Discovery Guides Areas


Hidden Histories:
the Story of Sustainable Design

(Released June 2009)

podcast link 
  by Alison Knight  


Key Citations




Problems associated with sustainable design


The concept of sustainable design has now been defined and areas of concern that designers can work on have been identified. However, many designers still find sustainable design a difficult concept to understand fully, and even more difficult to accept. Designers have become used to designing things; the shift to designing systems and services is not so easy to grasp. Papanek would say that it is going back to the roots of design, which started as a system of problem solving. That is exactly what is required now for sustainable design, so we have gone full circle. In the second edition of his book Design for the Real World Papanek defines design as "the conscious and intuitive effort to impose meaningful order." 12

woman on bicycle gizmo
A Duke University student demonstrates her group's pedal-powered mechanical aerator, National Sustainable Design Expo, 2007

Many designers have found the idea of sustainable design "too hard," both emotionally and on a pragmatic level. Repeatedly telling people about the dangers of carbon and other greenhouse gases leading to climate change either bores them or frightens them so much they are unable to act, they feel powerless. Thackara says "ecoguilt doesn't sell newspapers, and being told that a planet-wide calamity is one's fault is a splendid reason for turning straight to the sports pages."13 But what is needed is action. Writing for a special supplement on sustainable design for Design Week, Clare Brass states: "Sometimes the S-word feels like a challenge just too vast for designers to take on. If clients are putting sustainability into the brief, it is often simply an attempt to be seen to be green." She goes on to mention some sustainable design problems, which range from the choice of materials and processes to social issues arising from the products themselves. Finally she challenges designers to be more entrepreneurial in their practices to find new solutions to today's problems.14 Philosopher Tony Fry says that designing for sustainment requires a whole new way of thinking. Fry realizes that for this to happen the problems must be clearly identified and defined so that solutions can be found.15 This emphasizes the need for leadership and creativity. As designer and television presenter Kevin McCloud points out in an interview with Andrew Simns: "So we are the problem, we are the patient and the victim, we are the potential solution. And the solutions, I think, as they come, when they come, will be creative and breathtaking, and not at all to do with technology. Some of them will be cultural change and the pursuit of different happinesses and joys. I look for that kind of re-attraction of delight. If people are happier, they want less."16

This is a concept put forward by many futurists, amongst them John Ehrenfeld, who says that life should be more than just mere survival. He sees sustainability as "the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the earth forever."17 How will we achieve this? Ehrenfeld says that the emergent field of industrial ecology can guide us: "Industrial ecology suggests that societies built around principles derived from ecosystem properties and dynamics might be sustainable in the same sense that ecosystems are."18 Almost all materials in an ecosystem are recycled within the system; there is little waste. This recycling is possible because of the relationships between the organisms within the ecosystem; they live almost entirely in a symbiotic relationship. There is competition in the ecosystem but modern human societies, by comparison, exist in an almost exclusive world of competitive markets where companies and individuals compete against each other with their products and services. According to Ehrenfeld, industrial ecology provides us with a "new set of beliefs and norms" based on ecosystems and in tune with sustainability.19 By embracing a more holistic relationship with our environment than we do at present we can become more interconnected with it and other people. That in itself will lead to feelings of flourishing, i.e. the "good life."

The principles of industrial ecology can guide us in our use of natural resources when designing goods and services. This can lead to more sustainable design practices. This Guide looks at some of the applications that have emerged. It is not an exhaustive list, merely a start. Returning to nature for answers to design problems is not a new concept. William Morris in the UK and Richard Buckminster Fuller in the USA were both advocates of considering the environment in design.20 One of the main premises of industrial ecology is to reduce waste. Some examples to be considered are based on mimicking nature to see how natural organisms and systems are able to avoid waste by their design (biomimicry), their systems (Life cycle approach, Cradle to Cradle design and the Transition initiative movement) and by dematerialization (moving from products to services).

Go To Biomimicry/biomimetics/bionics

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