When going deep into the area of sustainability and looking at the crosslinks that open up regarding the practice of design, a dark narrative appears whereby sustainable design is a failing practice, either aiming too high by trying to tackle global, inter- and intragenerational challenges, or aiming too low by focusing on, for example, material impacts of new products and services; this narrative appears to have an upper hand over one that is more positive and constructive that sees the strengths and potentials that design can bring to the challenges of sustainability. While the growth-oriented sustainable development discourse still dominates the way sustainable design is practiced, there are other streams with a more holistic view of sustainability. These streams are rooted in a post-growth / no-growth or strong sustainability discourse, which are slowly making their way into design practice through the guise of sufficiency, resilience and activism with a common theme of sharing knowledge, allowing citizens to be an active part of their community.
The dark narrative of sustainability in design as well as the call for designers to transform a practice of “un-sustainability” into one that allows “futuring”, leaves most of them shrugging their shoulders in light of how to implement the theoretical (utopian) requirements into their own practice. I argue for providing a different, more positive narrative, moving past the finger-pointing attitude towards reminding oneself what the practice of design in the context of sustainability can bring to the table.
Why there are new directions in sustainable design is largely because design has broadened beyond its product and service fixation towards a more process-oriented practice and an awareness of the impact designers have on this world. In these processes, designers are often taken outside the boundaries of growth-oriented economic progress towards social progress. They are continuously reminded that they cannot operate outside of a societal context and that their work has an impact on the Earth’s dynamic equilibrium (however small it might be).
Thus, the aim of my work is to re-frame sustainable design as a default configuration, stripping it from the unwieldy term of sustainability and extracting its core features of transformation, participation and future-focused thinking. Considering this core configuration, design is bound to be situated between anthropo- and eco-centricity, putting into question current user- and human-centric design approaches that tend to marginalize the everyday context and wider implications of the designed product or service.
Through an investigation that spanned the last five years, I have come to realize that sustainable design has nothing to do with a specific practice, but rather with a mindset which is, at its basis, tied to ethical considerations rooted in everyday life. It is moreover tied to broad, interdisciplinary knowledge that is needed to grasp the interconnected and global challenges that lie ahead. To make this point, in my work I am retracing the steps from the early roots of sustainable design within the sustainability movement towards its radical opening in different directions such as design activism, transformation design, design for social innovation and participatory design.
Furthermore, I propose a re-framing of the practice of sustainable design, (tentatively) linking it with a research-through-design approach and subsequently, through the design case, constructing a dynamic, interdisciplinary action repertoire for designers.
When framing this renewed idea of sustainable design, not only do the two dimensions of transformation and participation almost automatically appear in the current discourse, but also the notion of opening up contexts through design in a way that is directed towards possible (sustainable) futures becomes apparent. Several overarching perspectives resurface in the course of this work:
1 Opening – How can designers open access to contexts, tools, knowledge and technology through collaborative, interdisciplinary action?
2 Making – How can designers provide processes to involve stakeholders in critically assessing and making possible futures?
3 Transforming – How can designers transform contexts and situations from one state to a preferred one (and how can they facilitate the negotiation-processes tied to them with regards to social equity and intra-generational justice)?
The topic of transformation and future-focused thinking is currently engaging most of design, not exclusively sustainable design, and this thinking seems to provide an underlying idea that design may be able to provide at least part of the skill-set required to cater to this transformation. It is, however, not only the context and situations design claims to transform, but also user behavior and market incentives. In this research, transformation is viewed as a careful byline to a project which spans almost six years and is now coming to a close.
The design case for this research is the project Neighborhood Labs which has been run by an interdisciplinary group of design researchers, citizens and other stakeholders in a central, but isolated area in Berlin’s Mitte district. It incorporated the development of a research concept and experimentation process which builds on a participatory design methodology as well as a living lab approach. It was planned open-ended with the potential of stakeholders taking over after the official end of the research project.
In terms of sustainability, the subject and guiding theme of sharing and collaboration was the baseline of the design phases and iterations. While focusing at first on the sharing of concrete objects in a specific community of practice, there was a shift to sharing knowledge, as well as to the empowerment of citizens to impact local decision-making processes, a much fuzzier subject than the sharing of objects or services. The project was run in three intertwined phases:
– Sharing phase / Neighborhood lab: Setting up and running a living lab. Investigating the context and building the infrastructure. Approaching the neighborhood and designing tools for gathering insights about needs and issues within it while drawing active citizens towards the project. After this step, insights inform the research process and help focus the research question further. This phase produced several concepts and sketch prototypes in collaboration with the stakeholders of the Fischerinsel, Berlin.
– Infrastructure phase / Designing infrastructures & fostering change: Designing and testing participatory tools such as the Hybrid Letterbox, an analog-digital bridge device, in order to discuss and evaluate questions of social cohesion and communication within the neighborhood and to activate citizens for involvement in these issues.
– Transfer phase / Design transfer: opening up the context and pushing the methods and tools outside of its initial project and creating new instances thereof.
As I am reflecting on the process of a long-term project now behind me, such as working through trial-and-error phases, prototypical research-through-design attempts and the immersion in the Fischerinsel-context that the research group grew a part of, several key directions in the dealing with and conveying of sustainability challenges appear.
On a practical level, these directions materialize in the categories of investigative action, participatory tools and workshop formats, which are distilled from a broad range of interdisciplinary actions conducted over the course of the research, leading to an action repertoire for transformation which I propose as one of the outcomes of my work.
On a theoretical level, I argue for sustainable design by default, meaning sustainability as an inherent, embedded goal of any design process, integrating a research-through-design mindset in sustainable design or vice versa. In further steps, this entails restructuring the way we teach design and how design practice is informed throughout its process.