Mother Earth Living

A Case Study: Green Design

John Thackara, director of the sustainable innovations company, Doors of Perception, explains how the design industry can accelerate the green economy.
By John Thackara
July/August 2009
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The waste generated in a consumer economy used to be hidden. The energy and resources needed to produce buildings and products remained out of sight and out of mind. But new tools have increased transparency and enabled researchers to measure energy and resource flows properly for the first time.

Within a system that has a finite carrying capacity, the optimal strategy is to design away the need for more stuff and to focus on regenerative design. A huge amount of creativity is needed to reorganize daily life in ways that eliminate landfills and ecologically damaging footprints. But the stuff we will still make—products, services, infrastructures—must be designed according to tough new principles: low-carbon, resource-efficient and zero waste.

Step one: Map assets

A first step should be to find out what assets and resources are already in your region. These assets could include wind and sun, which have the potential to generate energy; materials and the skills needed to use them; abandoned spaces that could be repurposed; and food systems.

The asset maps will gradually replace many of the maps used by planners or economists. These tend to focus on hard things such as roads or buildings. Sustainability asset maps should make natural and biodiversity assets their starting point, putting special emphasis on biodiversity and bioregions, foodsheds and watersheds, or geographical locations where we can harness sun and wind.

In mapping such assets, it is important to represent the interconnectedness and interdependence of systems. This is where creative design skills will be valuable. New forms of representation are needed to communicate energy and nutrient cycles and to show the ways healthy social systems depend upon, and are intertwined with, healthy economies and ecosystems.

The human assets of communities (people) need to be mapped, too—especially those engaged in valuable but sometimes invisible innovation at a grassroots level.

Step two: Connect locally

When I was asked recently by the management consulting firm McKinsey to explain where the world’s primary centers of innovation will be, my answer was simple: down your street, and down everyone’s street! Social innovation is all around us. By some accounts, there are 1 million grassroots environmental organizations out there. The better-known examples have names like Post Carbon Cities or Transition Towns. Such groups are emerging fast in many parts of the world. Wiser Earth lists more than 110,000 of them.

Most elements of a sustainable world already exist. Some are technological solutions. Some are to be found in the natural world. But the majority of solutions are social practices that have evolved in other societies and in other times. From this insight flows the proposition that designers should become hunter-gatherers of models, processes and ways of living that may already exist. Rather than design new services and systems from scratch, we need to ask: Who has cracked a similar question in the past? How might we learn from, adapt and piggyback on their success?

Step three: Use new language

We all struggle with the word “sustainability.” There is no agreement on what the word means, and besides, it sounds boring and unattractive as a destination. The word “eco-design” has a more precise meaning, but only for professionals.

Like “sustainability,” the word “design” is often a barrier to conversation and tends to trigger more negative reactions than positive ones.

So let’s use some new words! For example, Van Jones, the founder of Green For All,  uses phrases like “green collar jobs” and the “green economy,” because they connect with what people are thinking about (jobs) rather than what we would like them to be thinking about—sustainability or design.

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