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From boosting infinite growth in build world 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.

We have designed ourselves and the whole planet into extreme difficulties.

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 human-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 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. Design surely isn’t a silver bullet, but it has unused potential but by definition design is a problem solving discipline. The potential of design thinking 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 solutions without harming non-human animals and the planet on which we live.

Updating design thinking from human-centric to life-centric design

The current way of designing is build on design thinking approach. It is iterative by nature and emphasises the collaboration between designers and customers / users. It utilises a human-centered design process, which considers human perspectives throughout the design process; from qualitative customer insights and painting an empathetic picture of the user’s goals, needs and the value to be created (desirability) and moves then to defining, creating and validating solutions accordingly. It also considers what is possible technically (feasibility) and evaluating is the service / product financially sustainable (viability).

While human-centric design performs nicely when you consider desirability, feasibility and viability, it totally fails to take into consideration the impacts for planet and people. It is mostly due to the fact that it is used mostly for business purposes, gaining more profits and growth. What we, as designers, haven’t been questioning enough is that actually creating new things with only humans in mind, for only small part of the human spectrum and mostly for profit and constant growth is at the moment leading us towards a future in which the planetary boundaries are bouncing, resulting to unavoidable outcomes such as unsafe operating space.

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.

That’s why we need to shift towards life-centric mindset. It means that we need to stop creating new desires, unnecessary things and services. Instead, behind every decision should be the design driver of adjusting with the changes we can’t avoid anymore and make sure we are not designing anything that creates more harm than good. It is regenerative by nature and benefits from practices such as circular design, systems thinking and futures approach and focuses on social responsibility and environmental sustainability.

Social responsibility is about designing products and services that profitably serve a need, have a positive impact on all stakeholders along the whole supply chain and the whole society, without harming any humans or non-human animals.

Environmental sustainability takes the planetary boundaries into account by utilising circularity, clean energy and avoiding the scarce exploitation of natural resources.

The term ‘regenerative’ is worth opening up because it actually goes beyond sustainability. Sustainable development focuses in harm mitigation and is typically defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Regenerative means an ecological worldview that emphasises the co-evolution between human and natural systems and is seeking to achieve net positive benefits for integrated natural and social systems. This means that regenerative thinking is not only about avoiding the future destruction but addressing also the previously acquired ecological debt that is mailably a result of human activity. One could also say that regenerative thinking and design is tackling the anthropocenic wicked issues.

8 Principles for life-centric 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, this is all about managing and keeping material flows in the loop by obeying the 9R’s: refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, refurbish, remanufacture, repurpose, and lastly recycle and  energy recovery. In the digital world it’s about understanding how digitalisation could benefit this shift.

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 the 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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