Eyes Wide Open

Jane Penty
Replacing dinosaurs to become dinosaurs? Silver plate dish press tool, Birmingham, 2011, Jane Penty
Replacing dinosaurs to become dinosaurs? Silver plate dish press tool, Birmingham, 2011, Jane Penty

Locating thoughts

Planet earth: home to 7.2 billion highly unequal humans, consuming 50% more than can be replenished and rising, destabilising their natural cycles and habitats in the course of over-producing in their quest for economic growth and where more than half the population are struggling to get by, let alone fulfil their potential because of deprivation or social injustice. This is the snapshot I have recently gleaned from world statistics as I try to put into context the relevance of design and more specifically product designers’ work.

Future predictions have not been any more comforting. The picture Jurgen Randers paints for 2052, based on his observations of ‘past performance’, is of certain deterioration and loss of the natural world with an increasing risk of existential disaster. For the new middle classes of the BRIICS countries there will be some improvement in quality of life but the opposite for the poorest and the better off as resources are diverted to limiting the damage. It is a sad but not hopeless story of missed opportunities and lost beauty. But perhaps this is not a problem if you, like most, have never experienced what has and will be lost?

‘I would like to locate the opportunities for a culture of resilience within the practice of product design to tackle what is still in our power to change rather than diverting our focus to coping with the damage.’

Current or future, this is hardly a picture of a sustainable eco-system and if resilience is a precondition for sustainability then neither is it resilient. In our efforts to avert disaster, I see resilience most often interpreted as the ability of a system to spring back or recover from difficulties. In this sense it seems that resilience is being used as a damage limitation strategy to cope with the consequences of our un-sustainability, focused on effects rather than causes. While a resilient system can withstand great disturbances, it is not because it is focused on disturbances that it is resilient and it is this aspect that I am much more interested in exploring. Fortunately, as we are constantly reminded, ‘past performance is not a guide to future performance’, and so I would like to see our energy being fed by informed and intelligent optimism. I would like to locate the opportunities for a culture of resilience within the practice of product design to tackle what is still in our power to change rather than diverting our main focus to coping with the damage.

Product design, sustainability and a cultural of resilience

In the context of sustainability, product designers could very easily feel responsible for so much of the over-consumption in the world and talk themselves out of action. For decades we have been trained to design products, and more recently product service systems, for mass production and mass consumption – a necessary ingredient of a capitalist system that requires continual growth.

We certainly have been complicit, but not the drivers. Yet, what product designers really love is creating beautiful solutions for people’s daily lives and meaningful expressions of our material culture. So how can we do what we love best and become part of the solution?

There can be strong parallels between ‘design thinking’ and ‘resilient thinking’ if their goals are aligned. Equally, diversity is inherent in resilience and so I have chosen two examples of very different arenas of possibility that illustrate the potential for design to affect sustainable change as part of a culture of resilience.

The first, BioRegional is an entrepreneurial charity with the goal of creating viable One Planet Living Communities around the world through a combination of social enterprise and commercial ventures. One Planet Communities use a mix of design and community engagement to make it ‘easy, attractive and affordable’ to live within a one-planet footprint. They embody systems thinking working from a basis of ten principles that all stakeholders share, covering health, happiness, equity, economy, culture, community, transport, food, water, zero waste and carbon. But ultimately, they rely on all the people living in the community and their stakeholders to make these their own goals. They also monitor data and observations from residents, using these to adapt and learn from for their new projects. Data from their first community at BedZed in London (2002) showed that seven years on, the keenest residents were halving their footprint against the 3 planet footprint for the UK overall. It concluded that given an optimal design, achieving one planet living is possible but ultimately lifestyle choices and supportive infrastructure are the biggest factors influencing footprint. So design can play a key role in making more sustainable choices the easiest option if these are part of a supported system.

‘So while resilience is a necessary condition for sustainability and innovation, risk taking and disruption are features of resilient cultures, not all disruptive innovation is sustainable.’

In the continuum of a resilient system, the One Planet Living Communities initiative sits on the edge of mainstream yet challenges the status quo. Here, resilience as a necessary condition of sustainability becomes evident. The One Planet principles are a living culture of resilience in action with notions of democracy and participative community, equity, restoration, localism and diversity in culture and economy, all within a cycle of learning and improving.

In contrast, the internet has facilitated the creation of many new and ‘disruptive’ economic and social models. Perhaps one of it’s most resilient features is it’s peer-to-peer (P2P) capacity and the distributive networks this creates. Here we can bypass the established ‘brokers’ to create decentralised exchange communities, albeit most often through new brokers, those in control of the internet. For product designers P2P is opening up whole new channels where they can be in direct contact with their audience and backers. More eloquently put it is:

‘… the replacement of the anonymous individual user and the monolithic target market with groups of living, breathing, intelligent people who have relationships with each other… . Adjacencies, connections, context, local insight – all the things that are essential to urban communities then become vital to the global group of makers who are linked by … online and offline platforms.’

As with all disruptive models, many will fail but the successful ones are quickly adopted by the mainstream as we see with online sellers like eBay and Amazon using P2P reviews to create ‘trust’ and the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) open competitions using the internet community to widen the range of participants to improve and reduce technology development time by sharing sophisticated modelling software.

Disruption for disruption’s sake?

Now designers and creatives are fascinated by ‘disruption’. Finding better and unthought-of ways of doing things that break the stranglehold of existing systems and barriers is ingrained in us. But designers are not alone in this fascination as this is the stuff of new business opportunities, where ‘better’ may easily fall away from ‘new’, if it was ever there to begin with. So we need to take a critical look at innovation and disruption, even if it is bottom up, and be vigilant lest it re-centralises power back into the hands of the few or merely extends the status quo through a new medium. As these examples show, while resilience is a necessary condition for sustainability, and innovation, risk taking and disruption are features of resilient cultures, not all disruptive innovation is sustainable. Quite the contrary.

As the technological world shifts from ‘bits to atoms’ and there is re-engagement with physicality and materiality through distributive production, product designers could be at an important threshold to affect change, but they will have to embrace the responsibility that comes with it, eyes wide open and keep sight of the bigger objectives. But it is an opportunity not to be missed.

‘… for De Carlo the machine is a metaphor for society itself, and like the cogs and wheels that “collaborate” to transform energy into horsepower, the buildings, objects and people in a city interact to manufacture everyday life. And as with machines, it is the responsibility of design to determine the future direction of society – how to improve the machine of collectivity.’