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.

| July/August 2009

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.

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