As social, economic and ecological conditions continue to worsen and with the increasing sophistication and connectivity of information technology and social media, design for sustainability is now moving towards a new qualitatively different area of exploration: designing to build adaptive capacity. Its been almost 10 years since McDonough and Braungart's ground-breaking book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things set the standard for sustainable design: toxic-free closed loop material cycles, use of renewable energy in manufacturing, post-consumer separation of biological and technical materials and service and flow takeback programs by manufacturers. [Ed Note: Don't miss our recent Q+A with Braungart on Designing a New Material World.]
Emily Pilloton lays out design for sustainability 2.0 in her excellent introduction to her 2009 book Design Revolution. In "Design Can Change the World," she brings social sustainability to the forefront by adding a human-centered, activist, user-friendly approach that expands the environmental focus from how we build things to the social question of what we should be building. Core77's Allan Chochinov's foreword to Design Revolution describes moving beyond good design to design for good, reinforcing the argument for design activism.
Similarly, recent projects like Ecovative Design's EcoCradle—packaging material grown from fungi and agricultural byproducts and Open Ideo's online multi-disciplinary platform for the collaborative design of social good—demonstrate the persistent power of Cradle to Cradle and design activism to inspire effective sustainable design. Designing to build adaptive capacity does not replace our current state of the art but adds a new layer of intention and concern that deepens our sustainability efforts and continues to reinterpret the role of designers in the sustainability movement.
DESIGNING FOR RESILIENCE
Designing to expand adaptive capacity means creating objects, templates and platforms that allow people and systems to survive and even thrive in a complex and uncertain planet. In a world increasingly shaped by peak oil, global warming, economic uncertainty and environmental disasters (Deep Water Horizon, Pakistani floods, Fukushima), designers are coming to grips with how to help users create local resilience and self-reliance. In fact, the concept of resilience has become an important term that designers are just now grappling with. An emergent property of systems that is related to the "longevity" tenet of sustainability but qualitatively different from its "no impact" focus, resilience is concerned with cycles of change and positive adaptation. Resilience thinking integrates social and environmental factors into a holistic framework that helps users prepare for —or even take advantage of—shocks to a system.
In their 2006 book Resilience Thinking, Brian Walker and David Salt explain the concept of the four phases of the adaptive cycle: rapid growth, conservation, release and reorganization. They argue that building adaptive capacity based on resilience, not optimal efficiency, allows systems to absorb and prepare for external disturbances without crossing thresholds that shift to another regime. Designers need to consider differentiated, integrated strategies for change rather than rational, efficient strategies that maximize and exploit the growth of early stages. These growth-focused systems certainly yield more substantial paybacks but at the expense of resilience, such that they are more prone to massive shakeups after significant fluctuations. As Salt and Walker explain, "any proposal for sustainable development that does not acknowledge a system's resilience is simply not going to keep delivering goods and services. The key to sustainability lies in enhancing the resilience of social-ecological systems, not in optimizing isolated components of the system."
ShelterBox, Disaster kit for 10
Design for resilience, which has surfaced at the burgeoning conjunction of environmental science, localism and business scenario planning, is just now beginning to appear on designers' radar and can be implemented on many different levels. At the most practical level, ShelterBox can help a group of ten survive major disaster for a prolonged period. Transition Towns are popping up all over the globe as people begin to redesign their cities in response to the rising cost and resource depletion of fossil fuels. Forage movements, permaculture projects and farmers markets are all examples of ways of building resilient food systems. After recent government interference of communication systems in the Middle East, resilience thinking led designers to consider how to create decentralized, localized Internet and cell phone systems, not just new, faster and lighter versions of the old models.
DESIGNING FOR RESOURCEFULNESS
Like resilience, resourcefulness is another major part of adaptive capacity. Resourcefulness allows people to create, obtain and maintain necessities for living using less resources and energy. Advances in mobile collaboration and social media allow us to conceive of a design for resourcefulness, providing new solutions through user capacity to access helpful information and make more effective and sustainable consumer decisions. It confronts hyperconsumption by helping us rethink our relationship to our things as we decide to build, share and repair the things we want and need. Designers are creating resourcefulness through the construction of information-rich, networked, shareability models that connect us to borrowed, used, shared and reviewed resources—significantly reducing our dependence on new, expensive and wasteful products. Wikipedia and Kickstarter are great examples of a collaborative, ever-expanding, user-as-creator approach. Goodguide.com brings sustainability labeling to point-of-sale decision-making with their new iPhone app. Shareable.net, SwapTree and other companies like them help create a world of shared offices, kitchens, tools and bikes.
These technologies help us create an entirely different relationship to materials. In her TED Talk, Rachel Botsman discusses this collaborative consumption model arising from the innate need for community, peer-to-peer technology, environmental concerns and economic recession. Lisa Gansky's TED talk introduces us to a social/mobile/mapped Mesh world of pop-up stores and P2P car rental. Ezio Manzini's Sustainable Everyday Project has worked for years in Italy designing social innovations for creative communities. This whole new model of consumption demands new forms of design. We can envision designers creating share-ready products and platforms that build upon the trust mechanics and mobility mapping applications needed to support swap trading, collaborative lifestyles and redistributive markets.
MakerBot, open-source 3D printer
Designing to build adaptive capacity invites us to reconsider what it is to be a designer. In most cases it is a collaborative effort in which designers become participants in living, breathing systems, not curators of objects. Products are not made to be sold to one end user and the users are not passive consumers but makers, tinkerers and sharers in their own right. Design for DIY invites a different way of approaching design. We make things that help people make what they need themselves, such as MakerBot's open-source 3D printer, above.
As we all know, sustainability is a journey not a destination. In the design world we are well down the path—from environmentally benign design to design activism to design for adaptive capacity—to the extent that designers are not only taking responsibility for their designs but pushing the creative edge of manufacturing, social innovation and business models towards more effective, complex and subtle manifestations of sustainability. Collaboration, systems and connectivity are the watchwords of the day. Resilience and resourcefulness are characteristics that are emerging from the work of layered, networked, information-rich communities of designers. Meta design reminds us that the discussion is shifting from design for to design with—design with nature, design with systems, design with collaborative communities, design with stakeholders.
While our new information age continues to deplete social and ecological resources, it has made us more empathic. We are wired to care and share and are using precious hydrocarbons to evolve our connectivity to one another and our planetary boundaries. This expanded socio-ecological empathy is the future of sustainable design. In a sense, we are trying to knit together communities and systems as fast as they fall apart in an accelerated dialectic of the entropy and empathy that should ultimately serve as a deep source of creativity and inspiration for all designers of sustainability.
Michael Sammet is a sustainable design educator. Sammet teaches the Sustainability Studio in California College of the Arts' MBA in Design Strategy program, Sustainable Design courses at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and in the Sustainable Practices Certificate program at Dominican University. He created the Professional Program in Sustainable Design at UC Berkeley Extension in San Francisco. He has presented his work at West Coast Green, the EcoCity World Summit, Esalen, and Burning Man and is the co-founder of Design Renaissance, a biannual sustainable community design event in Santa Cruz. He hosts a weekly talk radio program in Santa Cruz on AM 1080 KSCO, featuring interviews and discussions about sustainability, spirituality, politics, culture, and social activism.