Corporate sustainability has become such a catchphrase in recent times that you'd think the business world had single-handedly reversed climate change, fostered world-leading social cohesion, obliterated third world poverty and the impending food crisis! The scary thing is the plethora of product, services or businesses marketed without any context or objective science to be 'natural,' 'efficient' or you guessed it...'sustainable.' In reality, we find that the majority of corporate clients engaging the Centre for Design (CfD) are somewhat baffled about the how, what, where, when and who of sustainability. That's why we have started using a combination of streamlined Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) techniques and collaborative design thinking to develop context-specific sustainability strategies. This process is now referred to by CfD as the Double Diamond method of LCA and Design Thinking (Figure 1), and appropriates the design process of convergent and divergent thinking presented by the UK Design Council (2005).
Figure 1 - The Double diamond method of LCA and Design Thinking (click for larger image)
In a previous article for Core77, we looked at the power of streamlined LCA in identifying the ecological impacts prospectively; retrospective LCA has been utilised as an objective scientific method to identify environmental impacts widely within the corporate sector. The Double Diamond method utilises streamlined LCA as a tool to address impact areas, prior to focusing on more articulate sustainable design solutions. The key challenge that this new process attempts to address is the large gap between the seemingly unsurmountable scale of unsustainability and initiatives employed by your average John Smith to reduce their own ecological impact. For example, "if every Australian household switched to renewable energy and stopped driving their cars tomorrow, total household emissions would decline by only about 18%" (Dey, Berger et al. 2007, p. 291), what of the remaining 82% of emissions?
A major aged care provider in Australia, Uniting Church Aged Care (UAC), approached CfD in 2010 to help design sustainability across the business, a perfect base to launch the Double Diamond method to explore the relationship between ecological impacts and daily operations prior to proposing a 'Sustainability Opportunities' design.
What are the Impacts in an Aged Care Context?
First, we attempted to identify all potential global warming impacts that could occur in the delivery of aged care with LCA. The impacts were estimated using 'Input/Output' LCA . The organisation's accounts from the previous year for one aged care site were categorised into economic sectors that can then be attributed to an environmental impact. The functional unit to measure the environmental impact was 'One bed-day to a certified standard of care' with a system boundary excluding capital infrastructure. The results of the LCA estimated that each bed day of care emits 42.8kg CO2-eq global warming impacts, the carbon dioxide equivalent impacts from various greenhouse gases. This estimate is equivalent to 26 trees required to absorb the greenhouse gas emissions per resident per year. The distribution of impacts is shown in Figure 2, electricity and gas contributed almost half (49%) with food as the second highest driver (40%).
Figure 2 - Drivers of climate change impacts per bed day to a certified standard of care
What Practices Matter Most?
The convergent interpretation of the LCA identified environmental impact hotspots, highlighting a Pareto like principle in that 25.2% of the UAC expenditure (electricity and meat consumption) account for 62% of the global warming impact. In the interpretation a move was made from scientific data to day-to-day practices. This transitioned to three themes:
1. Capital purchasing decisions - procurement of appliances and capital
2. Thermal comfort - providing comfort through heating and cooling
3. Food and diet - nutrition to menu planning and meal preparation
UAC's initial key concerns were highly visual such as paper use, disposable rubber gloves or the high number of incontinent pads (3% of the global warming impact). LCA identified areas previously not considered such as food (40% of the global warming impact) that had a far greater impact.Co-Development - Why are Practices as they are?
The critical link now was to connect to the everyday organisational practices associated with major impacts. The stage was broken into two phases—defining and designing. Key stakeholders were engaged and included in divergent co-development workshops, both on-site and remotely (video link). The first workshop focused on defining—or as master educational theorist John Dewey once said, "a problem well put is a problem half solved." This involved an open discussion of key points including understanding everyday practices that lead to resource consumption, the impact and cost of not changing, and the scale of unsustainability (if we were to become 'sustainable' what might that mean)? Discussion identified opportunities for positive practises to be amplified and negatives practices to be re-orientated.
Workshop participants, on-site and remote
Capital purchasing decisions
Precedence existed for retrofitting items to improve performance (such as installation of blinds to reduced glare)—and capacity existed to amplify the present ad hoc approach to retrofitting through policy. A desire to reorientate from decentralised to centralised procurement also existed—attaching an efficiency agenda to the purchasing presented energy and financial savings. How capital could potentially be created to finance projects was introduced through a case study of Woking Council in the UK (Thompson 2007) where reinvestment of savings from efficiency gains were placed into renewable technologies. The discussion engaged not only in what could be, but how this could be created.
Capital equipment installation analysis
It became clear that the present system was not satisfying all of the residents or staff. Some staff were too warm in areas residents were not present. Through the first workshop it was identified that high care residents may be kept warmer through personal as opposed to space heating. Adaptive comfort temperature settings were discussed (they use a slightly higher thermostat in summer, and a cooler setting in winter) when combined with zoning (turning off) areas not in use—savings can be made with the existing infrastructure.
Thermal comfort scenario
UAC already consulted with residents and families for menu planning and had strong relationships with suppliers (to the extent that they may change serving sizes from suppliers to reduce waste). An existing framework could be expanded to include a discussion around low carbon diets. Several sites are currently in the process of completing 'plate waste' studies, wasting less food is the first fundamental principle in reducing your environmental impact from food (Rutherfurd, Tsang et al. 2007) and is a practice that can be amplified. Case studies of how existing catering companies developed low carbon menu planning were presented.
From Defining to Designing
Where workshop one had established a list of practices to amplify, or reorientate, the second workshop focused on designing—exploring the variety of ways and scales that this could be achieved. This explored differing levels of interventions i.e. minor and major, no cost to low costs, short term and long term factor ten improvements (90% reductions in carbon and resources). Ideas were recorded and most desirable identified (see below).
Potential solutions energy and thermal comfort. Click for larger image.
The workshop ran on the premise that ideas are most powerful when developed from the inside out, not from direction didactically. Ownership is generated through an engagement in the process. Our observation was that this workshop was very similar to running an ideation session in a design studio—except participants were not designers. The facilitators of the workshop had skill sets in management, energy efficiency, engineering, accounting, social practice theory and design which proved invaluable in validating the queries raised by participants. This support cannot be underestimated. Sustainability is often requested in the form of an easy to use informative web page or tool. We would argue that if you wanted to build a bridge, or complete a corporate financial plan—you would not consult a webpage, you want an expert engineer or financial planner. Design firms have a process, they also employ hot designers and thinkers. Sustainability is no different.
A 'Sustainability Opportunities' Design
The concepts identified in the participatory process were transformed into an environmental 'sustainability opportunities' design, scaffolding the viable ideas generated and presenting a theoretical model for a 54% reduction in global warming impacts in the provision of aged care over a ten-year time frame (as illustrated by Figure 7), equating to around half the trees (12) needed to absorb these emissions per resident per year. Strategies included:
Food related strategies; revised menu plans, reduced plate waste, and trialling community gardens as a medium to discuss food related impacts and increase thermal comfort, health, well-being, etc.
Energy related strategies; monitoring to identify areas of 'wasted' electricity, seasonally adjust temperatures, reduce the temperatures of non-use spaces, and increased focus on energy efficiency in the near term. In the longer term energy generating fuel cells that produce electricity and hot water and solar panels were mandated.
Tying the plan together was a financing strategy that scaffolds the implementation of individual strategies across time. Initiatives with lower capital cost and short return on investment are funded first, with the savings from the efficiency improvements re-invested into future projects.
Sustainability Improvements Opportunity Plan. Click for larger image.
Technologies, prices and markets change—UAC now took ownership of the plan to manage these fluctuations. The transition towards sustainability cannot be a fit and forget solution; it is a learning process that needs to take effect across time (Manzini 2003, p.1). This phase is arguably the most important, and also the most difficult. UAC have indicated that they are already progressing in two of the three areas in food and thermal comfort.
LCA has an agency that design thinking in Australia may not have at present. The opportunity to complete such a project was dependent on the open mind of a client not entirely sure how to develop 'sustainably.' Throughout the project a tightrope was walked between framing the seriousness of unsustainability and being optimistic enough for an organization to visualize a design solution more sustainable and desirable.
The really interesting part of the process however was how to strategically place the design processes in order to amplify the outcomes for the client. People with diverse backgrounds (some devoid of design) were brought together to effectively become the design team. Like a typical design outfit, they brainstormed, thought outside the square, thought big, back casted, iterated, and then brought it all back to a cohesive, elegant solution to be implemented and procured as their own, strategic design outcome.
Using streamlined LCA in a holistic manner as a prospective tool, as opposed to a reflective exercise, was central in framing the problem of unsustainability, with the connection between LCA results and the day-to-day practices required to make decisions meaningful. Ezio Manzini notes the focus on day-to-day practices enables one to 'use what exists' (Manzini 2002, p.9) from the organization—as opposed to 'building' sustainability through new projects. In the end, the designer in all of us is good at making things and improving upon the state of an existing system—be that an artifact that needs to coordinate multiple criteria into a central outcome, or a sustainability opportunities design.