Putting sustainable design intentions into action

Zone’s Service Designers, Kate Ellis and Caroline McElroy, share their learnings from the Design for Planet Festival 2022 on sustainable design.

Today, all design must encourage the world to think more systemically and include underserved voices in how they solve problems. In this way, design can help address the most inescapable issue of our time. To build this momentum, we must reflect on our working practices and determine how to approach problems in a way that will fulfil the needs of current generations without compromising the needs of future generations.

With the estimate that over 80% of all product-related environmental impacts are determined during the design phase of a product, designers have a huge opportunity to make a difference in projects. At Zone, we are closely exploring how we might make sustainability in design more actionable by enhancing our methods with a sustainability lens. In November, some of our designers attended the second annual Design for Planet Festival, hosted by the Design Council. In this blog, we will review a good starting point of tools presented that anyone could use in their work, regardless of industry or practice, and share opportunities for organisations that are ready to go a step further.

The Design for Planet Festival made it clear that the time to act on the climate emergency is now. This was reverberated by Minnie Moll, Chief Executive of Design Council, who kicked the event off with a quote from Joel A. Barker: “Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world.

Starting point — enhancing your toolkit

Various speakers emphasised some core actions designers should be taking to achieve more positive outcomes, such as being inclusive by involving as many diverse voices as possible in the design process and listening to target audiences with the intention to learn from those we are designing for. At the same time, new practices are emerging to help ensure that the solutions created are sustainable. While there does not yet appear to be a universally accepted framework, tools and principles are shaping up, which anyone can utilise. Below, we summarise some of the existing resources you can apply to your toolkit today.

Sandra Pallier spoke about Microsoft’s push to help digital designers grapple with the fact that for every design put out into the world there are physical implications through the amount of energy it takes to power the experience. In fact, according to Sustainable Web Manifesto, if the Internet were a country, it would be the 7th largest polluter.

To make digital designs more sustainable, Microsoft developed its Green Design Principles. Using these principles enables one to ask questions about the potential impacts of a solution on people and the planet and to make design changes that directly reduce energy emissions.

Through better circular design, we can address the systemic challenges caused by the linear economy.

Mark Buckley from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation spoke of the three core principles of circular economy: eliminate, circulate and regenerate, and the key actions of circular design. Designing within a context and then looking from either a holistic or specific perspective allows one to think about a society or system and not just a single user. In doing this, we can widen the scope of value created so it is not just for individual products but has more of an impact. By evolving with continuous feedback, we can ensure we are continually moving in the right direction.

Measuring the environmental impact of our solutions is important to have more meaningful conversations about how to be sustainable. However, it can be a challenge for designers who are not always clear about the shape a design will take from the onset and must make assumptions about how the design will be used with no way to test it. As a result, speakers including Jo Barnard and Ross Atkin introduced Life Cycle Assessments and measuring carbon emissions as a starting point. While Life Cycle Assessments allow us to estimate the potential impacts, and therefore guide us towards the best decisions, measuring carbon emissions helps us to quantify the environmental impact of our solutions and learn from them to start making more conscious decisions.

Opportunities to push sustainability further

Many speakers echoed that climate change is not solely an environmental issue but a systemic issue tangled up in a web of many deep-rooted and interconnected issues, including social and economic challenges. For organisations ready to go a step further, there are opportunities to have more of an impact and create real change by structuring responses to climate change as more than emissions reduction.

To design for human and planetary health, we must tackle social, economic and environmental issues from the ground up. Therefore, we must not lose sight of the fact that climate change is also about people and their potential to adapt to threats. In practice, the opportunity exists to engage communities to unlock their collective knowledge and use it to address the challenges they face, especially as it relates to their environment and community, and then amplify this as a force of change.

Tackling complex problems, like the climate crisis and global health issues, requires taking a systemic approach to understand the many independent yet interrelated factors (people, institutions, governments, infrastructure, etc.) that make up the systems out of which these issues emerge. Collaborative and iterative visualisation processes can help us to explore the relationships between these factors and how they evolve over time. In pushing this holistic and visual approach, we can identify where environmental, social and economic impact occurs throughout the system and improve it with greater benefits for the common good. Additionally, this approach gives us something tangible we can speak to with stakeholders to ensure they are on the same page in their sustainability journey.

Solving the climate crisis will require collaboration across multiple disciplines and sectors. Design has the potential to break silos by removing the divisions between people and groups, however, compared to professionals of other industries, designers have been quite late in using their skills and knowledge to intentionally support a new sustainable paradigm. In fact, Design Declares, an initiative that prompts communication, digital, industrial, and service designers to act with urgency, only has 205 signatories to date. Therefore, acknowledging design’s role in climate change may be the first step towards real change.

To work alongside other industries from a shared understanding, we might join the movement of adopting science-based targets as opposed to potential-based ones, which has been done by many other industries, including apparel and footwear, transport, and financial institutions. Doing so could help designers with criteria to better define our ambitions and hold ourselves accountable, in turn, building an array of small actions that culminate in considerable progress.

As we go forth and take action to reimagine our world for the better, we are reminded to focus on what we CAN do by looking at what is within our scope of influence. Things have always changed and will continue to change — now is the opportunity to come together as a design community and define what that change looks like and how we will adapt in the future as we design for people and the planet.

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