Design and Sustainability

Ceschin, Fabrizio; Gaziulusoy, İdil:

Design for Sustainability: A Multi-level Framework from Products to Socio-technical Systems 

Routledge 2019. Focus on Environment and Sustainability [Kindle iOS version]. 

Some of the books presented in this blog have already been read and referenced by many people all around the world. Some have been old classics worth re-reading. This book is something entirely different – although it might well become a future classic. This book is brand new. The hardcover book has been out for a month or so now, and luckily the book is now also downloadable as a Kindle version entirely for free (link here)

This book is something I have been waiting for quite a while. Today people often talk about design and sustainability, but what do they actually mean? If you need a summary and overview of all the different approaches that are currently floating around out there when people talk about design and sustainability – here’s what you have been looking for!

In the book each of the design for sustainability approaches are covered by a brief description, examples of design practice, benefits and limitations of the approach, as well as future research directions. All this in addition to a literature list for each of the approaches. If you are interested in design and sustainability this book is a great starting point; first it gives you a clear picture of each approach and then it shows you where you can continue digging for more details. 

The book also shows how Design for Sustainability -approaches have broadened in scope over the years, from first having a focus on environmental impact improvement to the current long-term and large-scale transformations. It goes from green design and product ecodesign, to emotionally durable design, design for sustainable behaviour, cradle-to-cradle design, biomimicry design, sustainable product–service systems, design for the base of the pyramid, design for social innovation, systemic design and design for sustainability transitions.

I’ll briefly introduce some of the approaches here, although it will naturally just be a snippet of the full picture.

For the sake of this blogpost I have chosen to illustrate these introductions with examples from The Index Project ( It is one of the world’s largest design competitions and focused on sustainability. I figured out many of the finalists will serve well as examples. It was also a good exercise for myself – I thought that if I could put the different examples under a theory, I might have understood the theory… (and a caveat here, as I have been on the Index jury for years, I am naturally very biased when it comes to these examples, but I don’t think that hurts the exercise. :-))

The first approaches to be explained in the book are Green design and Product ecodesign.

To simplify, in ecodesign, the environment is given the same status as more traditional industrial values such as profit, functionality, aesthetics, ergonomics, image or overall quality. This can be done through optimizing the material used in a product, using recyclable materials, replacing virgin materials with recycled materials etc. Lately this thinking has broadened from producing an individual product to encompass the entire life-cycle of the products; how are the raw materials extracted? How is the product manufactured, distributed, used and finally disposed? In practice, the ecodesign process is not essentially different from the traditional product design process, it just integrates environmental aspects into the different stages of the process. 

Sustainable LEGO Bricks. LEGO has committed to using sustainable materials in all core products and packaging by 2030, and the first step is that they are now producing all their trees and bushes from a new material made of sugarcane, not plastics.

Emotionally durable design

It doesn’t help if the product at hand is produced with less material, or can be maintained and repaired, if the consumer discards the product when it still functions properly. Typically, this happens with objects like clothing, furniture, or anything else where the desire for social status emulation, and new trends in fashion and style are considered more important than mere function. The challenge hence is not with the product itself, but with the humans that buy and use it. How can the emotional tie between the user and the product be enhanced so that product replacement is delayed or avoided?

The designer Ryan Mario Yasin started the clothing line Petit Pli, with clothes that grow alongside children, and also educate them on sustainable clothing habits. 

For designers, there are many ways to stimulate the attachment to products. They can develop highly unique products, which by definition are scarce and not easily replaceable. They can involve the user in personalisation, customisation and co-designing the products, which leads to users feeling the product is uniquely theirs and they have achieved something. This also works if the users can participate in the finishing or making (parts of) the products themselves. Another approach is to design objects that ‘age with dignity’, using materials and finishing that will show signs of age and use beautifully. Products can also be designed so that they allow users to capture their own memories through them or designed so that they are adaptable, and can change over time when the users need changes.

Design for Sustainable Behaviour

Design can also be used to change people’s behaviour. We talk about Design for Sustainable Behaviour (DfSB) when design for behavioural change is applied to support the adoption of sustainable innovations and behaviours. This approach has been explored by designers since the second half of the 2000s. 

Based on Niedderer et al (2014) the authors divide the models for this approach into three groups; individualistic rational choice models, where the focus is on how individuals make choices and act, context-driven models, which see behaviour as a consequence of the social structure in which the individual lives, and middle-ground models, which combine the individual’s role with the contextual approaches. 

The transition towards sustainability will also require cultural changes and a reduction of consumption, and the authors see DfSB as an approach that can facilitate and support these changes.

Nature-inspired design

Among some thinkers in the Design for Sustainability field, there is the belief that imitating nature’s materials and processes is the only way to achieve sustainability. This is broadly referred to as nature-inspired design. The authors divide this into Cradle-to-cradle design and biomimicry.

The assumption underlying Cradle-to-Cradle (CTC) is that nutrients are circulated in open loops (for biological nutrients) or closed loops (for technical nutrients), production systems use renewable energy, etc, ultimately allowing human society to continue production, consumption and economic growth indefinitely.

Biomimicry (BM) design or biomimetics (also known as bio-inspired design and bionics) is another prominent framework that argues for imitating nature’s processes as a way of achieving sustainability in production–consumption systems. Mimicking nature or being inspired by analogies from nature is not a new approach, and many contemporary inventions have been developed using biomimetic approaches. The authors refer to Benyus (2002, 2008), who differentiates between three levels of mimicking nature: mimicking the form, the process and the system (or ecosystem).

Project Coelicolor. Can biology fix the fashion industry? The London based Faber Futures, founded and led by bio-designer Natsai Audrey Chieza, are exploring how textile colours could be created by bacteria.

Design for the base of the pyramid

In the second half of the 2000s, in line with what was advocated by Victor Papanek (1972), some design researchers began to address the social aspects of sustainability, with a particular focus on low-income people and communities, namely those forming the base of the pyramid (BoP).

After an initial emphasis on product design the design research focus on the BoP has moved to product–service system (PSS) design.

Solar Freeze. Portable freezers to fight food loss in Africa. Across the world, an enormous amount of food never makes it onto the plate. These food losses and waste amount to roughly €270billion in developing countries alone. The main reason for this is the lack of storage and cooling facilities, meaning fruits, vegetables and animal products only last a fraction of their potential storage time. A new generation of young innovators in Africa wanted to change these statistics. Dysmus Kisilu and his team have developed Solar Freeze, portable cold storage units powered by solar energy for rural smallholder farmers of perishable produce. Their innovation extends the freshness of perishable foods from two days to more than 40 days by maintaining a controlled interior temperature of -20ºC.
Solar Freeze operates on a sharing economy model, where people borrow or rent the solar powered cold rooms owned by someone else. This brings the price of cold storage down significantly, making them much more accessible to smallholder farmers. Users can easily and cheaply make requests and payments via SMS, USSD or voice messages. Solar Freeze could also serve as an example of the next approach, Design for social innovation.

Design for social innovation

Although social innovation has been studied in business and innovation studies, and more recently in design, what it means precisely is still under debate. Social innovation may refer to product and process innovations with a social purpose, and therefore innovations that concern the bottom of the pyramid are sometimes considered a subgroup of social innovations. In business and management literature the term social innovation has been used to refer to a range of innovation activities, including those that aim to launch and improve social enterprises, company-internal activities (social intrapreneurship) and business/ social sector collaboration (corporate social innovation). Social innovation can also be seen as a set of (technological) innovations that aim to solve social problems, such as poverty and access to safe drinking water, or as social innovations which target behavioural change and social well-being. Some sociologists defined social innovation as new configurations of social practices intentionally undertaken to address social needs that are left unmet by established practices and therefore framed it as a new paradigm of innovation instead of a separate innovation category.

This has, according to the authors, given rise to an interest among design researchers and practitioners in the social aspects of sustainability. Design for social innovation (DfSI) now has a history that is slightly over a decade long. In DfSI the main emphasis has been on the role played by people and communities in creating change within their own local environment and circumstances. Social innovations usually emerge from the inventiveness and creativity of ordinary people and communities, and the processes can be complex and dynamic. 

Currently, the focus is mainly on investigating how designers can support and facilitate the process of replication and scaling up, alongside other competencies and actors. DfSI projects may use one or a combination of the problem framing, research and solution-development approaches that are commonly used in different design fields including, but not limited to, product design, participatory and collaborative design, strategic design, service design, urban design and game design.

CoolArtBehive. Pottery stacks that cool us down without heating the earth. The globe gets warmer and the need for cold air in warm climates is making the world even hotter. Air conditioners have a heavy electricity consumption, high carbon footprint and contribute to an annual rise of 0.9°C to the planet’s average surface temperature. A normal air conditioner uses 9 kilowatts per hour to reach the thermal comfort of 27°C inside on a 38°C summer day. New Delhi-based company Ant Studio has developed the CoolAnt Beehive, which is an outdoor and semi-outdoor cooling solution, using only 3.06 kilowatts per hour and with 65% less CO2 emissions. Based on the historic idea of earthen pots cooling water through evaporation, the Beehive uses the same principle in reverse. It works by soaking hundreds of stacked earthen pots in water and letting the air pass through. Made of terracotta provided by local potters, the CoolAnt Beehive also generates employment in this line of craft.

Systemic design

In the early 2000s design researchers began to reflect on the need to broaden the design focus, moving away from narrow interventions in individual products towards interventions in production and consumption systems. Systemic design (SD) is an approach that sprang from the debate around the need and opportunities to integrate system thinking in design. The systemic design approach starts with a holistic diagnosis of the territory, then continues with best practice analysis and problem identification, before moving on to solution development and implementation. Most of the applications of the systemic design approach are related to the agro-food sector, followed by a few applications in projects focusing on exhibitions, fairs and behaviour change.

TruTrade. In Africa, smallholder farmers sell their crops for low prices to middlemen who then sell them at urban markets and make a huge profit. The middlemen are often perceived as the bad guys. TruTrade took on the task of changing the agriculture profit-making model. Instead of cutting out the middleman, or woman, as businesses often do, they looked at them as the key point for improvement. Among several other issues, it became clear that they often had no liquidity to make big orders and were exposed to unforeseeable market changes.
After four years of trial and error, TruTrade found a way to help “de-risk” the traditional business model for middlemen. TruTrade is a fully digital trading system, leveraging off the wide acceptance of mobile money payments in East Africa. TruTrade secure orders from large food companies and then transmit these orders to middlemen (and women) to buy from smallholder farmers. The middlemen inspect and weigh the crop, before inserting these details and the farmer’s mobile phone number into TruTrade’s digital platform. The farmer then receives payment immediately. 
Through this, Trutrade is able to pay an average premium of 15% to farmers, which in turn gives them 15% more than what they received beforehand. The digitisation of this value chain has additional benefits. Other than being able to trace crop purchasing and working as an income verification provider for farmers applying for loans, the system has attracted more women into the field of agri-trading. In 2018, the company doubled the volume of produce sourced from smallholder farmers, meaning that farmers’ income rose to over €445,000, which is an increase of 350%. They provided marketing services to nearly 2,500 farmers through over 3,600 transactions and became certified as a B Corporation, which means they’re recognised as using business as a force for good.

Design for sustainability transitions

The latest development has been about transforming socio-technical systems and lifestyles through design. While the design profession was in the early phases of engaging with environmental issues (and later social issues) through frameworks such as green design and ecodesign in the 1990s, lately there has been an emerging focus on the transformation of socio-technical systems for sustainability. The idea is to explain the dynamics of transitions from one socio-technical system to another, demonstrating how the work of designers is, or can be, linked to societal change processes for sustainability.

Transition design has been situated as an emerging area at the end of a design continuum, following service design and design for social innovation, thereby making links between transition design and other new areas of design for sustainability.

The authors see the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University as one of the pioneers in 2012, when they began to implement curricula formulated using transition design as an umbrella framework across all levels of design education. Although theories and practices for design in sustainability transition processes had been being developed for two decades, Terry Irwin and her colleagues popularised it within the broader community of design academics and practitioners.

Sustainability transitions are design challenges with creative, technical and political dimensions. The authors say that design, in the context of transitions, should be understood more broadly than how it is framed by the traditional (although expanding) boundaries of the design profession. In the context of transitions, policymaking is designing sustainable futures and there is a need to consider design activity at any level of socio-technical systems in relation to design activity at all other levels. Design can be diffuse (undertaken by anyone as a natural human cognitive capacity) or expert-led (undertaken by design professionals). The practice of design in the context of sustainability transitions covers a wide range of activities which may be undertaken by a variety of actors, not just by professionally trained designers.

Due to the complexity of transition projects, more often than not these activities are undertaken by actors who wish to bring about change in collaboration with each other, which may or may not involve professional designers.

A multi-partner initiative, Earth Biogenome Project (EBP), wants to safe keep the world by using genome sequencing technology, informatics, automation and artificial intelligence. In essence, they plan to save the DNA of 1.35 million species — all plants, animals, protozoa and fungi.
Sequencing genome means collecting and storing genetic coding. Previously, this has been achieved for humans, a project which in itself took decades to achieve. Now, for the first time in history, it’s possible to efficiently sequence the genomes of all known species. This would help us slow the loss of biodiversity, better understand ecosystems and help us discover the remaining 80-90% of species that aren’t known to us.
In addition to being a mass extinction contingency plan, the project could have a wealth of other benefits for our planet. It could help us develop new disease treatments, for both congenital and infectious conditions, create biological synthetic fuels and materials and generate new approaches to feeding the world. In essence, the EBP stands to be one of the most powerful tools for sustaining life on our planet. The EBP is run by a global “network of communities” including 17 institutions from across the globe. The USA, United Kingdom, China, Germany, Denmark and Brazil have all signed a Memorandum of Understanding to commit to the common goals of the project. They’re also joined by 15 scientific communities and national and regional projects.
The amount of biological data that’ll be collected and produced from EBP is expected to be massive, and as agreed by all partners, this data will be stored in public domain databases and access will be open to all for research purposes.

Despite the rather broad scope of the design activity relevant to sustainability transition projects the authors are also able to provide methods, tools and frameworks that have been developed by design researchers and specifically related to designing transition experiments or assisting designers and design teams to actively influence transitions.

Hence the field of Design and Sustainability has developed, grown and matured substantially in the past decades. The impact of the work has also increased, and today many governments, cities, entrepreneurs and companies know how to use design for reaching sustainability goals.

But all isn’t just glossy and great with Design and Sustainability. The authors are worried, too. After two decades of development and practice, mostly within academic circles, DfST is now penetrating into commercial design practice. The authors now see a danger of it becoming the new “design thinking”, that is, being reduced to a process model and commercially exploited by “Post-it design consultancies” as yet another tool for incremental change, rather than pushing the boundaries of mainstream socio-technical and socio-political practices and imaginaries. 

The authors claim that such a development would undermine the very essence and spirit of design being involved in sustainability transition projects. Any project labelled as DfST or transition design project which does not include a radical rethinking of institutional and organisational models, redesigning of socio-technical systems and reimagining of socio-ecological relations would result in transformative opportunities being lost, according to them.

I think this is a wonderful way to frame the discussion – these approaches and examples give us hope for what we can do for a more sustainable future. They also give us methods, on how to be able to achieve this. But what’s more important, they give us the responsibility not to just strive for incremental improvements, but to be creative in order to find radically new solutions. Looking around, I think this kind of radical creativity is very much needed in the world today.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s