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Sustainable Innovation 06: Dispatch from Chicago
Dawn Danby, 31 Oct 06
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Sustainable innovation and design is a team sport. While designers, engineers, and the rest of us can come up with ideas, others often decide what gets made. Our clients and companies, however, are frequently our directors as well as our collaborators, and often determine if and whether sustainability is an evil hippie trend or a strategic edge. This tension over how, or whether, to make green products - real ones, now, no cheating - makes for a really interesting set of conversations, which is what Jeremy Faludi and I came to Chicago to hear more about. For the first time, the Centre for Sustainable Design brought its annual conference, Sustainable Innovation 06 (or SI06), out of the UK and Europe and to Chicago - a city that is trying its best to become the greenest city in the United States.

A few weeks ago, Joel asked, "where are are all the good, green products?" Some of the issues have to do with developing and finding nontoxic, gently-sourced materials. But just as often, they have to do with language, and people, and business models, and money.

But who makes the decisions? Who holds the power to make this real? The big picture news here is no news at all to you: climate science has mainstreamed, and business is paying attention. As JohnPaul Kusz said, it's time to "Put aside my objectivity, and bring my humanity into the discussion."

There's also a new approach in the role that designers can play when acting as an integral force in charting a company's direction. "We're charged with navigating disruption," said Peter Nicholson of Chicago's Foresight Design Initiative. "We can no longer afford to ignore the interconnectedness of things." In this sense, one of our roles as designers is to instigate ideas and then guide people through. Much of the recent talk about 'design thinking' is in many ways about an approach to problem solving, using designers' tools (and not necessarily designers themselves) to come up with good ideas and crafting a strategy for the future. And yet most practicing designers are still learning about sustainability. We've been hiding these discussions from view by damning them to academia for too long.

Traditionally, designers respond to criteria that gets set from above, and this generally means that they're not strongly empowered. Here, on the outer reaches of sustainable design wonkery, "ecodesign" becomes a word for a weak position. (This is a little disappointing, actually: ecodesign is nicer than a raft of tight little acronyms.) It's a question of power and scale. Contrast an independent designer's small line of recycled-plastic or reclaimed-wood furniture with Herman Miller's ability and commitment to demand non-toxicity and recyclability in all of their doings, setting tremendous goals for zero wasted material and water, and green operations. Design, at this larger scale, means choreographing supply chains, knitting in marketing, chemistry, consumer behaviour, and all sorts of other disciplines.

In the wider field, Martin Charter, who's been setting up this conference for over a decade, notes that the Chicago Climate Exchange, and Terrapass are things that now exist and work. We're crossing over into a space in which we can actually point to real things instead of wishing for them. If anything, this is why the tone at this event has changed so dramatically in the four years since I last went. Over coffee, several people at SI06 have said that many of the ideas that we're discussing aren't brand new at all - they've been saying the same thing for well over a decade. Sure, the databases are better; awareness is creeping into mass media; we're smarter at doing things; companies have more tools. The real newness is in uptake of these ideas by the decision makers.

Some more highlights...

  • Hunter Lovins talked about scores of tipping points, saying "Wal-Mart is the fall of the Berlin Wall." (We're all, of course, waiting to see. As we well know, this is a contentious subject).

  • Neil Tierney sees sustainability as being synonymous with excellence. Tierney, whose incredible work with Lightweight Medical and Element 06 in Glasgow/London has made his team a powerhouse in sustainable design, believes that the key is in how you motivate people: designers want nothing more than to make good design. In his work Tierney gets people, especially young designers, not only excited about sustainability, but also capable of pulling it off. (Check out their latest product, the neo-capsul incubator.) Sustainable, after all, is just the most pure form of good design, and Tierney simply reminds his designers that if their work is thrown out at the end of its life, it's rubbish, and it never was any good to begin with.

  • It's easy to get enamoured by technology. But change rarely hinges on new tech alone. Fred Steward runs the ESRC Sustainable Technologies Programme in the UK, which looks at the way that new tech gets integrated into society. How does tech come about, anyway? One familiar streak in our culture seems to hope and hold out for crisis, betting that only a disaster will spur on real, or radical, changes. But it's really hard to find examples of this kind of deterministic thinking actually leading to good, fast decisions. "Crises", says Steward, "don't deliver things in themselves," and don't necessarily lead to positive change. Our examples of radical change are rare, and not as quick and deliberate as we'd like to think. The Thames, for instance, was horribly polluted by raw sewage for decades while London residents debated whether or not it was an actual crisis in need of attention. Steward did some gentle mythbreaking about the speed of change. Political figures consistently pay lip service to "revolution" provided that it comes in the form of technology. This implies that you can somehow separate radical technological change from social transformation. In this light, incrementalism can be faster moving than radical change.

  • Our own Jer Faludi did a great, energetic talk on the Biomimicry Design Portal, which is conceived by the Biomimicry Guild and RMI as a connector and database for linking biomimetic approaches to design, engineering, and the sciences. Because there's no perfect ontology for human knowledge, the portal translates between multiple category schemes. This enables people to search outside their disciplines, to cross-pollinate, track amazing innovations, and contribute to an Open Source platform for biomimetic knowledge.

  • One of the pitfalls of designing for sustainability is that we chronically avoid talking about consumption. TNO's Peter Joore asked the key question, the elephant in all these rooms: can the long-term needs of society be combined with short term commercial solutions? His solution is to create niche experiments for the future. Pretend there's a new law or regulation and then design for it. Backcast abstract future projections to needs of future product users. Design for that user and take impacts back up to abstract system-level (theoretically or in reality) to gauge success/impacts.

    More from SI06:

  • Sustainable Innovation 06: Green to Gold
  • Sustainable Innovation 06: Resilience
  • Sustainable Innovation 06: Sun's Green Computing

    (Thanks to Jeremy Faludi for collaborating on running notes.)

    (All photos are c/o the Centre for Sustainable Design, who organized the event. Taken by Laura Flanigan of Foresight Design, Chicago)

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