Design in Sustainable Development

Design in Sustainable Development

When we are deliberating on Innovations for sustainable development,  we are all aware that Design has an integral role to play. In fact, Bruce Nussbaum, Editor of Business week, takes it a notch up by saying that “When people talk about INNOVATION in this decade, they really mean DESIGN.”

We need to dig deeper to understand what we mean by design. Design, for far too long has been a noun, associated with made objects, particularly by the way they look and perform. But when uses it as a verb, ‘to design’, it becomes more potent and powerful : to plan, to visualise, to envision, to strategise, to develop, to improve. It suddenly moves away from objects and gets into the realm of objectives.

Designers are exploratory. Give a problem to five different designers. For the same constraints and considerations, each of them will come up with a unique set of solutions, because each person’s approach will be different.

The picture turns a shade of grey from being rosy, if you understand the adage: “ Today’s problems were yesterday’s solutions.” Design has a responsibility to make things better. But it also should ensure that it doesn’t do make things worse. It is important to ensure that we do no harm.

Designers have ensured that our world is more presentable. Their innovations have connected the corners of the planet and made it ‘ a small world’. But who can deny Design has a role in polluting our planet, adding to our waste and stuffing our world with, er, stuff?

Like any other profession, design apparently has a dark-side too. Designers are often called upon to design redundant products. Washing machines that use enormous amounts of water, dish-washers that have entire assemblies replaced instead of being repaired, Mobile phones with permanent batteries that seep into the soil when discarded, lifestyle products that are so attractive that make people buy them, even when you don’t need them, Biscuits and bread packaging that use materials that don’t bio-degrade, Jeans and t-shirts that use precious resources for creating effects to look fashionable, the list goes on.

Well-meaning, intelligent designers are actually contributing to the growing ecological problems and seem to be completely oblivious of the issues.

There is therefore, the need to be thoughtful. To tread cautiously. To anticipate issues. To understand implications. Clever design alone doesn’t cut.

Design, is of course capable to envisioning the future. Fire-fighting and quick fix solutions should give way to long term view of issues. A view that makes innovations sustainable, yet contextual.

It is a good idea to remember the guru, Buckminister Fuller, who had the vision to reign upon designers, in the 1970’s, when sustainability was not such a household term : “ Do more with less”

Let us remember to do that.


A Balasubramaniam, Director, Institute of Design, JKLU

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