Designing for the Other 90%



I had a chance to see the Design with the Other 90% - Cities exhibit last year at the UN in New York, and it was very impressive. It featured 60 projects in six categories Exchange, Reveal, Adapt, Include, Prosper and Access in which interdisciplinary groups of professionals and communities designed effective solutions for problems which plague the one billion people now living in urban slums around the world. It reminded me of the potential power for good in the field of sustainable design, and how it now involves so much more than creating expensive green gadgets.

Sustainable design is a powerful concept for transforming our society. It combines the most important word of the 20th century, sustainability, with what will surely be the most important word of the 21st, design, in order to holistically solve some of the world's most pressing problems. It is an integrated, triple bottom line (people/ profit/planet) systems approach that seeks to improve the quality of life for all living beings, while striving to live within the carrying capacity of earth's eco-systems. This defined intention for sustainability seems like a big improvement on the original 1987 Brundtland Commission definition - "meeting the needs of the current population without diminishing the ability of future generations to meet their needs"- which supports the idea of intergenerational equity but leaves out non-humans, does not seek to improve the quality of life, and does not connect us to our life supporting eco systems.

Thus, sustainable design has two goals - first, to decrease the negative impact of the built environment on our already rapidly declining planetary living systems, and secondly, to deliver positive, life affirming impact in a unique and delightful way. They are not the same thing. In fact, many designers point out that decreasing unsustainability does not create sustainability. William McDonough, the author of the influential book Cradle to Cradle, points out that much of what passes for sustainable design is simply less bad design, reducing the negative effects of conventional design by a few percentage points but only slowing down the inevitable, i.e poisoning ourselves at a slower pace. McDonough argues that instead of working so hard to decrease our ecological footprint, we should strive for a sustainably designed,"delightful eco footprint" that leaves flowers in every step. This tension between the dark green reduction of our consumption of resources by living simpler, and the promotion of the use of high tech, bright green designs runs throughout the sustainability movement, and is best explained in Ross Robertson's wonderful article "A Brighter Shade of Green" from a few years back. 

Obviously, the key to sustainable design is to accomplish both things - design more quality of life with less stuff, and more stuff with less impact. The Happy Planet Index divides quality of life indicators with ecological footprint measurements to rate how efficiently countries turn resources into good living. The US is 105th, Costa Rica is number one. In America, promoting more joy with less stuff sounds down right subversive. Thankfully, the design world is embracing human centered design and finding new areas of synergistic positive impact. My point in this article is to survey some of these new developments in the area of designing for the social good moving us beyond what we conventionally think of when considering sustainable design. 

Often, this social justice, people oriented, positive impact side of sustainability is deemphasized in the U.S. in favor of a more single focused, environmental approach. In recent years, especially around the SF Bay Area, that is beginning to change. In every design field, architecture, products, graphics, city planning and business, designers are delivering positive social impact in amazing ways that help us understand sustainability as an inspiring and creative moral challenge far beyond the switching out of incandescent light bulbs.

For sustainable designers, delivering positive social impact can take many different forms. In terms of architectural design for those who most need it, Cameron Sinclair's Architecture for Humanity uses design competitions and open source information to create dozens of projects that help communities in need around the world. In San Francisco, November 12-13, Cameron is hosting "Design Like You Give a Damn: LIVE!" where design experts and industry leaders across disciplines come together to address the challenges and lessons learned in humanitarian design and community development. 

Emily Pilloton, who just recently returned to the Bay Area, and Project H Design encourage humanitarian industrial and product design through pro bono design work. Her "Design Revolution" tour and book contains over 100 products that have empowered people around the world, including the Hippo rollerlife straw, and learning landscape, where children learn math running around a grid of halfway submerged used tires. 

The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), with the help of San Francisco designers Phil Hamlett and Gaby Brink, developed guidelines for sustainable design, the Living Principles, containing a framework for design which integrates concerns for people, environment, economy, and culture. Their latest conference, GAIN - Design for Social Value October 9-10 in San Francisco, featured dozens of designers "sharing their visionary approach to creating social value."

A number of events in San Francisco this year has brought designers together to collaborate on tackling social issues. Two UnHackathons, sponsored by the California College of the Arts, had eighty designers, business leaders, and SF city officials working on issues of economic justice  and transportation.This month, the San Francisco chapter of Net Impact, an international non profit of 30,000 changemakers using their jobs to tackle the world's problems, is helping to create a game version of emergency preparedness for the city.

What's exciting is that a new process of design is emerging around the idea of design thinking and shows signs of conscious social evolution. Design thinking is a process of collaborative, user-centered, systems-oriented research creating rapid prototypes and experimentation resulting in innovative problem solving. Tim Brown of IDEO is one of the leaders in the field. Beyond the field of design, business leaders are turning towards design thinking and strategy for innovative ways to create socially responsible value and promote organizational learning.

It was the early insight of Paul Hawken that the success of the sustainability movement will be based on how well it solves the waste of human resources, not just the waste of natural resources. It's unfathomable to think that humans on this planet overshoot the earth's renewable resources by 20%, yet only 7 of 100 of us have a college education, and 13 of 100 do not have access to clean drinking water. Designers and business leaders around the world, not just in the Bay Area, are discovering that the power of sustainability to solve entrenched problems comes from integrating the best of what we learned from the environmental and social justice movements with a design thinking approach. The rise of social entrepreneurship and Benefit (B) Corporations are blurring the distinction between profit and non profit companies by legally adopting the delivery of social good as their ultimate bottom line so they cannot be sued by shareholders concerned only with profit. On a good day, we can see that when thought leaders combine the principles of sustainability with the new innovative approach of design thinking, we can move forward a conscious social evolution that creates holistic solutions that positively impact some our most pressing eco social problems.


Image by photologue_np, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.