Written by Nepal Asatthawasi
Images by Natalia Argüello and Colleen Rae Smiley
The theme of the Designers Accord Town Hall on October 28th, 2010 - organized by interactive design studio More Than Us and design entrepreneurship non-profit NYDesigns and held in the gallery space of the former in Long Island City, NY - centered around "Designs + Sustainability + Profitability." The speakers were given a pretty wide berth on what they could address between those lines. Moderator Neil Chambers, a green building expert, Treehugger blogger and author of the forthcoming book Urban Green: The Future of Architecture, captured it best in stating that "Green issues, design issues, money issues and their intersections are going to give us a good idea of what business will look like in the future."Neil started off by elaborating on his belief that the future of design will cohere around sustainability, energy and ecology - and woe unto those who ignore those trends. In terms of profitability, we are far from reaching opportunity's saturation point. Currently there are 6000 LEED buildings. In ten years, we'll have an estimated 40,000-50,000 LEED buildings. That sounds like a lot, but compared to the total number of commercial and residential new buildings, that's weak. In terms of architecture, Neil is convinced that the profession is still overly concerned with "how it looks" and not enough with how it can perform technologically. Letting go of that will open up new paths towards competing successfully in the new reality.
Duane Bray and Daniel Goddemeyer, Partner and Senior Interaction Designer, respectively, at the New York offices of IDEO, followed up with an example of representative IDEO projects that mobilize collaboration to drive engagement with sustainability forward. They presented Open Ideo, a recently established online platform seeking public participation in the design process through inspiration, concepting, and evaluation. A recently closed project was a Jamie Oliver challenge that drew attention and ideas to the question of how we can raise kids' awareness of the benefits of fresh food so they can make better choices?
IDSA New York Chapter Chairman and former IBM staffer Stephan Clambaneva took the conversation in another direction by suggesting adapting the problem-solving theory TRIZ into the process of creating a sustainable product. TRIZ posits that there is an ideal end result for every problem. Can there also be an ideal sustainable product? If so, then each company has to start by comparing their process to those in the same industry regionally and globally and define and contextualize what sustainability means to them. A systems approach can also be helpful in looking at sustainability questions from the perspective of hidden costs and opportunities.
Don Carli, a Senior Research Fellow with the nonprofit Institute for Sustainable Communication, started off by passing around a t-shirt. Unlike other t-shirts, he explained, this one - which is used by the Institute as a thank you gift for its supporters - addresses and corrects the economic, social and environmental (un)sustainabilities embedded in a production process: the water consumption of industrial cotton farming, the economic exploitation of workers in the developing world, water pollution from the fabric dying process, and the harvesting of new resources despite available recycled options. The medium, he argues, can be the message. And increasingly, there will be regulations to ensure that your green marketing is in fact aligned with your practices. Don also pointed out that the Federal Trade Commission was now finalizing a new green guidelines document for the marketing of sustainability and encouraged everyone attending - and all of you out there - to weigh in. What stunned our audience? The fact that 37,000 Americans did not associate sustainability with environmental performance but with durability. Food for thought.
J. Grossen, Creative Director at Frog Design, approached the marketing of green from another angle. There are currently so many "green" choices out there that consumers "don't really don't give a shit" - at least, about the truly sustainable product. The challenge for designers is how to convey the narrative of sustainability in new, engaging and clear ways so that consumers do pay attention again - and exercise their understanding at point of purchase. At the same time, companies can discover new channels of profit if they examine those points in distribution, manufacturing, etc. that can make a product better for both the consumer and their own bottom lines.
Mary Howard, owner of Design Technologies LLC, which helps companies with sustainable products get funding, presented Suncirc, a biodegradable eco-dining line, as a case study of the challenges in taking unique sustainable products to market. Three tips: Show investors the money, both in operations savings and in potential demand; echoing J. Grossen, the benefits must be clear to the consumer; and lastly, know your certifications - they are tricky things.
Last speaker Bill Horgan, a Partner at Grimshaw Architects, disagreed openly with Neil's assertion that aesthetics are dead in the movement towards greater sustainability in architecture. He cites Grimshaw's own work in intersecting the cutting edge of sustainable technologies with new architectural forms, most notably the Eden Project in Cornwall, England. He explained how performance and financial considerations led to the design of a series of geodesic domes clad in inflatable foil that is soft but strong. Grimshaw has had a lucky succession of clients with unusual briefs, and Bill notes that it is usually the risk-taking clients who move design and sustainability forward.
The term sustainability by itself remains vague until the context is defined. Are we talking about social, economic, environmental sustainability, some of them, or all of the above? The speakers at this Town Hall ran the gamut of these topics, making a persuasive case that a dedicated approach to sustainability must balance multiple fields of engagement while keeping profits and mission in sight.