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Scoping Out Sustainability

chook.jpgSustainability means far more than hybrid cars and recycling; it even means more than LEED buildings and dense cities. Real, lasting sustainability will require a transformation of both supply and demand, both production and consumption, across every facet of our society and economy. This is not a minor feat, obviously; fortunately, smart people are thinking hard about how to carry it off.

The UK Design Council is an organization of designers and academics looking to enhance the well-being of citizens through the proper application of design. They provide a variety of informational resources for both designers and non-specialists, covering everything from the nature of design and the design process through emerging issues such as corporate social responsibility and sustainability. The Design Council, through its information and outreach program RED, is working with government and business agencies to co-develop a new Sustainable Development Strategy for the UK. Last week, they unveiled Design & Sustainability: A Scoping Report, in an attempt to explore how to create demand for sustainable design and the best ways to spot and develop the resulting business opportunities.

The scoping document (Word format) is much more than that, however. Running well over 100 pages, it's a comprehensive analysis of the origins of sustainable design, its applications in recent years, and how it can be more broadly applied. It's an ambitious project, to say the least, and not always successful. But here's the really good part: the Design Council is explicitly calling this an "open source" document, and are offering it for use and modification by anyone -- and are asking for good ideas to be sent to them to be added in.

(Unfortunately, the Design Council has not made explicit the extent of the "open source" license -- the linking page has a Creative Commons "some right reserved" tag, but no enumeration of what users can and can't do with the scoping report. I've asked; in the meantime, use your best judgment.)

As an information resource, Design & Sustainability: A Scoping Report is terrific. Perhaps the most impressive aspect is the focus it has on sustainability as a system, not just a characteristic of specific products or services. Sustainability needs to be integrated across the spectrum of social and economic behavior; the task is sufficiently complex that the bulk of the document comprises sector-specific examples (for consumers, business, government, designers and design educators) and ideas for how to bring sustainability into practice.

I found its emphasis on a distinction between supply-side and demand-side concerns to be of interest:

Sustainable design in the UK focuses on the supply side of the equation – it is technology driven and product focused with LCA [Life Cycle Assessment] most often cited as an important tool for sustainable product designers. But there are signs of a non-technical, non-material approach to sustainable design emerging that is more about demand pull. Here the focus shifts from products to the consumer (and sustainable consumption) using design to challenge social norms, consumer perceptions and lifestyle aspirations. Methods used include creative visioning, facilitation and participatory methodologies that involve users in the design process as well as employing the power of communication design to shift perceptions and aspirations. Some companies are now beginning to use design skills to shed new light on sustainability problems.

Talking about supply-side issues (the technology, the material cycles, the waste involved) is attractive, as it's generally easier to quantify; energy efficiency, carbon footprints, kilograms of waste -- these can all be (relatively) easily measured and compared. Social norms, consumer perceptions and lifestyle aspirations are likely more critical, but far more difficult to gauge. Still, the scoping document tries to make the suggestion a bit more practical by linking it to Donella Meadows' "points of intervention in a system" structure.

The table below is a low-resolution graphic in the document; click for a larger (but not necessarily easier-to-read) version.


The table has terse listings of terms and ideas, all of which (as far as I could tell) are discussed in the scoping document. A number of the terms -- WEEE, Factor X Efficiency, Product Service Solutions, design for disassembly, biomimicry and probably a few others -- are topics we've addressed here on WorldChanging.

But while it touches on many worldchanging subjects, it doesn't always come to the same conclusions. Late in the document, in one of the appendices, the authors cite a comparison between "Green Consumerism" and "Sustainable Consumption." The differences will be familiar to anyone who has followed ongoing discussions here about sustainable transportation. Are efforts which focus on changing the components without changing the system inherently flawed? Is such a fundamental change to the system, one that is in direct contravention of current norms, even possible? This table from the document spells out the distinctions:

Green Consumerism Sustainable Consumption
Buying different products. Consuming less.
Essentially positive about consumption in a modified form. Inclined to view consumption beyond basic needs negatively.
Technological advance an important factor in achieving change. Emphasis on lifestyle and behavioural change, with a limited role for technology.
Focus on supply side intervention. Focus on demand from end-user.
Consumers respond to information about appropriate products. Consumers identify alternatives to acquisition.
Gradualist approach to change preferred. Major change seen as urgent and essential.
Traditional economic growth replaced by ‘green growth’. Quality of life improved without increasing physical output.

It seems to me that both categories view consumers as passive actors, whose role is limited to choosing whether or how to consume. But there's another column that should be here, one that emphasizes the consumer as a collaborator, both with the designer/producer and with other consumers. The active role for all of us is at the core of the "bright green" worldview we try to present on WorldChanging.

The following table is my interpretation of how bright green/worldchanging ideas map to the above set of issues. Other WorldChanging contributors (and editors...) may have varying perspectives.

Bright Green Consumers
Do more with less.
Look for opportunities to improve efficiency of consumption, avoid consumption for its own sake.
See technology as a means to lifestyle and behavioral change, with culture shaping technology choices.
Focus on "prosumption" -- the ability of end-users to fabricate products to meet their needs and to collaborate on services.
Share information about about best choices.
"Punctuated equilibrium" -- major changes are a function of constant small-scale evolution.
Quality of life improved by decreasing environmental footprint through combination of decreased outputs and more efficient inputs.

There's so much to this document that it's hard to summarize. It is, by far, the most complete examination of what sustainable design entails that I've ever seen. There are undoubtedly better works out there on the subject, but this is certainly a good start for anyone thinking about the implications of sustainability and design. Design & Sustainability: A Scoping Report is an important document that deserves wider attention.

(Via CPH127)


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Comments (14)

The open source license is defined when you click the link "some rights reserved":

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Under the following conditions:

-Attribution. You must give the original author credit.
-For any reuse or distribution, you must make clear to others the licence terms of this work.
-Any of these conditions can be waived if you get permission from the copyright holder.

Thanks very much for this Jamais. This goes right to the heart of the matter. What is a means and what is an end? Your synthesis of the tables is brilliant, although it will need expansion and refinement for years. If other readers catch this post, I'll be very interested in the discussion that ensues.

Thank you, Michiel -- I should have caught that.

And thank you, David.

Tom Radulovich:

The first paragraph of this fine article states "Sustainability means more than hybrid cars and recycling:"; this begs an interesting question: can a society designed around the use of automobiles, even hybrid ones, for everyday transportation ever really be sustainable?

Many people here would say no, Tom. I'm somewhat more cautious; I think that it would be possible to design a society that made common use of personal vehicles that would nonetheless be sustainable, but it's (a) not the society we currently have by any stretch, and (b) not easy.

Tom Radulovich:

Indeed! It seems as though, using the framework presented in this article, that the discussion of "green vehicles" (hybrids and such), on this site and elsewhere, is mostly at the 9th stage, or at best the 8th: we should all use a hybrid rather than a conventional car because they are more fuel efficient and produce fewer emissions. The impact of automobiles is not, of course, limited to consumption of fossil fuels and unhealthful emissions; they have tremendous impacts on land use (i.e. sprawl), and have great space needs (resulting, in most places, in congestion) and infrastructure needs (the demand for expensive and and space-consuming roads and parking, as well as the infrastructure of auto fabrication, repair, and disposal, fueling, and repair and maintenance). The space needs of autos, as well as their effects on the street environment, make them difficult to accomodate in the sorts of compact cities that minimize resource use, land consumption, and travel distances, and support sustainable transport modes (walking, cycling, and, to a lesser degree, public transport). It would be interesting to see the discussion of hybrid cars move from the "green consumerism" stage, through the "points of intervention" structure presented here, to a scenario where they are part of a truly sustainable future.


Actauly most roads arnt expensive. Many are made once rather cheaply and then work perfectly fine for decades without any repair whatsoever. Its only near cities larger towns that traffic gets dense enough to eat a road up all that fast. Most suburban "roads" people complain about arnt for people they are transport links for big rigs and THOSE behemoths are the entire reason the road system existed in the first place.

This posting, if read carefully and thoroughly, is about truly World Changing ideas. It's about far more than how much roads cost. It's about whether design and technology are enough to maintain a system structured around the goal of exponential growth. It's the central question of our time.


Just because your looking into the future doesnt mean you dont need to look down and avoid stepping in dog poop.

Nothing breaks a future project faster then greatly overestimating the cost of what your replacing.

Nothing impoverishes the future more than undervaluing what you're destroying.

This is sad. This posting is a milestone and rare opportunity. It raises the fundamental question of sustainability. Often, the postings are about techniques and parameters - this is about deep structure and underlying purpose, which is where true change happens. Jamais took a list of false tradeoffs and offered an intelligent and hopeful alternative. It was a rare gift, and we responded with cars and dog poop.

I had a flicker of hope, but now it's ashes.


No david to be blunt im saying you better get your head out of the clouds and make sure your numbers are right NOW because YOU cant afford too many screwups right now.

You cost out an existing system and get the numbers off too much and what happens? You suggest and maybe even someone builds a new system and then it FAILS.

Do you want that? Do you have any idea what kind of pr mess you would get if one of these big arse sustainability projects totaly screws up the math? What do you think is gona happen if say some big city goes all out to replace something IMPORTANT with a sustainable alternate and then cant even afford to sustain that soo called sustainable alternative? My god the sharks would feed that day. And tons of projects out there right now are running on shakey math at best its only a matter of time before one big one bellies up.

I do NOT want an enron to taint the push for a sustainable future. Do you?


Im sorry if I sound angry its just ive been noticing the exact same people who climbed on for the dot com ride are jumping into the game again and I realy do fear what will come of shakey math and unbound greed. People are depending on people like YOU to show whats real and whats a con they cant figure it out on thier own because they have no frame of reference to gauge con from real in this new industry.

Personaly I dont have high hopes for the industry. I see quite a few spectacular failures ahead and quite a few out and out nightmares.

Wintermane, thank you. I understand better what you're trying to say, and of course I agree with you. Like you, I don't want a transition to sustainability run by the kinds of folks who ran Enron.

But Enron's a good example of what I'm trying to express. If you tinker with regulations, oversight, audits, etc., to try to stop corporate wrongdoing, you're not accomplishing much. The most effective, and yes, practical thing you can do in that case is to change the goals and rules of corporations. If you set up a system with a rule that says your purpose is to maximize short-term profits - well, you're going to get behavior aimed at that goal, including efforts to shift costs onto someone else, cook the books, corrupt the regulators, rig the game, etc. That's not because corporations are evil; it's because they're embedded in a system that often rewards evil behavior. That system costs us untold damage, money, waste and grief. How practical is that?

I wholeheartedly agree with you that we need to keep our feet on the ground, watch out for the "dog poop", not get too theoretical and flakey. But I think Jamais presented us with one of the most practical and interesting questions that I've seen in a long time: how effective is it to keep exponential material growth going through new design and technologies, versus learning how to bring our population and material consumption into equilibrium?

Yeah I know, that sounds academic, but it isn't. How we think about things affects our everyday life. One of the most practical things I ever did was to get a vasectomy. Another was to build, by myself without a mortgage, a small, energy-efficient house, heated mainly by wood I cut from my own land. Another really practical thing I did was to learn how to be content with what I have, to orient my life toward something more interesting than acquiring stuff. In other words, I changed the goals and rules of my life. Doing so has brought me wealth, health and contentment. I think that's very practical.

It would be really arrogant to project what works for me onto anybody else - I'm not doing that. But I very much wish that this particular post had sparked more discussion, because, as questions about sustainability go, this one's the Big Kahuna. Are we going to create the "Bright Green Future" through technical fixes and clever design alone? (Gosh, that would be great for me, because I'm a designer by trade, and I love nifty technology.) Or are we going to have to go deeper than that, and actually take a hard look at the purpose of all the technology and design? Personally, I think we're going to have to do that - too.

Let me put it this way: if someone is driving toward a cliff, it doesn't matter whether they're in a Hummer or a Prius. They have to change direction. Then, what kind of car they're driving becomes more important.

The "new industry" you cite will develop to fill whatever purposes and needs we decide we want. It will either reflect our goals. If we muff that, then design and technology won't save us. On the other hand, if we really decide that we want a sustainable world, we're going to need all the elegant technology and smart design we can muster, because achieving it will be very, very hard.

I like a challenge. Don't you?


I like a challenge as long as I have cheat codes and extra lives. Reality sucks!


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on July 11, 2005 5:14 PM.

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