The Handbook of Design for Sustainability
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The Handbook of Design for Sustainability

Stuart Walker, Stuart Walker, Jacques Giard, Helen Walker, Stuart Walker, Jacques Giard, Helen Walker

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eBook - ePub

The Handbook of Design for Sustainability

Stuart Walker, Stuart Walker, Jacques Giard, Helen Walker, Stuart Walker, Jacques Giard, Helen Walker

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About This Book

Sustainability has emerged as a central issue for contemporary societies and for the world community as a whole. Furthermore, many of the social and environmental concerns that are embodied in the term 'sustainability' are directly or indirectly related to design. Designers help to define our human made environment - how it is produced, how it is used, and how long it endures. Despite some forty years of development and increased awareness of the critical relationships that exist between design decisions and modes of production, energy use, environmental impacts, the nature of work and human exploitation, design for sustainability is still not widely understood or followed. The Handbook of Design for Sustainability presents a comprehensive, state-of-the-art overview of this crucial subject - its development, its methods, its practices and its potential futures. Bringing together leading international scholars and new researchers to provide a substantive insight into the latest thinking and research within the field, The Handbook covers a breadth of historical and theoretical understandings and includes a series of original essays that explore methods and approaches for designers and design educators. The Handbook presents the first systematic overview of the subject that, in addition to methods and examples, includes historical perspectives, philosophical approaches, business analyses, educational insights and emerging thinking. It is an invaluable resource for design researchers and students as well as design practitioners and private and public sector organizations wishing to develop more sustainable directions.

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Historical and Theoretical Perspectives

Editorial Introduction


No subject can be understood well without also understanding its context. Like two sides of a coin, subject and context are inseparable. Sustainability is no different. Indeed, the historical context leading up to our contemporary concerns about sustainability is especially important to understand and absorb. More than anything, it represents a particular world view or ideology—one that has not only proved to be too narrowly framed but also incredibly damaging. Moreover, it is a world view that remains pervasive and predominant. Emergence from this state of affairs, and therefore from the fundamental premises of unsustainability, will represent a major shift in understandings, priorities, values and lifestyles.
‘Part I: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives’ provides the reader with the requisite context for understanding contemporary design for sustainability and the variety of topics currently being addressed under this broad heading. It offers the perspectives of six authors, beginning with an overview of past decisions and actions of human society, followed by an appreciation of the moral position that supported these decisions and ending with reflections on and possible directions for a sustainable future.
It begins with ‘The Roots of Unsustainability’ by John R. Ehrenfeld in which he unequivocally asserts that ‘sustainability means more than simply fixing the problems of unsustainability that are threatening the wellbeing of the environment and human societies’. In other words, doing less harm is no longer a viable option for society. More of the same technology in a world that has become machine-like—no matter how effective the technology may be—will not reverse our present unsustainable course. Yet, he believes that there is an answer amidst this morass. ‘Design’, he states, ‘offers a pathway to change’.
It goes without saying that a great deal of the unsustainability referred to by Ehrenfeld is the result of the philosophy of materialism that has permeated societies of the developed world over the past few centuries. This being the case, it would appear that this same philosophical perspective is where the solution may reside. This is clearly the position taken by Freya Mathews. In her essay, ‘Post-Materialism’, she suggests that a case can be made for a more sustainable post-materialistic future if we attempt to better understand the philosophical imperatives of the past, those very imperatives that contributed to the materialistic but unsustainable present.
A philosophical approach is also taken by Aidan Davison in his ‘Making Sustainability Up: Design beyond Possibility’. Davison posits the view that the moral values of the past—values underpinned by a ‘determinist technological optimism’, to use his words—are directly responsible for the unsustainable conditions of today. It is this same determinist approach in design that ultimately leads to a higher degree of unsustainability. He advocates for an alternative direction in design, one in which design becomes the ‘ineradicable human knack of widening the field of possibility’.
Hence, Davison, Ehrenfeld and Mathews share the view that design offers an important, positive and practical way forward for realizing sustainability.
In ‘Developing Theories for Sustainable Design’, Dennis Doordan offers options for a possible next step. He does so by first examining theories that previously found favour with many disciplines, especially those theories grounded in the empirical world of the sciences. Predictably, this focus has resulted in the enhancement of one technical system or other but not always to the benefit of people. Doordan contends that there is an alternate approach, one based on a foundational critique of the status quo, that links sustainability to promoting human wellbeing rather than enhancing the efficiency of technical systems. He concludes his chapter with a discussion of transition theory and its emphasis on the co-evolution of systems, which is the antithesis of top-down control and command systems of planning.
In ‘The Emergence of Design for Sustainability: And Onward and Upward...’, Janis Birkeland begins by summarizing the argument that sustainability will require meeting needs and desires in altogether new ways, which makes it a design problem. She provides a capsule history of two competing paradigms in design for sustainable development: green and technocratic. Despite the fact that these two systems are merging, there is a need to reconsider any system based on a closed loop where the net result remains doing more good and less bad. As Birkeland says, ‘We need to get out of the race entirely’ and consider a transformation to Positive Development, which makes everyone better off, expands future options and increases ecological carrying capacity. She argues that such a direction is best guided by open systems thinking.
Abundance and sustainability and their relationship to contemporary life provide a closing chapter, one that reflects upon the role of design in the context of sustainability. Albert Borgmann leads the readers on this reflective journey in ‘I Miss the Hungry Years: Coping with Abundance’. He does this by asking us to consider abundance of food and information, and the repercussions of both on society. While these ideas do not directly address the discipline of design, they are certainly pertinent to, and pose significant challenges for, design. Is it possible to ameliorate the downside of abundance—and if so, what is the role of design?


The Roots of Unsustainability



A distinguishing feature of being human, beyond the animals we are, is language. Language is one of the most important distinguishing features of our species. Language permits us to reflect on what we observe and to tell stories about the world we experience. Those stories are often explanations of actions and events we render to ourselves or to others. In particular, we have intentions (expressions of what we want the future to be) that guide our actions. The work of the German philosopher Alfred Schutz sought to understand action and its connection to consciousness and knowledge. One interpreter of Schutz put it this way:
Action, then, can be conceived of as a dialectical relationship between the present and the future. While it is grounded and to a degree constrained by experience and the past, it is still open to alternative possibilities; there are still elements of choice of actions. Perhaps there is not the complete unrestrained freedom of the existentialist, but simultaneously there is not the complete determinism suggested by naturalistic social science. The major point is that the purpose of action is change: it is formulated to negate in some sense that which is existing. (Bolan, 1980, p. 267)
In addition to intentions, referring to the immediate present, humans also have aspirations—that is, visions of a desired, ideal future, for example, and one that produces security, wellbeing, wealth, or happiness. Sustainability, which is defined more specifically later in this chapter, refers to a state of the world in which one’s aspirations are fulfilled over a long period of time. Sustainability is a general property of a (complex) system and, if it is to become a practical concern, must be further qualified by naming the aspirational end or ends being sought. Normally we act routinely in a world that we believe can produce the ends we picture, but occasionally we stop and reflect because we no longer believe that current conditions will allow our intentions to play out successfully. If my wallet with my money and credit cards is stolen on the way to the market, my intention to buy tonight’s food for my family will be thwarted, and I will have to find an alternative plan of action.
Now expand this scenario to a much larger world—the United States or the European Union—and to a set of aspirations shared by all its citizens—for example, sharing the national dream, usually including freedom and wellbeing. As long as all share a sense that it is possible to realize this and other widely held social aspirations, life will go on routinely. If the actors begin to assess the condition of their world as inconsistent with the attainment of their dreams, they will express their concerns in some form. When that concern gathers enough weight to enter the public dialogue, it becomes labeled and is sent to institutions that were created to solve the problems blocking the aspirations and return the world to a state where they can be realized. In many cases, the problems can be narrowly defined and those institutions responsible for fixing the world are clear. The financial crises that began in 2008 are blamed on the failure to have adequate regulation, on the innovation of derivative packages, poor risk assessment mechanisms, greedy bankers, and more. The global financial system was incapable of creating sustainability in terms of those ends that had become associated with the economic system, but sustainability was not a word used to describe the crises and their future consequences. Proposals for action came from the U.S. Congress, Federal Reserve Bank, President Obama, and individual economists.
Sustainability, used without further qualification, has become a container for our highest aspirations, but, until we name those aspirations, has no practical meaning other than a very general sense of possibility and continuity. In other writings, I have given sustainability an explicit meaning through reference to a bundle of aspirations I lump together in the metaphor of flourishing (Ehrenfeld, 2008, p. 49). Flourishing gathers a bundle of qualities that have been at the center of human aspirations from time immemorial—the good life, health, solidarity, autonomy, freedom, dignity, and more. Flourishing incorporates any and all of these great ends of human societies and gives a name to the end-state that individual and collective actions are designed to produce, giving sustainability an explicit and practical sense. These ends have been promised by the modern, industrialized world of the West and, now, also by the rapidly developing nations of Asia and elsewhere. The need to name the explicit ends of action, now labeled as sustainable with no further elaboration, is frequently missed today. Sustainability is used by business, government, and other institutions in reference to such a widely varying set of ends that it has lost its gathering power for spawning large-scale initiatives. In most cases, the intention implicit in the use of sustainability or sustainable is to slow down and reverse the deterioration of the conditions of the planet, a process I refer to as reducing unsustainability.
For many, many years, conditions of the world have been such that these universal ends appear to be attainable and that problems standing in the way are amenable to solutions with the same set of beliefs and means that brought us such a long way toward achieving them. The modern era stretching back to its founders, Descartes, Bacon, Newton, and others, has been driven by a belief in progress—conceived as the continuing movement toward the perfection of human society. In recent times, however, according to the assessments of many citizens, the possibility of achieving the dream is fading; the world, they say, has become unsustainable and needs to be fixed. Climate change threatens to disrupt comfortable cultural patterns; the collapse of fisheries threatens the food supply; water scarcity will make regions inhospitable; poverty inhibits health; tyranny suppresses dignity and freedom. Actions are being taken to avert and prevent these changes from becoming so great that they would upset the Earth’s generally hospitable environment and send our cultures into new, unknown, and unfriendly regimes. Almost all these sustainability remedies underway relate to some form of technological efficiency or technocratic innovations designed to run our economies, but with less damage to the world.
These technological frameworks for design and action have worked so well for so long that we take them for granted as the only way to run our modern societies. All are based on some manifestation of reductionism: cutting up the problem and its enveloping system into pieces, and parceling the job to fix things to experts working in the resultant associated, isolated areas. This very effective way of dealing with problems and unmet concerns has significant limits when the problem cannot be cleanly identified and placed in a well-defined bin of knowledge and expertise. Unsustainability, a general set of concerns that the future will not satisfy our aspirations, is just such a problem. We do not routinely identify and analyze its causes and, thus, cannot knowingly assign the tasks of remedy and repair. We are stuck in a circular pattern that does not fix these problems. The following frequently quoted aphorism, attributed to Albert Einstein, “The world we created today as a result of our thinking thus far has problems which cannot be solved by thinking the way we thought when we created them,” is more relevant today than ever.
As long as efforts designed to create sustainability arise within the current way of thinking and action—the normal modern societal paradigm—the best we can hope for is some reduction in unsustainability. More efficient automobiles may slow down the rate of global warming, but the capability to reduce pollution will become questionable at some time in the future. Efficiency in general is only a temporary remedy. The lowered impacts it produces will eventually be overtaken by growth and any associated economic savings will be channeled into other consumptive ends, creating new or exacerbating old damaging patterns. We are so accustomed to this way of problem solving that we ignore a few important pathologies that arise when routine actions become so familiar that we are blind to outcomes other than those that were intended.
When the problems fail to respond to the solutions, we frequently intensify our efforts, producing unintended consequences showing up at other places and later in time. Further, we fail to stop and seek qualitatively different approaches that might work effectively. This pattern is the characteristic of addiction. An addict continues to apply the same ineffective solutions without regard to the underlying problem and without consciousness of other negative consequences that the unreflective repetition creates. Unsustainability is such an unintended consequence of normality within our modern ways of living. Applying this metaphor, our societies are addicted to the use of the beliefs, norms, tools, and institutions of modern, technological culture. If we are to turn the tide and begin to create sustainability and move toward our aspirations, we will have to look farther than the superficial reasons we attribute to the problems, and unearth the deepest roots of today’s problems and address them directly, beyond the application of the temporary and short-lived fixes of technology and technological thinking. Reductionism, mentioned above, is one of the causes, but it is a consequence of an even more fundamental belief, the Cartesian notion of an objective, unchanging world that humans apprehend and inscribe in their minds.
Another cause that will be elaborated below is the omnipresence of technology in modern societies. Technological systems and institutions based on some form of technical rationality (technocracy) are called on to run the machinery of modern societies and to solve virtually every problem encountered in the normal course of events. The rational model for human action springing from Descartes’s mind/world split and the view of the brain as a logical, optimizing machine is yet another root cause. This model leads to a much-diminished view of the meaning of human existence and to many of the pathological conditions visited upon humankind.


The origin and refractoriness of unsustainability can be attributed to many causes, but two stand out as critical: the Cartesian, scientific mindset of modern cultures and the hegemony of technological and technocratic solutions to all individual and collective problems. Problem in this sense is any perceived obstacle to the attainment of intentions or aspirations. Since the time of Descartes and even back to the Greek era, we have viewed the world as having existence out there separate from the mind, which stores and manipulates images of that external world. The basic existential model is a contemplative subject gazing on and thinking about an external, objective world. Our visions, images, reflections, and thoughts about this world form the foundation for what is frequently denoted as “objective reality.” Objective refers to entities fixed in time and space, and also to the sense of pure or true representations of those things unfiltered by an observing subject’s misperceptions. At the most general level, this view attempts to understand reality by separating the immediate perceived world into parts, each of which can be described by fixed rules of behavior, whether the object at hand is part of the inanimate world or is a living...

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