Seeing Nature's Design in Snow

liz's yard.jpg

I came down to Washington DC yesterday to visit family and go to a Bat Mitzvah, and figured I would leave my blog alone for a few days. An epic storm changed my plans. Here we are Saturday noon and it is still coming down. I haven’t seen anything like this since the Blizzard of 78 up in Boston. It looks we are stuck in the house until, hopefully, Monday when I am due to return. The photo shows a big broken branch resting on my daughter’s car. Yesterday the grocery stores looked like an army of looters had swept through with many shelves completely devoid of anything. Nothing much to do with sustainability except to provide a couple of days with little to do but read, reflect, and admire the power of nature.

I have now seen a lot of news from Davos and the World Economic Forum. Sustainability shows up in two of ten top themes as reported by Business Week. The number one theme was a sense that the world is not in good shape. Of course, the major concern at this meeting was focused on the financial health, but issues like water scarcity and climate change found a place alongside the financial meltdown and recession. There was broad consensus that the global and national institutions need to be re-invented to cope with the complexities of a globalized community.

Sustainability was recognized as an idea whose time has come.

As one executive put it: “It’s no longer about the green economy; it’s about the economy.” Sustainability is the central issue many businesses face.” … CEOs everywhere at Davos said we’ve now arrived at the point where sustainability must be integrated into the business strategy: What is a business and how it does it operate and relate to the rest of the world? We’ll see if they walk the talk.

In a separate report coming from Davos, the author may agree with the point that sustainability cannot be ignored by business leaders, but says that there is still a lot of differences abut what sustainability means.

The disagreements aggravate the uncertainties and inconsistencies around sustainable design. If designers and the people they work with can’t agree on common standards, the quality of “sustainable” design will continue to be questionable. How can the rest of us be expected to measure the sustainable impact of the things we buy? And how can we be confident about the way in which they were designed, manufactured, shipped, and will eventually be disposed of?

The subject was designing for sustainability, a subject I certainly am always interested in. The article reported on a roundtable discussion by three of the world’s leading “sustainability” designers, who were asked to present two successful and one unsuccessful designs.

For me differences in meaning and design results were overshadowed by the inclusion of a couple of behavior-changing examples. The Japanese governments, CoolBiz initiative, broke longstanding dress codes, and got employees to come to work in very light garments so that air conditioning loads could be reduced. Reducing the stigma of breaking norms—so strong in Japan—was a key to the overall design of this program.

While important product design innovations were employed, the key element was the design of the rules of a new game. No amount of clever industrial design, such that Bill McDonough or Tim Brown of IDEO, two of the panelists, are expert at producing, will create sustainability without including innovations in the institutional context that will cause people to change their consumption habits. It will certainly help the Earth if we learn to consume better, but what it really will take is to learn how to consume less and differently. Economic growth will surely cancel green design eco-efficiency gains sometime in the future.

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2 Comments

Antony Upward said:

John, great blog, and great book - very much enjoying it - opening my mind. Is there a place to discuss the book itself?

Wondering if you know about http://www.allemandi.com/cp/ctc/ "Changing the Change - Design Visions and Tools". Seems superficially highly aligned with your definition of design - but would be very interested in your views.

Thanks
Antony

David M Carter said:

Thank you, John, for your post. The Davos report has been brought to my attention on several fronts now. Although I am pleased that sustainability issues have made the list, I can't help but feel like those of us who recognize that deep cultural change is required to see our species through are being patronized. It is akin to the dog that races into the house to inform its owner that the barn is burning down only to be petted on the head and shooed out for raising a fuss.

It seems that a hopefulness for a sustainable future based on the continuation of our capitalist/consumer culture is counterproductive. We may be able to improve things a little by steering people to more sustainable products. But, as you point out, consumerism as a primary identifier and lifestyle must be replaced with a more Earth-centric focus if we are to achieve lasting success.