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What needs to happen: from boosting infinite growth towards sustainable change in the whole system.

In this text my aim is to widen your horizon and discuss how to become an agent of sustainable change. The focus is in design practices and the desired core audience is designers – however,  designer or not, you can become an agent of change and adapt the designerly ways of thinking.

Whether you work in the strategic or more practical levels of design your thoughts are supposedly focused into creating amazing CX through the design. You probably are also familiar with the fact that when the customer experience is superb, 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. The decision to invest in customer-centric design is an easy one.

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 is warming up along with biodiversity loss and biochemical flows are about to slip from the safe operating space. This bouncing becomes tangible in a form of environmental phenomena, such as the extreme weather events from droughts to floods and heat periods. In addition, over 1 million species are threatened with extinction and biochemical flows are 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. Nicely done, humankind!

We, as the whole human society, have been blinded by the idea of growth and forgotten the simple fact that infinite growth on a finite planet is an oxymoron. And now, we are facing the facts and have a design task of our lifetime in our hands. One could even argue that designers don’t have a significant role in solving wicked problems and figuring out how to thrive within the planetary boundaries. Naturally, dealing with the societal challenges, the planetary boundaries and the economic models belongs to the sociologists, the scientists and the economists. Still, I dare to claim that designers can take a part in this change. After all, by definition design is a problem solving discipline. Naturally, we can’t make the change happen alone and design surely isn’t a silver bullet, but it has unused potential. That potential can be put into action relatively straightforwardly: we just need to do what we do best; discovering and defining the right problems, then developing and delivering the right solutions in a way that brings amazing, viable and feasible experiences without harming non-human animals and the planet on which we live.

How to make the change? From human-centric towards sustainable, life-centric design.

Human-centric design is a framework that considers human perspectives throughout the design process. It’s built on qualitative customer insights that leads to painting an empathetic picture of the user’s goals, needs and the value to be created and moves them into creating and validating solutions accordingly. While human-centric design performs nicely when you consider desirability, feasibility and viability but it totally fails to take into consideration the environment aspect and planetary boundaries that eventually sets the limits to all human activity. For this reason human-centric design, as we know it, won’t save the world. I’m not even sure if we can call it human-centric as design cannot be considered to truly have humans at its core if it ultimately further contributes to pollution, landfill mass, and exploitation of cheap labour.

We need to move from human-centric into life-centric design. This means creating products and services that profitably serve a need, have a positive impact on society and take the planetary boundaries into account without harming non-human animals and the planet on which we live. It requires circular thinking where everything is a nutrient or resource for something else, the power comes from renewables and the natural systems thrive through complexity and diversity. In the physical world, this is all about managing and keeping material flows in the loop. In the digital world it’s about understanding how data centres are chosen and power and energy-wise practices there to put in place from server architecture to UX/UI design and green coding.


To me the needed change happens via thinking the following questions:
  • How might we build a model where societies can flourish without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs?
  • How might we cherish and respect the nature, all life and the resources by creating regenerative design outcomes?
  • How might we 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?
  • How might we communicate about this systemic change with all its irreversible, life-threatening and unfairly distributed consequences in a way that encourages people towards positive activism?

8 Principles for life-centric and sustainable design:

  1. Challenge the current economic models which require scarcity to thrive.  Think how to encourage investing into sustainable futures based on actions. Minimise harm and help with coping with future situations which we can’t avoid anymore. 
  2. Emphasise circularity. Think how to include a systemic circular approach, where everything is a nutrient or resource for something else and the power comes from renewables while the natural systems thrive through complexity and diversity. In the physical world concentrate on material flows and in the digital world focus on energy-wise practices and clean and green ways to power it all. 
  3. Consider the societal impacts. Think beyond the direct relationship between the product or service, the customer, and the company that provides it – what are the implications for society. Build sustainable lifestyles that aren’t exclusive and status gap widening. 
  4. Design to last, not to fail. Think how to design down to the last detail and as few things as possible. Create products and services that maintain themselves, and help users make decisions for a more sustainable future. 
  5. Manufacture and develop products and services in humane ways. Think how to consider all, not just for those who can “afford it”. So no harming others, infringing human rights – and perpetuating the gap between rich and poor nations. 
  6. Not just a solution for current needs. Think how to carry the responsibility of the effects that the product or service has on people and the planet into the future. Use futures design methods and tools. 
  7. Make it measurable. Think how to track and manage emissions and take into account the downstream implications. Sign up for e.g. Global Compact or the Science Based Targets 
  8. Reset industry norms. Think how to work alongside others to reimagine the ways of doing business in the 2020s and beyond. Take part in ecosystems and networks.

To sum up, designers have all the capabilities to become agents of sustainable change. We know how to help our customers in creating visions and strategies. In addition we can shift the discussion towards purpose, values, respecting each other, the planet and resources. We know how to build products, services and social solutions. In addition we can ensure that they aim for long-term impact. We know how to collaborate and facilitate. In addition we can become networks and ecosystems operators and drivers. That surely is a design task of a lifetime.

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