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In this text my aim is to widen your horizon and discuss about how to become an agent of sustainable change. The focus is strongly in design practices and the core audience is designers – however, wether your are a designer or not, you can become an agent of change and adapt the designerly way of thinking! 
From boosting growth towards sustainable change in the whole system

Whether you work in the strategic or more practical levels of design (e.g. in industrial, service or interphase design) your thoughts are supposedly focused into creating amazing experiences trough your design. You probably are also familiar with the fact that when the focus is on the experience it evidently increases the value, commitment, retention and ultimately fuels the economical growth and profitability. 

So, from the economic perspective everything seems to be working just fine and the decision to invest on customer-centric design is an easy one. Nonetheless, by taking a wider perspective we can quickly see that there’s some serious hiccups in the planetary and societal systems. Planetary boundaries are bouncing; the climate warming, biodiversity loss and biochemical flows are about to slip from the safe operating space. The bouncing becomes visible to us in various environmental phenomenas, such as the extreme weather events from droughts to floods and heat periods that are affecting also to the societal level and human wellbeing – and also to the economy. Also, UN reports that over 1 million species are threatened with extinction. Biochemical flows are, in turn, crossing the unsustainable levels because the fertiliser production and application are leading to nitrogen emissions into the atmosphere in various forms, rather than taken up by crops – resulting to rains that basically pollutes the waterways and coastal zones.

On could say that we have been blinded by the idea of growth and forgotten the simple fact that infinite growth on a finite planet is an oxymoron. Eventually the planet will set the limits to growth which is, unfortunately still in twenty-twenties, heavily built on exploitation of the natural resources.

With this realisation in mind, we face two options:
1. We can be part of the status quo and bathe in guilt.
2. We can become part of the solution, take action and become agents of sustainable change.

From these options it’s pretty easy to choose from, isn’t it? But what kind of challenges we, as designers, should be tackling? Let’s frame few of them in a designer-friendly format, in how might we questions.

HMW build a model where societies can flourish without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs?
HMW cherish and respect the nature, all life and the resources by creating regenerative design outcomes?
HMW change the passé economic performance requirements for constant growth and create new alternatives that are sustainable from the planetary perspective and appealing from the human perspective?
HMW communicate about this  systemic change with all it’s irreversible, life-threatening and unfairly distributed consequences in a way that encourages to positive activism?

 

How to approach this great design task of our lifetime?

The main, but everything except simple, idea goes as follows: instead of the infinite growth we should aim for resilient livelihoods without exceeding the planetary boundaries. According to the research, this can be done be by emissions decoupling. The key is to separate the environmental impact from growth (i.e. to decouple the environmental bads from the economical goods) with the help of technology, new consumption habits and focusing on for example circular economy and design.

To make this a bit more tricky, there’s actually two kinds of decoupling 4,5:

Relative decoupling in which the environmental impact or resource use grows slower than the economy means seeking sustainable equilibrium between economics and planetary boundaries.

 

Absolute decoupling where the impact or use declines in absolute terms – meaning decoupling the environmental impacts and GDP, for good.

From these two, relative decoupling is easier but won’t actually enable the needed transformation and keep the planet in the safe operating space in relation to the planetary boundaries as it still leads to increasing resource use. Instead, absolute decoupling is the ambitious one actually has more potential. However, it is worth acknowledging that there seems to be almost none successful examples of decoupling on a global scale, but at regional level it has been achieved 6.

In addition, some experts say that even a 2% raise in GDP per year will slowly but steadily lead to double sized consumption in every 35 years and that with the current climate politics the world is going towards approx. 3°decree future 7, so we (meaning the whole human kind, not only designers) are on a huge mission. You also might sense a bit of urgency here. I don’t think we have the time to invent any amazing new technologies but look the solutions within the existing and emerging technologies. Even if we don’t have any time to waste, we luckily we have great technologies and foremost people who are passionated about changing the future for good.

But.. are designers really the right ones to solve such a wicked challenges?

You probably noticed that both the HMW-questions and the whole concept of decoupling are pretty systemic and pretty complex. One could even argue that designers don’t have a significant role in solving these kind global and wicked problems. Naturally, dealing with the societal challenges, the planetary boundaries and the economic models belongs to the sociologists, the scientists and the economists. But it doesn’t mean that we can’t be involved in creating better resilient sustainable solutions that can inhold immaterial and/or material level services and/or products. After all somewhat 80% all product-related environmental impacts are determined during the design phase of a product 1And for those designers who are working on services have similarly a great possibility and responsibility to aim for sustainable futures.

For this reason, I dare to claim that designers can become agents of change. After all, by definition design is a problem solving discipline. We need new position and practitioners who master the designerly way of thinking and can tolerate the challenges size of a planet.

Naturally, we can’t make the change happen alone and design surely isn’t a silver bullet, but it surely has potential. We just need to do what we do best; discover and define the right problems, and then develop and deliver the right solutions in a way that does not only reduce the negative impact but is eco-effective by optimising the positive impact.

We need to start designing sustainable transition

It it quite evident that the future of design practice is very much linked to sustainability, resiliency and regenerative solutions. This might sound a  major shift from designing products or services because it is. It is also about designing the solutions that take a period of time to achieve. Prioritising designs that are strategic and support long term visions, rather than quick fixes to our current problems.

We are talking about transition design here.

It challenges the existing paradigms, envisions the new ones, and leads to radical, positive social and environmental change. It is all about creating long term visions of sustainable lifestyles by inspiring and informing the short- and midterm thinking 2.

According to Terry Irwin, researcher in Transition Design defines this new and emergent discipline as follows: “Transition Design brings together two global memes, first the idea that entire societies must transition toward more sustainable futures and second, that this will require intentional, systems-level change it also builds on four different but interrelated and mutually influencing areas, and the design as a practice plays a central role in many.” 3

How to start designing towards sustainable transition

Let’s start from visioning the future. While aiming for the radical change we can’t be just waiting for the future to happen, but instead realise that the future is something that we all can affect on. We need to build tangible visions of different alternative futures in order to create the paths for sustainable transformation. To make the concept of future more tangible, it’s worth to get familiar with the 3 fundamental laws of the future (written by Joseph Voros, 2001):

  1. The future is not predetermined – there are rather infinitely many potential futures.
  2. The future is not predictable – because the future is not predetermined, predictability is doubly impossible and we are therefore forced to make choice among many potential futures.
  3. The future outcomes can be influenced by our choices in the present – even though we can’t determine which future will eventuate we can still influence the shape of the future which does eventuate.

The tools and methods of design can aid in the development of these visions. Especially the futures oriented methods like critical and speculative design along with scenario building are powerful ones.

In addition to futures visioning, due to the complexity and interconnectedness of the wicked problems we are facing, the methodologies for systems thinking and systems oriented design are evenly essential. We need to get to know all 12 leverage points to intertwine the systems along with the theories and methodologies that explain the dynamics of change within complex systems.

While diving into the systems, we have to re-shape some of the existing ones. Especially the current economic model, which requires scarcity to thrive into new alternative ones needs some serious re-construction. As we have grown to understand, infinite economic growth on a finite planet is an oxymoron since the planet’s natural resources aren’t endless but scarce and rapidly dwindling. So, in order to create a sustainable transformation, also growth and the way we are doing business is to be shared, stirred and reshaped. One essential concept is circular economy which aims to safeguarding the biodiversity and solve the wicked problems such as the climate crisis, while renewing the business models that are based on the goal of keeping the existing materials circling as long as possible. The focus has been heavily on material issues but also the digital service creation should be added, because it surely has impacts to the resource and energy usage too.

And last but bot least, design must change the focus from human centric design towards life centric design methods. Human-centred design processes involve various activities that participates humans; from empathetic customer research to mapping out the people’s needs and identifying the solutions that are again to be tested and iterated with the customer. In it’s current form it fails to take into consideration the ecological and socio-economical aspects such as design’s impact on pollution, landfill waste, biodiversity, labour conditions and all the externalities created during the process. This is mainly because the human-centric methods are tuned for short-term wins instead of long-term impacts.

Design can no longer be only about the product or service, but is to be designed with the full picture in mind and embed sentientism (an ethical view that emphasises the equality of all species) and vitalism (all living beings are to be valued as important actors in the biosphere) into our practises. For designer this all means that while we are creating new services we consider all life forms and the future generations too. We must aim for minimising the negative effects and cherishing positive and regenerative effects. Designers ought to consider not just a solution for current needs, but also carrying the responsibility of the effects that it has on people and the planet into the future. This includes manufacturing products and services in humane ways, considering all not just for those who can “afford it”, meaning the end users. So no harming others, infringing human rights, and perpetuate the gap between rich and poor nations.

To sum up, designers can become agents of change. We know how to help our customers create narratives and visions. We know how to build service or social innovation solutions for long-term impact and design with collaboration emphasising methods. We can build networks, ecosystems and facilitating them while looking for ‘emergent possibilities’ is something to consider. 

In addition to the business goals we can shift the discussion towards purpose, values, respecting each others, the planet and resources. 


Investing into sustainable futures based on actions to minimise climate change and coping with the future situations which we can’t avoid anymore. 8

That surely is a design task of a lifetime.

Sources

1
Discussion and references to the topic “Is 80% of environmental impact determined during the design phase, or not?” 

2, 3
Terry Irwin, 2018. The Emerging Transition Design Approach, ResearchGate. 

4
https://bios.fi/en/decoupling-where-it-falls-short-and-a-call-for-collecting-research/

5, 6
https://www.sitra.fi/en/articles/decoupling-study-questions-and-answers/


https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/oureconomy/green-growth-vs-degrowth-are-we-missing-point/


https://ek.fi/ajankohtaista/tiedotteet/raportti-ilmastonmuutokseen-varautuminen-saatava-suomessa-uuteen-vaiheeseen/

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