systems. The mainstream label for this shift is collaborative consumption.

The third way for designers to contribute to sustainable development is a very tricky one, but something that we really, really need to address. We need to acknowledge that the whole system that we have created for the last hundred and fifty years is outdated and need to be re-designed.

The whole system in terms of the economic system, or what kind of system are you talking about?

The economic system, the industrial system and maybe the political and democratic system. What we need to put a special emphasis on when discussing sustainability is the fact that all things in a system are interconnected. For instance, if we remove oil, then we are going to have massive problems with food production. If we have problems with food production, then people will start revolting and we will see social crises and so on. If you change one thing, or get in trouble with one thing, then the whole system will be affected. In that sense, our dependency on fossil energy makes us very vulnerable. I believe that designers have to start looking at the big picture and how systems are interdependent of each other. We need to re-design our systems, but what does this mean for everyday life in regards to work, how we get food on the table and how we transport ourselves.

One of the systems that face complex challenges today is the welfare system. It was designed for a totally different age and a context that no longer exists. A group of British designers that have already realised the need to start looking at the bigger picture have put a manifesto together titled Beveridge 4.0 (download as pdf). They present five design principles for how to design a completely new welfare system. They do not only focus on theory, but have tried to implement their ideas in practice, and have started to design services for a new kind of welfare system based on these principles. It may not be the answer to all challenges, but I think the interesting approach is to rethink the bigger system at the same time as you design new services as a way of trying out these new ideas.

Today we live in a society based on the idea of economic growth, mass production and mass consumption. But if that does not work anymore, what is the alternative? We ought to begin thinking beyond the current system, and start to design new economical models that support us with products, services, jobs and other things we need in a sustainable way. What would that look like? Do we start with the big system, or do we start with creating small services that could support us? I think the interaction between the big picture and doing small stuff is absolutely crucial.

If a designer wants to go in this direction, where to start?

I think we need to change our mind-set. The systems we have at the moment no longer works. We need to start imagining something else, a new context. That is the work of the designer: to start to imagine something else. What could this new society or new way of life be like? We need to start thinking about the alternatives, and create images and scenarios and prototypes of that: prototyping the future. But this is not the work of the lone genius designer; designers have to do this imagining and prototyping of the future together with other people with new ideas, and there are plenty of them out there. The thing is that designers imagine new futures all day, but they work very close to the current system and many of us do not really dare to leave the existing system.

Why is that?

Because that is where you get your job. If you want to earn money, then you do business-as-usual and stay very close to the system and what is already out there. There is too much at stake for the individual designer. There are of course commercial companies that are working according to this new mind-set and also managing to make a living of it. Service design companies in the U.K. have, for example, realised that service design is a field with great potential, and have started to develop competencies in that field. They also see that social issues and sustainability are really important to address. They see this as a potential market for them, since very few are working with these issues yet. You have these huge challenges, but few are working with them; of course, if you do your job well and show that you have something to offer society, then you have your business. Some of these initiatives in the U.K. have also been run as research projects, which has probably paved the way for some of their success.

This is also where we can start to discuss the role of design research. Instead of looking at what designers do today, an important part of design research is about imagining new systems and contexts and how to explore them. That is actually what Ezio Manzini’s group, which I mentioned before, has been doing.

Further reading:
Dealing with Dilemmas: Participatory Approaches in Design for Social Innovation
– Botsman, Rachel, and Rogers, Roo (2010). What’s mine is yours: The rise of collaborative consumption. New York, HarperCollins.
– Anna Meroni’s lecture A Human Centered Approach for Design for Services

Image credit Mr. T in DC CC:BY-ND