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A cooler planet by design

By: Ken Friedman, University Distinguished Professor at Swinburne University of Technology
18 January, 2013

From hot property to unwanted waste: it's time to rethink the way we design, produce and reuse new products.

Many of us get frustrated with the slow pace of international action on climate change. But powerless as we feel, we can still make a difference by rethinking the way we design our lives.

The World Bank's Turn Down the Heat report warns of the consequences of global temperatures rising by an average of four degrees Celcius by the end of this century.

Let us be clear about one thing — the prospect of a four-degree rise is a conservative prediction.

Many equally reasonable scientists believe it is likely we will face more dangerous changes than that, sooner than we think.

This is where designers and their employers, as well as consumers, have to share responsibility for dealing with climate change.

From handmade to mass production

For most of the past two centuries, design has been the handmaiden to industry.

Whether design has been framed as an applied art, an artisan craft guild tradition, or an industrial art, the purpose of design in an industrial context has been to encourage consumer choice and purchasing.

Public policy and education policy embraced this tradition in 1837 in the United Kingdom, when what is now the Royal College of Art was established as the Government School of Design.

This concept entered the public mind with the Great Exhibition of 1851. In Germany, the birth of the Bauhaus in 1919 was a key moment. In the United States, industrial design education began at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in the 1930s.

In all these places, the role of design was to encourage better-designed products for increased sales.

More people wanting more

Between 1900 and 1950, world population grew from just over one and a half billion people to nearly two and a half billion. In the next half century the population more than doubled, and today it stands at nearly seven billion.

Along the way, something else happened: the world's wealthy economies shifted from production to consumption, and much of the world's productive capacity shifted to meet demand.

The design profession had a key role in making products desirable.

At a time when production was the key to prosperity and growth - and while economic growth was seen as the road out of poverty, this made sense.

Back then, the world had enough environmental resources, or "carrying capacity", to cope with our extra demand to permit growth.

In 1950, 70 per cent of the world's people lived in rural areas, and it wasn't until 2008 that more people lived in cities than in rural areas.

A wealthy and growing middle class in North America and Europe powered global economic growth, while much of the world got by on far less.

Growing pains

Today, the problem is that the world economy is growing, and many of the seven billion people now alive want the lifestyle that was possible for half a billion in 1950.

By the 1960s, a handful of future-oriented designers understood the problem.

Buckminster Fuller studied the balance between global resources, population and opportunities. He came to the view that the world could support the full population of the time at a high level of comfort, based on comprehensive recycling and reuse of materials in an economy oriented toward values other than consumption.

At the same time, Victor Papanek began to ask why designers were making so many shabby products, focusing on style while wasting resources.

Designers such as Ezio Manzini, Anna Meroni, Tony Fry, and Jurgen Faust now continue the tradition, with encouragement from economists such as Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Lab, while economists such as Jeffrey Sachs look for solutions to sustainable development.

Built to last

The answer is simple. While we live in a world that requires economic growth, we do not recognise that economic growth requires sustainable development.

Rather than sell new products repeatedly to the same few wealthy consumers, we could achieve a different kind of growth by selling better and more durable products to larger groups of people.

The world requires a return to a productive ethos for economic growth linked to the reduced resource consumption that will make the world sustainable.

This may be a challenge, but designers can play their part in change by accepting their responsibilities for ethical engagement.

If the World Bank predictions are correct, we have less than half a century left and every year remaining in this half century counts.

I would like to believe that designers are prepared to move from consumption to sustainable development. The alternative is unimaginably worse.

This article was originally published at The Conversation.

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Jon Wexler | Monday, January 21, 2013, 11:09 AM
Bubble and froth. Global warming will not be avoided by 'designer' changes. Only by political decisions currently not made by those in power, fearing loss of votes consequent from uncomfortable,unpopular emission reduction measures.
Adam | Tuesday, January 22, 2013, 10:14 PM
Don't hold your breath. Consumers need to make the change by voting against waste with their wallets. We don't need to fill our houses with cheaply made junk that we expect to break & to throw away within a year.
Ken Goldsmith | Friday, January 25, 2013, 11:04 AM
Actually, IF the current climate trend continues, "designers" will be the only hope of reducing GW. Not consumer goods designers, but perhaps aerospace and/or chemical designers. CO2 has a Global Warming Potential of 1, used as an arbitrary reference. Water vapour has a much higher GWP, (I have seen 26 ascribed, though a quick check on Wikipedia today says no number is given because we have no possibility of influencing how much water vapour is in the atmosphere), however there is (almost) infinitly more water vapour in the atmosphere than there is CO2. "Wikipedia: Although water vapour has a significant influence with regard to absorbing infrared radiation (which is the green house effect; see greenhouse gas), its GWP is not calculated. Its concentration in the atmosphere mainly depends on air temperature. There is no possibility to directly influence atmospheric water vapour concentration." In practical terms, there is no way to influence the CO2 concentration, either. Like water vapour, it mainly depends on temperature, with a lag of between 40 and 800 years. Most of it comes from the oceans as they warm, but plenty, more obvious, comes from bush/wild fires, as the vegetation dries. AGW is a scam, for political/social engineering purposes.