Designing for Sustainability

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Projections show that 5.1 billion people will own mobile phones in four years time; nearly 1 billion more than do so today. And as mobile phones and other devices become more prevalent in both developed and developing economies, so will cloud computing and storage applications continue to flourish. On a daily basis I collaborate, store and share files with my Central Saint Martins classmates and colleagues on platforms such as Dropbox, Google Drive and iCloud. While technology continues to evolve and push the way we communicate, collaborate, and make, it is important that we are equally aware of that same push on our planet. As a new generation consumes and works with technology, how are the arts and design practices responding to the impact they have on the environment?  

Perhaps it is because our digital devices don’t expel fumes like automobiles do – or because the “cloud” branding exudes immateriality, lightness and airiness – that we seem oblivious to the fact that the widespread adoption and use of technology is most certainly leaving an impact on our planet. Last year, on the Digital Present blog, Jo Morrison wrote about the physical implications of data centres; heavy polluters of the environment. As Jo underlined, the choices that IT companies make have a significant impact on our physical environment. Yet, without uncomfortable reminders of the environmental factors tied to technology, it is easy for consumers to ignore or simply remain unaware of its effects.

A designer using digital devices to showcase work - Image: Authors own

A designer using digital devices to showcase work – Image: Authors own

However, reminders of the powers that tech companies hold, and the physical footprint they leave can be found. For instance, earlier this month, following a surge of speculation around large barges being built by Google in the harbours of San Francisco and Portland, Maine, a spotlight was placed on the issue. One of the many theories supposed that the barges would function as giant data-centres to be used in international waters. It was later revealed that they are actually going to be used as showrooms for Google X projects like Google Glass, but interestingly, as explained by the Financial Times:

In a playful touch typical of Google, the barge, along with an almost identical one at an earlier stage of construction in Maine, are registered to a company called By and Large. This is an apparent reference to Buy n Large, the fictional mega-corporation in Pixar’s animated movie Wall-E that dominates governments and causes so much pollution that humans are forced to move into spaceship colonies.

– Nov. 1, 2013, “Google barge sends wave of speculation to San Francisco bay

While companies like Google continue to grow in both size and influence, so to does their environmental impact. And as the growing adoption of digital devices suggests, the use of technology and associated platforms for sharing and storing data will only increase in the coming years; no longer a trend, it is commonplace.

A Google Barge in Portland, Maine - Image: Flickr

A Google Barge in Portland, Maine – Image: Flickr

In addition to the impact of data-centres, our digital product life-cycles have become shorter as well. Exerting their influence on consumers desire over need, the tech gadget industry is in a competitive sprint to design and launch the next ‘best on the market’ mobile phone, tablet, computer or smart watch.

However, according to London School of Economics visiting scholar Carlota Perez, growth in today’s age rides on our ability to innovate, with “design for durability” as a focus point. And this innovation, she says, requires institutions to be “bold and imaginative”, warning that technology alone will not bring growth:

The truth is technology has been so impressive that we have become convinced that it’s disruptive innovation that brings growth and success. It does and yet it doesn’t. History can teach us a lot. Innovation has always been the driver of growth and the main source of productivity and wealth. But bubble prosperities polarise incomes.

– March 13, 2013, “Sustainability is the new Space Race


So, with these environmental/material implications and also possibilities in mind, what role can design play in the future? What opportunities do the role of the creative professions have in shaping the way products and services are produced and consumed in the face of reduced product life-cycles?

These questions and more were raised at The Design Museum’s recent exhibit The Future is Here. Centred on the ‘revolution’ that is transforming the way we design and produce objects, the exhibit attempted to bring together the varying discussions around 3D printing, crowd-sourcing and open source technologies.

The Future is Here at the Design Museum - Image: Authors own

The Future is Here at the Design Museum – Image: Author’s own

Considering 3D printing in particular, important themes around sustainability were highlighted. As the possibilities suggest, 3D printing will enable smaller groups of people and even individuals to make and produce products and parts, which may perhaps slow down the rate of object obsolescence. On the flip side, the exhibit also considered that these same possibilities could tempt us to discard products even more quickly, as we may just as easily make new ones:

There is a growing belief that domestic 3D printers will one day be commonplace. If so what will they be used for? Will this generate a stronger bond between us and our consumer goods, resulting in more sustainable products that we use for longer? Or will we be more tempted to throw things away if we can easily make something new?

What is the ultimate impact of giving everyone the power of production? Could this begin to dissolve the power, authority and control exerted by governments and large corporations? Is this the start of deregulating the production of our physical objects and should we be concerned about individuals creating dangerous products at home, such as weapons?

– “The Future is Here?” – excerpt from the exhibit

In the case of digital devices alone, the exhibit brought together multiple elements in the discourses of sustainability and product obsolescence: closed-looped design, recyclable materials, experimentation and speculative products in life-long tech devices.

At a time when the life of a mobile phone is more likely to be measured in months than in years, let alone decades, the design industry can play a vital role. By using principles such as closed loop production designers can help to make the most of the planet’s finite resources.

– The Future is Here, “A Sustainable Revolution

For example, products using ‘natural loops’ use materials that can be broken down or even decompose, returning to the environment from which they were sourced.

Another form of closed loop design is multiple loops systems. Perhaps the most realistic, given our current rates of consumption, multiple loops help us return products to an additional or alternative other use.

– The Future is Here, “A Sustainable Revolution

One of the more experimental projects on display was Wandular, a product designed by Engage by Design that responds to technology’s role in our daily lives, while attempting to address product sustainability and life-cycles. In a modular format and featuring a digital core – a small marble-sized object – Wandular adapts to our different needs over the course of our lives, as we learn and grow and as technology (and product design) evolves and changes. The product highlights important issues around consumer needs vs. desire: we will certainly ‘need’ to use digital devices in our future, however do we need to update or change them as often as we do? Can design, innovative materials and new methods for bespoke or limited-run manufacturing allow our products to become more tailored, personal and durable?

Wandular - The Future is Here

Wandular – Image:

The support Wandular received from Forum for the Future (a not-for-profit working closely with business and government on sustainability agendas) and the Design Museum’s partnership with the Technology Strategy Board (a UK public body reporting to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) on the Future is Here, we see examples of Carlota Perez’s call for institutions to be “bold and imaginative” when it comes to innovation and sustainability. Across CSM we are exploring aspects of sustainability through multiple lenses, such as the Textile Futures Research Centre that asks ‘How can materials and textiles enable a more sustainable future?’, the Sustainable Jewellery Show, and 2012’s Rubbish Duck project.

There are multiple ways that present and future technologies might impact upon our world. As this article has attempted to illustrate, the possible environmental impact on our socio-technical futures is varied and evolving. As such, it is vital that each new generation of designers and makers understands the potential consequences – environmental and otherwise – of their choices. In this sense, how students are equipped with the ability to make informed decisions about the sustainable adoption of, and approaches to, technology is a requirement of our exploration of what it means to be digitally literate in an arts and design setting.

Further Reading & Exploration:

Jo Morrison’s piece “Information Factories: A role in shaping our energy future“:

Financial Times, “Google barge sends wave of speculation“:

Wired, “Sustainability is the new space race“:

The Design Museum – The Future is Here

Wired, “Become a maker at London Design Museum’s 3D printing ‘factory‘”:

Ellen MacArthur Foundation:

Forum for the Future:

Technology Strategy Board: