Turning Circles – Sustainable Design Thinking

Increasingly, we are being asked by clients how they we can help them to make their businesses greener. What this actually means is changing. A few years ago, material or aerodynamic performance were at the forefront of clients’ minds. Environmental friendliness could be achieved through improved engineering. Green products would stretch our resources further. These days though, the challenges our clients are facing require deeper, more profound changes to not only their products, but also their services and even business models.

There are many reasons for this and incidentally, it is worth noting just how many corporate presentations feature pictures of Greta Thunberg these days – proof positive to even the most jaded cynic that individual actions can snowball and have massive effects.

Doughnut Economics Diagram, Source: Kate Raworth and Christian Guthier/The Lancet Planetary Health

Not uncoincidentally, we’ve been reading Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth recently. It is well worth the time of any designer who wants to understand the assumptions that have led us, sometimes unthinkingly, down the path to a ‘growth at all costs’ mindset and how we can reframe our systems to build new economic and social models that respect the natural constraints of the planet we live on.

Most designers are used to designing within a system. These can be the existing manufacturing processes of a client, their business models or customer expectations. Constraints are good. Constraints can drive creativity. As Raworth explains in her book, globally, the constraints we are faced with are quite simply, the capacity of the natural systems of the Earth to support life and what is needed to make those lives safe, healthy and dignified for all of us. And this, means not taking out more than we put in.

Circularity then, is a vital component of a sustainable financial and social system. This poses interesting challenges to designers. We need to design products with a view to what happens at the end of their life. More often than not, this could well mean designing for repair and re-use. And this is an interesting notion, as for some things this seems like a challenging re-framing – We have got dangerously used to practically disposable consumer electronics, doomed to biennial obsolescence due to the speed of technical advances and the difficulty of upgrades past a certain point. In some cases however, upgrading even centuries-old designs with the latest technology is par for the course. We are already doing it without even noticing.

Jaguar Classic E-Type Zero Interior. Picture: Jaguar Media

In a thought-provoking article for CarDesignNews recently, Aidan Walsh examined the idea of ‘responsible cars’ and how designing vehicles with an awareness of these environmental issues might change their appearance: no more oversized exhaust pipes and perhaps even less leather in the interior. Intriguingly, he also suggested that perhaps the most sustainable way of creating a new car might be to take an old one and update it – something that has been finding a niche of late with a growing number of specialists in the electrification of classics and oldtimers.

Kolumba Museum by Peter Zumthor, Cologne. Picture: HPSchaefer, Wikimedia

Some of the most striking works of architecture are the result of adding new extensions or elements to older buildings. What would it look like if we did this for cars and how much would we want or need to change them to be able to call them ‘new’? In fact, do we really need to, or would ‘newer’ be just as good?