Design, Sustainability

Report on design thinking and sustainability

Posting has been light here the past few weeks, partly due to most of my writing energy being focused on my project report on Design thinking and sustainability (PDF 1.5MB), my first major assessment for the Master of Sustainable Practice postgraduate degree I’m currently undertaking at RMIT.

The summary of the report is:

Media coverage of the impact of ʻdesign thinkingʼ – also described as ʻhuman-centred designʼ or ʻservice designʼ, among other terms – on business and society seems to be on the increase, with much of the discussion focusing on its application to innovation practice.

Simultaneously, the need for business and public services to integrate socially and environmentally sustainable practices is becoming more urgent and important to address pressing issues such as climate change, resource scarcity, environmental degradation and growing social challenges and perceived deterioration of community.

This paper briefly explores the impacts of design on business before providing a working definition and overview of the key themes of design thinking. It then outlines commonly recognised environmentally-focused sustainable design principles and considers how design thinking could be applied in support of these.

Although a (non-exhaustive) review of specific examples of design thinking applied to environmentally sustainable objectives was undertaken in preparation of this paper, such examples are relatively few. As such, while specific examples are touched upon, the primary focus of the paper is on the potential application of design thinking in this context.

While academic in tone (it is a uni assessment after all) and relatively long (20+ pages), I thought it might be of interest to some readers of this blog given the topic/focus.

As is often the case with this sort of things there are elements I’d improve/extend if I had more time – particularly I’d like to provide more than just passing comment to the link between sustainability and innovation – but I do hope the result provokes some interesting and beneficial dialogue.

I’d also like to publicly thank the following folks for their support through inspiration, conversation, experience and pointers to examples and resources before and during the preparation of the paper:

6 thoughts on “Report on design thinking and sustainability

  1. chrisgaul

    People talk about design moving from fashion and graphics into education curricula and public policy. But all of these things are already being designed. Politicians are policy designers, educators are curriculum designers. Also talking about the increased role of design is problematic: the problem is not that design is not occurring, it’s just that it’s not always being done well. Certainly facilitating better design is an important role, and perhaps people like yourself or Penny are best described as design educators or mentors. Business strategy is a design outcome. Society is a design outcome. Fundamentally, every conscious decision is an act of design. To paraphrase Paul Watzlawick: ‘one
    cannot not design’.
    I also wonder if we can all drop the ‘design’ from ‘design thinking’ and just call it ‘thinking’, because that’s fundamentally what it is! If people give a bit of thought to the things they are designing, reflect on why they are doing it the way they are and how they might do it better, it would go a long way to getting our feet out of bureaucratic molasses and overcoming the ingrained ‘we just do it this way’ mentality that stifles direct and human centred problem solving. All these design tools are simply the result of thinking “how we can do things better?”. I reckon that’s the question at the heart of better design, and consequently better public policy, better products, and a more sustainable, healthy and harmonious society.

  2. Thanks for such an insightful response Chris.

    Your point re: design happening already is very important – it’s something that I recall the authors of Nudge making as well in relation to “choice architectures” – that even when someone tries not to make a choice, they often inadvertently make the choice for the end-user.

    My philosophy of practice is that we facilitate conversations that result in better design – sure, we bring experience and a certain degree of expertise to the table, but our most valuable role is helping people to find solutions within themselves. Thus we explore interactive workshops and co-design approaches in our work. Very much aligned with Manzini’s “enabling solutions” and “creative communities” thinking (though I only just learnt about these in preparing the paper).

    While I agree in principle, I think that the “design” in “design thinking” is an important distinction that needs to be made. There’s lots of “thinking” that happens – meetings, conferences, policy frameworks etc. – that are very much devoid of the human-centredness that design thinking (in my loose definition) entails. But, your point is well taken :)

    Thanks again. G

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