Design as a Change Agent Towards Sustainability
Tuesday 5 June 2012


This is article is an excerpt of the article "Design as a Change Agent towards Sustainability – Redefining Enlightenment's Dominance over Nature" that was published in three parts in February of 2012. To read the full article please visit www.design2sustain.eu.

In the last few decennia human kind is experiencing with increasing concern the effects that 'our' way of living has on the natural environment.  We experience the pollution caused by our manufacturing processes, the depletion of a finite stock of fossil fuels, the limitless use of raw materials for making our products, the enormous waste issues we are facing as a result of our consumption society, and the whole debate regarding our melting ice caps and climate change.

In this summary article I will argue that, in order to move towards a sustainable future, our western society, based on enlightened principles, will need to reposition itself from 'dominance over' to 'co-existence with'  the natural world (the biosphere). I will also argue how design and the design professional can act as a change agent to this end. Lastly I will highlight what role architecture, as a design discipline, can play in this transition.

It is important to understand that how we act upon the world is a result of how we think about and view our world. The development of western society with Enlightenment at it's base in my view plays a key role here. Enlightenment's emphasis on individuality (belief in reason and science, secularism, active engagement of man in the public domain, human progress measured by increasing material wealth and civility, a belief in human 'goodness', autonomy of the human will, and human equality) and resulting institutional and economical changes can be seen as the enablers of Industrial Revolution, with profound changes in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, transportation, and technology. The Biosphere (as a result) has been pushed in a subordinate role vis a vis the Technosphere (everything man made).

design2sustain
Design can help mankind create a positive co-existence between the Biosphere and the Technosphere (our man made world).
Photograph Esplanade Theatre and Concert Halls, DP Architects & Michael Wilford & Partners (MWP), Singapore
by Peter de Ruijter

The repositioning of society is firstly characterized by taking a future orientation when making decisions in the now. Secondly the issue of material consumption is addressed, either by reducing it's waste impact (C2C) or by questioning it's relevance in terms of excess, and by asking the question "do we really need this product?" instead of 'wanting' a product for the identity it establishes or confirms (through the ecology of image)[1]. Thirdly, by redefining the concept of 'wealth' and 'success' away from passive consumption towards active societal participation and revaluing the need to form communities. A notion of the reestablishment of the group or 'the public man'[2] alongside the private individual is part of this, emphasizing also the notion of 'smallness' and social cohesion in society.

In our modern western society design and the design professional has become marginalized as 'iconic' and identity driven. While the future shape of humanity is being determined within the next few decades, designers are working in, what Tim Brown calls, an "incremental"mode on the next neat looking object. He argues that design needs to be re-instituted as a profession, where an integrative systems approach prevails above a focus on the object. In this way design can play a critical role in addressing the more fundamental issues of our society.

In effect, design and designers need to refocus from advancing material consumption (through the design of 'appealing' products) towards an ethical use of design as a force in repositioning western society.

In understanding the true potential of design, and the design professional, we need to firstly acknowledge that design implies the conception, the thinking, of all man made objects. Secondly, design is not an autonomous entity; it influences, and is influenced by culture, society, ethics, and economy, it is interrelational. Thirdly, design is directional. Design is not neutral, even highly political, as it opens and closes paths for future development.

Within the Biosphere all natural elements seem to function in a complex set of interrelationships and are in a state of constant change and exchange. Similarly one can also argue that an'ecology of things' exists in the Technosphere, where the creation or design of a particular object is the result of the complex interrelationships of other particular objects already created. This implies that ecologies (and design as a product of the ecology of mind) are relational in nature, both in the present time as well as intime. In other words, design designs.

design2sustain
Different visions of architecture make the visitor wonder about what it is that it represents.
Photograph Calatrava's City of Arts & Sciences, Valencia-Spain by Peter de Ruijter

In light of the notion of ecologies, design gets a whole new meaning. The Technosphere is the physical outcome of design and designing, it is created by design and through the act of designing. Designing as an activity is closely linked to the ecology of the artificial and of the mind, and can direct and redirect the future development of material objects. Central to any design assignment would be the question of 'what has to be designed and what it, in turn, will design'. Multidisciplinary design teams and designing intime are important design tools to be employed.

Fry argues that design can be rethought as an interrelational discipline, future oriented, and futuring, can be employed towards sustaining the Self and the Community, and can bring about the move from passive consumption to active participation. Positioned in this way the power of design can be utilized as a redirective practise towards sustainability.

Designers will need to lead this transition, by using design within the ecology of mind (the conception of an object) to act as a change agent on the ecology of things (the making of objects) and the ecology of image (how we perceivethe world).

design2sustain
Design implies the conception, the thinking, of all man made objects.
Photograph Parc Guell, Antoni Gaudi, Barcelona by Peter de Ruijter

Fry identifies elimination design and recoding as key design strategies. The former contains strategies like exposing the perceived 'need' for a product as a fabricated 'want', substituting complex technology with simple technology, product multipurposing, product de-materialization or re-materialization, symbolic devaluation and destruction of sign value (through the ecology of image), and plain prohibition by law. The latter exposes the unsustainable and declares the means of sustainment, the way in which something can gain futuring agency[3].

Architecture, as a spatial design discipline, can have a redirective role towards sustainment and have futuring agency[4], when focusing on two areas of design. One being spatial design directed towards nurturing active participation, community building, and social networking. The second being, architecture as the creator of habitat, focusing on creating permeable, adaptive, more fluent interfaces between the Biosphere and the Man Made World, in which both benefit of each other, and are in a positive state of exchange and creation.

Bibliography

Bateson, G., Steps to an Ecology of Mind, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1972

Brown, T., Change by Design, Harper Collins, New York, 2009

Ching, Francis D. K., A Visual Dictionary of Architecture, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, New York (USA), 1995, p. 53

Coyle, D., The Economics of Enough: How to Run the Economy as If the Future Matters, Princeton University Press, Princeton (USA), 2011

Fry,T., Design Futuring, Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice, Berg Publishers, Oxford (UK), 2009

Farson, R., The Power of Design:
A Force for Transforming Everything, Greenway Communications, Atlanta (USA), 2008

Israel, Jonathan I., A revolution of the mind, Princeton University Press, 2010, p. vii-viii

McDonough, W. and Braungart, M., Cradle to Cradle, Remaking the Way we Make Things, North Point Press, New York (USA), 2002

Mellick Lopes, A., An Ecology of Image, University of Sydney. Department of Art History and Theory, Sydney (Aus), 2006

Sennett, R., The Fall of Public Man, Cambridge University Press Archive, Cambridge (UK), 1977

Definition Industrial Ecology:  HYPERLINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Industrial_ecology" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Industrial_ecology

Ideals of Enlightenment Age / Age of Reason:

Wikipedia:  HYPERLINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_Enlightenment" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_Enlightenment

Northern Arizona University:  HYPERLINK "http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/%7Ejo52/POS254/index.html" http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/%7Ejo52/POS254/index.html

Temple University:  HYPERLINK "http://www.temple.edu/ih/Enlightenment/" http://www.temple.edu/ih/Enlightenment/

The Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution (Richard K. Moore)  HYPERLINK "http://www.serendipity.li/capitalism/enlightenment_and_industrial_revolution.htm" http://www.serendipity.li/capitalism/enlightenment_and_industrial_revolution.htm

Jonathan I. Israel, A revolution of the mind, Princeton University Press, 2010, p. vii-viii; Core Values Enlightenment: http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/%7Ejo52/POS254/index.html; Core Values Enlightenment: http://www.temple.edu/ih/Enlightenment/

The Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution (Richard K. Moore) http://www.serendipity.li/capitalism/enlightenment_and_industrial_revolution.htm

Mellick Lopes, A., An Ecology of Image, University of Sydney. Department of Art History and Theory, Sydney (Aus), 2006

Sennett, R., The Fall of Public Man, Cambridge University Press Archive, Cambridge (UK), 1977

Fry,T., Design Futuring, Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice, Berg Publishers, Oxford (UK), 2009, Chapter 2

Fry,T., Design Futuring, Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice, Berg Publishers, Oxford (UK), 2009, Chapter 8

Fry,T., Design Futuring, Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice, Berg Publishers, Oxford (UK), 2009, Chapters 3/4

Fry,T., Design Futuring, Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice, Berg Publishers, Oxford (UK), 2009, Chapter 5

[1] Mellick Lopes, A., An Ecology of Image, University of Sydney. Department of Art History and Theory, Sydney (Aus), 2006

[2] Sennett, R., The Fall of Public Man, Cambridge University Press Archive, Cambridge (UK), 1977

[3] Fry,T., Design Futuring, Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice, Berg Publishers, Oxford (UK), 2009

[4] Fry,T., Design Futuring, Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice, Berg Publishers, Oxford (UK), 2009

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