Rich Gilbert's Energy Trumps, a creative tool to think about energy at the start of the design process. They provide a fast visual reference for embodied energy to facilitate easy comparison of materials.
It is normally taken for granted that economic growth is vital for maintaining economic health, but research has shown that wellbeing depends less on material goods than on our lifestyles. The New Economics Foundation in the UK publishes a global Happy Planet Index, which measures the combination of environmental impact and wellbeing, to quantify the environmental efficiency with which—country by country—people live long and happy lives.
So what can we as educators do to enhance those valuable skills that designers have and get them using those skills to redesign not only the products that we buy but also the lifestyles that we live and the systems that organise our lives, making them better for people? Design education needs to position itself in such a way that designers are trained to design good customer experiences with the lowest possible environmental impact.
Conventional design education trains designers to drive consumerism, which drives growth, and is the established way of achieving prosperity; like many art and design institutions the Royal College of Art is beginning to grapple with the apparent contradiction in the sustainability debate, and is looking for ways to encourage students to explore what this might mean in both their work and their future lives.
But search the list of studio-based departments and MA courses on offer at the Royal College of Art, and you won't find one called 'Sustainable Design'. This is deliberate: we teach in disciplines because we believe that the role of the College is to help every studio-based student to become a better, more thoughtful, more informed, more articulate, more aware artist or designer within their specialist discipline, with a recognisable personal voice that they express both in their practice and in the way they reflect on that practice. We encourage learning, research and debate on environmental, social and political issues: every student needs to consider the environmental and social impact of his or her work.
Designers who have in-depth practical and theoretical expertise within their discipline are equipped to move successfully into other areas, and sustainability is a key area. We aim to educate designers to be 'T-shaped', as Tim Brown says: 'They have a deep knowledge in one field, but every project they do forces them to branch out, so they are in the unique professional position of actually knowing lots about lots of areas. They are able to explore insights from many different perspectives and recognise patterns of behaviour that point to a universal human need.' Teaching sustainability within the design disciplines is supported by a culture of sustainable practice, which includes the annual Sustain Award and exhibition, and a series of high-profile lectures.
While some may argue that radical change is going to be needed—something that is quite beyond the control of humble designers, who have never played any significant role in economics or politics—Tony Dunne, Head of Design Interactions, says: 'The students who join Design Interactions already have an excellent attitude towards sustainability and the ethical dimensions of what they do, they are less materialistic and more politically and socially motivated. Change will happen when people refuse to buy unsustainable stuff. If it sells, it will continue to be manufactured. In Design Interactions we encourage our students to aim their designs at people not industry. We believe that designers can play a valuable role in the difficult but necessary process of changing consumer attitudes and values by articulating new desires and dreams. We ask our students to design for how the world could be rather than for how it is now -- to be idealistic.'
Ben Faga's redesigned beehive, If You Build It, They Will Come..., reconceptualises man's relationship with nature and traditional models of husbandry. The hives break traditional models of beekeeping—which promote maximum honey yield—and instead encourage bees to swarm.
Our designers are problem solvers whose skills have been nurtured to solve industrial and commercial problems. We face now some of the biggest and most wicked problems we have ever faced, and students are coming to design colleges because they feel it is the right cross-cutting environment in which to address real-world challenges. Clare Brass, Senior Design Tutor in Innovation Design Engineering says, 'In the two years that I have been teaching design, the number of students who want to address aspects of sustainability in their work has increased exponentially. And the students are brilliant. They have really got a grip on the challenges of sustainability, and they understand the need to come up with systemic solutions rather than just products or services.'
Rich Gilbert's Embodied project looked at how we tackle the long tail of our energy consumption, the 35% of the UK's energy that goes into making our material world. The project developed tools for understanding the energy in our material world, from cataloguing and calculating the embodied energy for everything the designer owns to creating ways of visualising the energy shadows of our goods. The outputs from the project, The Megajoule Challenge and Energy Trumps, are a set of ways to think about energy at the earliest point in the design process, where it can have the most significant impact.
There is a parallel shift in the world around us. It's true that not everyone in the country believes in or even cares about environmental issues. But at least climate change is a talking point now. It is firmly in the mind of the public. The Stern Review was a critical turning point for sustainability, and now the UN report on biodiversity will hopefully have a similar impact. More and more professionals are waking up to the issues and realising that they can do something about it in their professional realm. Sam Livingstone, Senior Tutor in Vehicle Design, says, 'There is a powerful imperative to teach sustainable design within the vehicle design discipline, because it is so evident to the public that much of the industry is not sustainable. Our students today must become designers who will turn the "sustainable car" from oxymoron to reality, create ways of travelling that tread lightly, and embrace the possibilities of materials and processes to create truly sustainable vehicle design.'
David Seesing's visionary Symbiosis project aims to connect architecture and transportation into a self-sufficient system that generates and utilises green energy. It breaks down the accepted separation between domestic dwelling and vehicle, and makes use of a conceived symbiotic relationship between them to create power for both the vehicle and the building, minimising the energy impact of both.
It is true the challenges of sustainability are desperately complex and more than any single profession can ever take on. But good universities—like the RCA—are multidisciplinary hubs, and hold within them the brightest and most committed individuals in the country, from all different backgrounds. Gareth Williams, Senior Tutor in Design Products says, 'We take sustainability seriously and accept that it is a complex, contradictory issue. Last year we ran the 'No Energy' project, in which we asked our students to consider a world without conventional energy sources and to imagine the impact, supporting them with talks from leading designers, architects, artists and environmental campaigners. Many of our students were extremely taxed by this project, because the sustainable imperative seems to close so many avenues for them: it is hard to be a designer of furniture and products that have negligible environmental impact. We encourage our students to internalise the imperative for designing sustainably, so it is a natural aspect of their process rather than an add-on, and to think about how to maximise the positive impacts of their designs, to design for the best possible performance and greatest social benefit.'
Seongyong Lee has radically rethought traditions of material use and making, combining a known fabrication process (recognisable in cardboard packaging tubes) with a new material (plywood), to create Plytube. This is a new method of tubing wood, based on the cardboard packaging tube but with additional processes to harden the wood. Plytube can be fabricated to a specified diameter, thickness, colour and type of wood. It is very light, strong and long lasting and suitable for all kinds of tooling and wood finishing. Ultimately, it could also be used as an architectural material as well as for life goods.
Changing the focus in design education to sustainability is not a fantasy, it is a perfectly achievable imperative. Our future depends on the fine-tuning of our social and environmental systems, and re-thinking the education system to concentrate on this is the ultimate design challenge.
The Sustain exhibition is at the RCA from 23 September—7 October. The Sustain lectures are monthly from October 2010 to May 2011. For more information, see www.rca.ac.uk/sustain.
Clare Brass is Senior Design Tutor in Innovation Design Engineering at the Royal College of Art and co-founder of SEED Foundation—Social Environmental Enterprise + Design. Octavia Reeve is Publishing Manager at the Royal College of Art, and co-organiser of Sustain.