I read an interesting article recently, on Sustainable Growth Voice. It suggested that the sense of urgency we feel when trying to address the worsening impacts of climate change, has left us in a potential ‘doom loop’. There’s a tendency to focus on almost knee-jerk attempts to resolve immediate crises, rather than more considered and impactful solutions which might just mean we better navigate the climate storm, longer-term.
As I continued to read the article, I noted another important point — that researchers do believe it’s possible to escape the so-called climate doom loop, “…but only if policymakers focus on transformative solutions based on inclusion and collaboration.”
Then I circled back to The Engine Room’s website, and the ‘change for society’ pillar which is so integral to their brand consultancy. They acknowledge that while “some challenges just feel too huge to tackle”, in actual fact ‘Design methodologies are an effective way to reframe big challenges and address them in new ways.”
So let’s stop for a moment and acknowledge the role that designers can play. Now is the time for them to step to the forefront of businesses, public services, and communities, and be part of the solution — sparking a more hopeful narrative of what our future could look like, if we take collective action.
This is an opportunity for human-centred design to really show its mettle too. It has long been recognised for its ability to bring revolutionary products, services and more recently systems, to the fore, for the good of people, by involving people. But what about if designing for societal benefit could better protect the planet too?
After all, political scientist and Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon is renowned for saying that: “To design is to devise courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” So if good design can have positive impacts on society — individuals, communities and entire populations — why can’t it drive the change to achieve net zero, and more?
OK, we probably have to re-design nearly every aspect of how we live our lives. But let’s start somewhere. Let’s treat the planet as a stakeholder in the design process.
Human-made materials now outweigh the Earth’s entire biomass — probably one of the most stark statements we could include when thinking about this subject. We therefore need to break the cycle of designing ‘new’ all the time, and instead, evaluate what we’ve already got — what can be reused, repaired, recycled, repurposed and recovered?
I’m involved in a fantastic project at the moment, for example, where people in a neighbourhood are coming together having recognised a housing retrofit challenge. They’re acting in a design mindset and trying to make a change regarding the energy that supplies their homes, as they strive for a cleaner future for their families. Not only that, but grouping together to make their proposed solution a viable option has caused something of a movement, which is now attracting the attention of private sector infrastructure organisations. With the support of a national partner, maybe then it will be possible to lobby the Government and drive policy change from the top down, for the benefit of places everywhere.
In truth, there are hundreds of incredible examples of design being used to drive climate change action. One of my favourites is the £10m flood storage basin in Salford, and that’s because here, design’s role wasn’t to provide a solution, but to help think about the whole challenge, to break the doom loop we considered right at the start.
With a troubled history of flooding, the Council naturally started exploring the different flood defence measures that could be implemented to protect the area. Yet while there were many options available, they were typically unsightly and didn’t go any way to engaging the community. So instead, a design team posed a bigger question — what about if we embrace the floods instead? Acknowledge that nature will keep doing its thing, so what about if we create a dedicated space for the water to flow into?
And so, Salford’s urban wetland was born — a five hectare area which protects 2,000 homes and businesses in the area, while creating a wildlife habitat and park landscape for the community, and the planet, to enjoy.
This is a superb example of using design to reframe what we’re facing, shift the focus from negativity and risk mitigation, and instead instill a sense of hope as to what’s possible — increasing resilience to the effects of climate change, in the process.
Whether the driver is an organisation seeking commercial advantage, legislation enforcing progress, or a moral obligation to do better, great design can now have more purpose than ever. And now, that purpose doesn’t only benefit people, places and profits, it can better protect the planet too.
As the UK's national strategic advisor for design, the Design Council showcases the brilliant, leads on new thinking, evidences value and influences policy to create an environment for design to thrive.