Andrew Matias

Andrew Matias

You have probably heard talk about how design can tackle the big societal challenges we’re facing. But are designers really empowered to do this? And even if they were, do they have the right tools to tackle complex environmental challenges like Climate Change? In this article, I will talk about the reality for most designers and call on the industry to commit to designing for sustainability. Are you ready to transform design?

As I travelled from Helsinki by train and boat to one of Europe’s biggest design conferences, Interaction 20, the cities and fields passed before my eyes from Stockholm, to Copenhagen, Hamburg, Zurich and finally Milan. From an experiential point of view, the emptiness of endless sky was replaced with the ever-changing, place-based flickering of land which fueled creative thinking like staring into the flames of a fire. Similarly, the eight-hour train rides forced me to sit in my thoughts, reflecting on the role of design for sustainability and had me wondering, could slowing down actually accelerate the sustainability transition?

Although travelling by land for three days certainly presents difficulties, I saw what I can only describe as the connective tissue between cultures from the Nordics to Germany and on to Italy. Even from a few hours walking through various cities, the architecture, language and “energy” of the place revealed a cultural gradation visible between the Nordics to the Mediterranean. The connection between people and places became tangible in a way that flying could never do.

This is not a post about travelling by train instead of plane, though. What I'm actually talking about here is design. Just as travelling by train reveals the relationship between different cultures, design must:

  • see the connection between global challenges and concrete actions
  • understand the relationship between nature, society and the economy
  • realize the connection between each other as designers and as an industry

Design can do everything, but I’m not allowed to do anything

There’s a lot of lofty talk about how design can tackle some of the biggest societal challenges we’re facing, but in reality, the reference cases in the professional world are few and far between. At times, it seems design can do everything, in theory. From this 10,000 meter view of the airplane, the design landscape below can look like a beautiful piece of abstract art, like the geometric shapes of farmland seen through the airplane window. The beauty and satisfaction of cleverly stacked boxes on top of boxes almost conceals the fact that nearly 40% of all land in Europe has been transformed into agricultural production – a major contributor to global warming.

In the same way, the visionary rhetoric and theory of design often conceal the in situ practice of designers, who are largely disempowered by the departmental hierarchy, disconnected from the business model, lacking systemic tools and feeling captive in their companies. On the train tracks of design, the examples of addressing systemic societal challenges, like poverty, inequality or climate change are largely absent because, unfortunately, designers are more likely to be a cog in the industrial machinery that fuels consumption, increased resource use, and unsustainable behavior than solvers of complex problems.

And so there is ultimately a disconnect between the lofty goals of design and the real-world experience of designers. Having spoken to designers from various industries at Interaction 20, many said bluntly that their company isn’t thinking about sustainability and that they don’t have the ability to make that happen in their role as designers. As we have mentioned before, though, in an age of transition, where natural systems have been fundamentally changed, we will continue to see more and more pressure on social and economic systems to change, as well. What this means is that businesses and the practice of design is out of sync with rising pressure and demand for sustainability. And where there is unmet demand, there is business opportunity.

Global Challenges to Concrete Actions

According to the United Nations, this is the last decade to avoid irreversible damage from climate change. In fact, COP20 in November is when political agendas are being set that will impact where nations end up by 2030. Designers need to get started this year if they haven’t already. But even if companies are trying to integrate sustainability into the core of their business, and designers feel empowered to do something about it, there isn’t a well-defined model to bring the global challenges seen at airplane level down to the concrete actions of the train tracks. Moving strategic initiatives to operational actions within companies is hard enough, but the systemic change needed is more akin to strategic initiatives for a global society to a world that can and does actually behave differently. The gap between global agenda and concrete actions, at least in terms of emissions, is huge.

I could breathe this reality as I walked the streets of Milan during an 8-hour long car ban right before Interaction 20. At once, I was a part of a global and local challenge to reduce emissions to protect human health. But defining a global agenda for sustainability and bringing it down to concrete actions that each of us can do is likely the design challenge of the century, and professional Designers must rise to this challenge.

And so, it is not a question of whether or not design in the 21st century needs to be Design for Sustainability. The question is how we, as designers, will go about doing it. At Vincit, we have developed Planet Centric Design to enable our clients and designers around the world to start taking action and realizing their role in the sustainability transition. This requires a design-led and participatory process to navigate complexity, but it also requires different thinking that can integrate nature into social and economic systems. At present, the practice of design lacks the tools to integrate natural processes with the needs of society and the economy – inevitably contributing to societal issues like climate change.

So, at Interaction 20 in Milan, Vincit hosted a workshop for designers using our new Planet Centric Design toolkit to guide designers from global challenges to concrete actions with our North Star workshop.

For this, we used our Planet Centric Bootcamp, Bigger Impact, Wider Lens and North Star Canvases. With these canvases, participants were asked to highlight environmental problems in their organisation, then ideate goals that solve these problems and finally to identify their own personal actions taking them from problems to the goals. More about this to come in a follow-up blog post!

Designers, united

Just as my train ride helped me to feel the interdependence between cultures through history and culture, just as design needs to grapple with the disconnect between vision and reality, we must also find the interdependence among each other – as designers.

The reality is that the capacity for this planet to sustain life is diminishing rapidly. As designers, we have a responsibility to elevate our craft to the scale of the challenges facing us. By the end of this decade, we must radically reduce our impact on this planet to avoid catastrophic climate change. For the sake of the thousands of species whose existence is threatened, for the millions of vulnerable people who will be forced from their homes, and for the inspiring beauty that is life on this planet – we cannot fail.

But as designers, this is the environment we thrive in. We are innovative. We are creative. We are critical. Designers have a natural role to play in accelerating the sustainability transition. And so, as individuals and as an industry, we must align behind the purpose of reducing resource use, greenhouse gases and enabling sustainable lifestyles. We must work toward embedding sustainability in our companies and in our projects as quickly as possible.

Calling for a commitment to design for sustainability

A commitment means that if you don’t know how to design for sustainability, you find out. If you don’t know where to start, you just take your first step. If it’s not on the agenda or the brief, you get it there. If it means searching for new opportunities elsewhere, you go out in the market and let employers know that you want to design for sustainability, because even this is pushing the needle in a world where every company is competing for talent.

A commitment does not mean the work is done, it doesn’t mean that the solutions are clear, but it does mean that you’ve made a decision to explore different possibilities, and you won’t be doing it alone. Will you join us?

If you’re ready to commit to making design for sustainability a reality in your work and in your organisation, sign up and we will display your name along with the others who have also committed on the Planet Centric Design website.

We hope that you are willing and able to commit to making sustainable change with your work. Vincit commits to helping you do that.

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