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Redesigning Design

I was sitting on a large cabin cruiser (the property of Dick Haworth of office furniture fame) in the middle of Lake Michigan not long ago, listening to a man called John Robinson, who despite his humdrum name is a very distinguished gentleman indeed. He is Professor at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He is also Professor of Geography. He had a great many things to say about sustainability, almost all of which I’d never heard before, and his attitude and approach to the subject were refreshing in equal measure. I mentioned this sense of novelty, when I could get a word in edgeways. ‘That’, he said, ‘is because I’m not a designer.’

John and his team are building a building – they’ve got $20m of public and private money to do it – which they claim will be the world’s most advanced exemplar of sustainable building. It is called the , it will be built they reckon some time in 2010, and part of its ‘key goals’ is ‘to live within the building footprint as much as possible: most of the building’s electricity and lighting, and all of the water supply, liquid waste treatment, ventilation, and heating and cooling will come from the sun, wind and ground that shines on, blows through, or lies underneath the site.’

So far so not very amazing, you say. It’s true, it doesn’t sound all that unusual, given the current amount, worldwide, of research, discussion and general cerebral activity on sustainability. But a few of the things he said really made me sit up and take notice. One is that he and his colleagues are creating ‘future modelling’ software – essentially computer games – to explore the ordinary person’s attitude towards changes in behaviour – the ‘behavioural advances necessary in any transition to sustainable patterns of living.’ This is related to the aim of treating the building process as a living laboratory over its whole life, studying system integration and the interaction of the building with its inhabitants.

The second is that the whole project is based on a collaboration between disciplines – psychology, sociology, geography, information technology – as well as the building and design specialisms, ‘to create new forms of private, public, NGO and research sector partnership to commercialize sustainability… as a springboard to the trillion-dollar global market in urban infrastructure.’ Mark that word, commercialize.

The third – and this is the bit where I sat back and said ‘Enough already!’ – is that he is setting out to measure happiness, along with health and productivity, of the building’s inhabitants over time. The fourth – and this is the bit where I sat forward and went ‘ Yesss!’ – is that be believes the time of An Inconvenient Truth is over. He doesn’t even like the film. Why? ‘Because we’ve had enough analysis of the problem. No one seriously doubts that any more [although you can still find climate change deniers almost anywhere you look]. It’s our job now to present solutions.’

So it’s getting practical. For whatever reason – perhaps just because the expression of the problem has reached a critical level of acceptance and now we’re moving on – our engagement with the idea of sustainability now seems to be turning this very corner. We’re beginning to realize just what has to be done, and frankly it’s scary.

Two of the documents I’ve recently been digging deep into, though they come at the issues from quite different standpoints, are pointing in a similar direction. One is celebrated workplace theorist Frank Duffy of DEGW’s new book ‘Work and the City’, published by Black Dog Publishing as part of a series called ‘The Edge Futures’. The Edge is a ‘ginger group and think tank’ of influential people in the building and related industries that gathers regularly to discuss issues of the day. This series – five smallish books, including Jonathon Porritt on Globalism and Regionalism – has sustainability as its central theme.

The other document, not yet published, is from the principals of something that pleases to call itself the SEED Foundation, Clare Brass and Flora Bowden. Clare was head of sustainability at the Design Council until last autumn, and as a designer has been working in this area since the late 1980s. It is called ‘Design for Social and Environmental Purpose’ and essentially is proposing a redesign of design itself. The document ‘investigates how the still emerging discipline of service design, in dealing more with relationships and experiences than material objects, offers inherent social and environmental benefits and is naturally transferable to sectors broader than private business – where designers traditionally work’.

Frank Duffy, meanwhile, concerning himself with that part of the industry which he himself helped define and develop, is essentially saying that the ‘knowledge economy’ of which we are all more or less a part (not quite but almost the ‘service economy’) demands buildings of a completely different type than those that have been built in the last century and a half of commercial office development – and more importantly, that the delivery mechanism for those buildings must be radically redesigned. The ‘supply chain’ – finance, development, design, construction, real estate, facilities management, IT, end users – must be turned on its head and become a ‘demand chain’ where end users decide what space they want, where they want it and for how long, and what they are going to pay for it. The payoff is sustainability at both a micro and a macro (urban) level. (What he doesn’t say is what he thinks developers are going to do for a crust in this bright and sustainable future.)

No surprise, then, it’s what we knew all along but were reluctant to admit. The change in our business culture must be as deep and penetrating as at the start of the Industrial Revolution, when capitalism and manufacturing got together and severed ordinary people’s connection with the natural world. Both these sets of distinguished thinkers, in their own way – Brass and Bowden more for design, Duffy more for architecture – are saying that design cannot and must not serve the capitalist project any longer. Unless an ‘enlightened capitalism’ can be fashioned that ‘commercializes sustainability’. See above, CIRS. The language used is almost shocking – ‘the harmful practice of material production’ means ‘making things is bad’. One of Brass and Bowden’s sources, Mike Betts of green communication group Better Thinking, describes how in consumption terms, competitive advantage has historically been with the manufacturer of better goods, then with the owners of better brands. ‘The next step,’ says Betts, ‘is that businesses will be valued on their behaviour and will have to provide transparency in order to maintain customer loyalty.’ In other words, business must rewrite its whole sense of itself. It must look elsewhere for profit than just making and selling things to people who don’t need them. It must look to sustainability and it must look to service – and design, the erstwhile, servile flunky of the ‘make and sell’ regime – must use its research and analytical skills to grapple with human problems defined not by material enrichment, but by the way we live our lives. Of course the corporates are already making eco-moves (eg GE’s ‘Eco-magination’), and increasing profits thereby. The sad way of looking at it is to say design has to concern itself with survival. The happy way is to say it must concern itself with… happiness. Either way, design must redesign itself just as business must, and in some major cases is already doing.

Next month: And where does government come in all this? And brands? And is design really the tool with which to re-write western civilisation as we know it? And don’t even get me started on China. Don’t miss this exciting sequel!


Posted in Ecology of the Soul, FX Column - assorted design writings.