Last month at Core77's Third Wave conference, panel moderator, Leigh Christie of MistyWest, asked the audience how many of us in attendance had heard of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). Among the scores of professionals gathered there, only a smattering of hands went up. Christie reacted with noticeable surprise, then remarked on the increased stakes of the panel discussion about the UN SDGs that he was imminently moderating. I, too, was perplexed by the lack of awareness in the room. In this era of human-centered design, I've found that to be in the company of designers, is often to be in the company those who are looking for ways to better life (while surely they exist, I have not yet met a designer who is totally ambivalent to the impact of their work). It is not difficult to find designers who are keen to tackle issues like gender equality, accessible healthcare, ethical production, urban sustainability, clean energy, etc. All of which, are SDGs, (#5, #3, #12, #11, and #7, respectively).
The coincidence makes sense, as most of us are aware that there is much to be addressed in these areas. For much of the last century (at least), industrial design (along with the rest of industrial practice) has largely been unconcerned with the ways in which production has exploited humanity and has accelerated ecological collapse. The SDGs aim to channel our collective awareness towards the development of a future that is more sustainable, or hopefully less colossally destructive (because most of us don't have much of a choice at this point). In setting out their "supremely ambitious and transformational vision" for the world in 2030, the UN created this set of goals that nations, corporations, and even individuals might use as a map for our collective visions of the future. With that in mind the SDG, can be a guide, a language of collaboration, and even a basis for the future of industrial design practice.
Or better yet, present design practice. As many designers have already used the goals as guiding principles for their work. Among the panelists at that UN SDG discussion, designer, Sandra Moerch of SAP, made the point that focusing on a particular goal can often and inevitably lead towards design solutions that have broader benefits for people and society. For Moerch, empowering women, and advocating for rights internationally, is not only about gender equality, but it is also about bringing innovation to different industries and bringing about fair labor with economic growth (#5, #8, and #9). The goals give direction but are broad enough that they can enable creativity and exploration.
Within this framework, universities have also begun to observe the UN SDGs as tools for design education, and as a means of explaining the world that students are designing for. Currently, the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts (KADK), in Copenhagen, is host to a design and architecture exhibition that asked students to design their projects in accordance with the UN SDGs. For the last 3 years, degree projects have been required to address the goals in some way, the school does so as a way of "systematizing" the sustainable projects students were already producing. Additionally, the school sees the application of these goals as a means of seeding a "a new Danish growth sector driven by innovative products, solutions and strategies for a sustainable lifestyle and societal arrangement."
Alisa Larsen's project "Vertical Life" proposes that biodiversity can be cultivated and facilitated by making space for plants and insects upon drainpipes in urban environments.
Emil Holck Reimert's project, "Gazelle" is focused on using old manufacturing techniques to ensure that the chair lasts longer, and is less susceptible "wear and tear."
Wooden joints are used to maintain the chair's strong structure.
This reasoning is exemplary of why having this set of goals for development can have far-reaching impact. Even if you are aware that these issues need to be addressed, using the language of the UN SDGs, can signal to other designers, other businesses, and investors, that the ideas outlined by the goals are critical to development going forward. The UN SDGs are ready-made for industrial designers. It is a set of problems to be solved. It is their scope, that requires our collective efforts to bring about meaningful action in these areas. At the very least, the goals can be a reminder. If you find yourself going through these goals and realizing your work exists outside of these hard-to-argue-with ideals, maybe its time you reexamine the future you're designing for.