Design and Sustainability

The meaning of Sustainability has bended and stretched in such an inclusive way that we are not sure how to even talk about it. We know it matters, but what is its relationship to Design and how will it be possible to create a political project around it? Is ‘sustainment’, as Tony Fry calls it, design’s specific project? It is a complex question that is impossible to tackle without first having an understanding of the capabilities of Design and to know what Sustainability is for the twenty-first century.

I tend to think that major system changes must occur to make sustainability a performative reality, but after listening to some of the ideas put forth by Cameron Tonkinwise, I’ve now begun to think about how we can reverse our values within the system. To root solutions back into our relationships with objects and each other. Objects have a pull on us, a powerful one, which tends to decide the concepts we value and the infrastructure of our culture. Think of the pull of ‘car culture’, the design of the car eventually deciding the infrastructure of our cities and therefore the behaviour of our culture. We are pulled into the objects we design. But many of us are not aware of this, we are in some ways inept in understanding human relations and our relations with things. If we want to change our culture into one that is considerate of the environment, of living well with one another, in many ways it will have to be through a change of social decisions. For example, giving more value and meaning to ‘borrowing’, ‘sharing’, or ‘lending’ of objects over the high valued notion of ‘brand new’. Part of the pull of objects is the momentum of the practices that are integrated into our everyday life. These practices are also built upon assumptions, including that humans are much more sustainable than we actually are.

If policy is slow to change, in the meantime Design can make a project of its own to create a critical consciousness, which will make a critical consumer,  ultimately changing policy. Could it be possible for the consumer to demand sustainment? It is not just a simple choice of buying organic at the supermarket or recycling your milk cartons, but making the choice to support sustainability, to support the policies that put it into place and to make a life choice to value sustainability. It is about questioning the social values that capitalism itself put into place: Is comfort really what we think it is? Are we really all that pleasure driven as we believe? Do we really prefer the private over the collective? These are the types of questions that begins to drive sustainability as a politics.

Sustainability for the twenty-first century needs to be about redirecting our value flows, to re-root them in the social and not in the abstract world of the economy. Design can help this process by reconfiguring our everyday practices. For example the idea of Zipcar for my professor made him realize his behavior towards the car. It made him aware of perhaps how little or how much you need a car. It can make something often thought of as a given, such as “I need a car,” feel like a luxury.  Or businesses, like Snapgoods, which allow consumers to borrow something that they might only need for a temporary amount of time, rather than buying a new one.

In many ways Design can be the change agent we need for sustainability. Instead of lobbying for the status quo, it should begin to ask why we place value on certain things. To not just put things in the world, but understand its sequence and growth in the world. It should begin to break down the quantifying systems that dictate our values and behaviors, which in essence mean it must be political. Sustainability is not going to just happen all of a sudden, it will have to be learned. We will have to learn a new way of making and doing that is sustainable.


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Filed under Design Practice, Design Theory, Sustainability, Uncategorized

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