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Design sustainability: Is environmental sustainability enough?

Supplier: Tiller Scientific + Medical By: Robert Tiller
31 March, 2010

Many years ago, I made a conscious decision to turn my professional skills to work that could make a sustainable difference.

I have designed and worked with many clever people to create a number of products that have significantly contributed to the reduction of negative impacts on the environment.

These products include devices that substantially reduce energy use and carbon dioxide emissions, products that fine-tune water use in irrigation equipment, devices that monitor irrigation out-flow from rivers and products that recycle grey water and in the process realise savings of over 40% in household water consumption. Many of these products have since become market leaders, and are used worldwide.

These technological based product solutions and others like them, that we in the design profession create, are vital in making the planet a better place in which to live. As designers we are also making more careful choices when it comes to the design and production process.

We strive towards better material use, more sensitive supplier selection, and the implementation of regulated global initiatives to reduce waste and hazardous materials.

Today Australian designers are becoming increasingly aware of the impact they may have on environmental sustainability. Most of us are already on the environmental sustainability wagon and we feel good about it.

But are we doing enough? Should we be viewing the notion of sustainability more holistically than the environment or a good product or service, and how we produce them? Our influence and impact is far reaching. Designers need to take a broader view of their impact on a sustainable future, and use our unique position in the development of products to promote far reaching and sustainable goals.

As our lives become more depersonalised and time-pressured, it has become increasingly important to me to view sustainability more holistically. This view sees sustainability as not just framed within a technological and commercial context, but also at a social level where I connect with others and contribute personally to the community in which I live.

It follows therefore, that a basic step to becoming truly sustainable in the way we live, is to become more inclusive and people focused. We have to embrace the social impact and the social development of people using our products and become aware and proactive in sustainable practices. Eventually sustainability will rely on people behaving differently, not just buying something to make them feel they are doing the right thing.

We all want the communities in which our children and families grow up, to be as good as we can make them, so it is up to each of us to help create these places. Ideally they are places that support and sustain. For this to occur we must expand our perspectives on sustainability.

Designers of all types, particularly product design professionals, are well placed to act as catalysts to meaningful change. They do this by making possible solutions visible and workable to those seeking guidance on how to behave in a responsible sustainable way in their daily lives and communities.

It is the community based action that needs to be nurtured so that small local initiatives, which drive significant change, can eventually link to the global initiatives we all read and hear about but often feel powerless to develop.

Designers are people who hold a unique way of looking at the world. Our creativity should be leveraged into this holistic notion of sustainability. This means engaging at a professional level in a far broader capacity than the usual product centric focus we employ in our day to day work.

We are problem solvers who are capable of connecting social ideas with solutions and help people through the confrontation of change. We do this every day in our project work. Why not leverage it out into the community?

An inspiring example of a professional initiative can be seen in the work done by CRASH, the Construction and Property Industry Charity for the Homeless, a global industry organisation made up of construction and property professionals.

CRASH uses the professional skills in it’s network to negotiate temporary squatters rights in properties waiting redevelopment. They also help to establish suitable living conditions and the homeless are given caretaker roles. At times this may be for a few months, frequently for considerably longer

I see sustainability as including and creating a sense of community and caring amongst those we see everyday. To be active in this sense means establishing connections to ensure we not only have meaning in our communities but that we contribute meaning to them.

If for example we have a neighbourhood that lacks a good park and we would like to have one, we should explore the options of how to create one. A beautiful local park and community garden with a playground, where people can come to relax, play, work (if they like gardening) and talk is a great place to start building connections.

A place to nurture communication amongst the community, to begin applying creative thinking to new issues that may emerge.

Options for designers to contribute in this way might be to volunteer or offer our services at cost to help design better public facilities such as toilets, public showers, drinking fountains, park benches and railings for the disabled.

We can volunteer to work on programs to set up local networks that might help children, old people, schools, local business or help develop strategies for communities to solve problems like water saving initiatives, energy saving. Once started the momentum of the creative process can carry people to new and exciting outcomes.

Australian organisations that are offering networking and resources to designers wanting to pursue sustainable design include the O2 Global Network, the Society for Responsible Design, the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, Changex and Green Drinks.

Alternative strategies to empower our communities and make them more caring could well draw on Nelson Mandela’s initiative to appoint a Community of Elders for Peace. An initiative that utilises well connected motivated past world leaders to address global issues from war to global warming. Perhaps we should consider a model such as this for our communities.

We could set up and empower groups of highly respected individuals whose wisdom, creativity, integrity and humanity could be sought to help. Perhaps called upon to identify areas where the collective creative thinking we all can offer should be applied.

This approach would go some way to connecting the individual and their ideas, or problems they perceive, to people who can apply professional creative thinking and offer solutions. This would also help bridge the gap between local, state and federal initiatives, connecting the local with the global.

Industrial design professionals have a great opportunity now to take active roles in sustainable thinking, to engage with existing networks and to sow the seeds of new ideas. Moral inspiration and leadership are certainly needed today and are vital in helping to make our communities and our lives more sustainable. In the achieving of this goal, we all have a vital part to play.