Design for Planet 2021

Published on: 3rd December 2021

From the 9th to the 10th of November, the Design for Planet festival was held by the Design Council at the V&A Dundee, and as a virtual event online. A wide variety of speakers gave presentations on all aspects of sustainable design, from the philosophical to the practical. There was no shortage of hard-hitting statistics, and every talk was imbued with the gravity of the situation. However, rather than succumbing to feeling insignificant in the face of the scale of the crisis, the speakers chose to focus on the agency and hope found in the power of design.

In a sobering kick-off to the second day, Professor Kevin Anderson of Manchester Environmental Research Institute emphasised that the climate emergency is more urgent than ever. “It’s not an uplifting talk,” he said as he introduced himself, “but my job as an academic is to say it as I see it, not how other people would like to hear it.” He painted a bleak picture of catastrophic natural disasters, floods, droughts, wildfires, and declining air quality worldwide. If we want to have a good chance of limiting the temperature increase to 1.5℃ above pre-industrial levels, we need to reduce our emissions to absolute zero by 2030 – far removed from the goal of net zero by 2050. Although the planet has undergone climate change before and bounced back, it has never been caused by humans, and it has never happened so devastatingly quickly. In one talk, the speaker explained how scientists were analysing the rings of trees to attempt to find the exact year that we entered the “Anthropocene” – the period in Earth's history when humans started to have a significant impact on the planet. Regardless of which, the planet will outlast us. As many speakers pointed out, this is not solely an ecological crisis, but a humanitarian one.

The human cost of the crisis was a running theme, and was further highlighted by Finn Harries in his talk Another World is Possible. Heart wrenching footage showed how the consequences of our complacency are already hitting the poorest communities the hardest: homes destroyed, lives lost, and quality of life reduced. Displaced people who are migrating en masse due to climate change related disasters have been termed “climate refugees”. The seventeen-year-old activist who gave the opening speech of the event told of a young girl who recently became the first person in the UK for whom air pollution was officially listed as a cause of death. “Her being black was not coincidental,” she said. “In fact, in the UK, black African and Caribbean communities are disproportionately subjected to high levels of air pollution, especially in our big cities.” Cut between clips of natural disasters in Harries’ documentary was a soundbite of Greta Thunberg addressing a crowd: “the lives of the many are being sacrificed for the luxury and the convenience of the few.”

Speaker after speaker stated in no uncertain terms that radical, systemic change is necessary, not just an afterthought or lip service. None of them were without hope; even Anderson’s grim statistics showed that if the top 10% of global emitters were forced to cut their CO2; footprint to that of the average European, with the other 90% of the world making no change, this would result in a reduction of one third in global CO2 emissions. However, the crisis always seems to be relegated to someone else’s problem, as the straight-talking Leyla Acaroglu pointed out in her closing keynote. Examples of this were illustrated throughout the other talks – corporations shift the onus onto consumers to take the focus away from themselves; BP coined the term “carbon footprint” in the early 2000s while they were under pressure to change their environmentally harmful practices. Retailers protest that they cannot sell sustainable products if no-one will buy them, but consumers can only make sustainable choices if those options are accessible. Designers, whether they work for clients at a consultancy or as part of an internal design team with KPIs, feel that their hands are tied by commercial concerns. Governments have the power to enact the necessary drastic policy changes, but they will not. Meanwhile, those who are suffering the most are those who have contributed the least to the problem – the Global South, future generations, and the planet itself.

Speakers acknowledged that most designers care deeply about the environment, but feel powerless and insignificant in the face of the scale of the problem. The result is apathy and disconnection. Perhaps, then, a more useful question than “whose problem is it?” is “what can we do?” Rather than speaking in terms of guilt, CEO of the Design Council Minnie Moll, among others, spoke of agency, power, and responsibility. “Design shapes the world,” said Moll, “and it has been part of the problem. It is part of the problem that has brought us to the brink. So it’s got to be part of what saves us.”

Below are a few strategies discussed by various speakers at the event which could be tools for designers to start putting this into practice.


Treat the planet like a client

“Now, I’m not naïve,” said Moll in her opening speech, “I know that designers need to have clients; I know that businesses need to make money. But we absolutely have got to challenge the brief. Design for planet makes planet a key client. So, if you will, the planet is sitting in a chair at the table.”

The message was clear: it’s time to take responsibility and start acting as if the planet is a stakeholder in every project, including the aspects which are not visible to the consumer. Crucially, clients will need to be on board if this is to be successful, and the Design Council provided resources to use as tools to start the conversation early in the design process. The sustainable choice is not always the easiest or cheapest option (although it should be noted that efficient manufacturing often saves money as well as carbon emissions), and there may be cases where there is an information gap in public perception as to how and why novel solutions are sustainable. However, one would hope that starting from genuinely and consistently working to be good stewards of the planet, rather than greenwashing, could to lead to greater trust in the brand.


Make sure we’re solving the right problem

To use an illustrative example from an interactive workshop at the event, the vast majority of a smartphone’s emissions occur during its production, with published figures ranging from 82% to 97% for a typical two or three year use phase. As such, frequently touted strategies such as avoiding charging the phone overnight to save energy will not be nearly as effective as simply using the phone for longer before replacing it. Using a smartphone for five to seven years can reduce COemissions per year by an impressive 28-40%. Another speaker shared statistics showing that an organic cotton tote would need to be used 7,100 times in order for its cumulative climate impact to be lower than that of a single use plastic bag. This same story is repeated in different ways throughout different design projects, as the most intuitive solution is not necessarily always the most beneficial. By taking a step back, gathering unbiased data, and considering which questions to ask, we can choose the most effective strategy and make the most of the available resources. 


Move from linear thinking to circular thinking

The circular economy, which was defined as “eliminating waste and pollution, circulating products and materials, and regenerating nature,” was the focus of several presentations. Speakers drew contrast to the linear model of “extract, use, discard” which has been the default since the industrial revolution. Given that the planet’s natural resources are finite, the consensus was that the only option was to adopt a circular approach on a systemic, societal level. Simon Widmer from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation presented this as an “innovation lens” through which to redesign both individual products and entire business models, and shared case studies and resources from the foundation’s website. Sophie Ellis, Director of Circular Economy at the RSA, impressed upon the audience the importance of gaining a thorough understanding of what actually happens to products at the end of their lifecycle so that it can be properly taken into account at the design stage.


Work within existing systems; design for now

There is a tendency, when discussing how to combat climate change, to lean towards the science-fiction, idealised solutions which are unlikely to become feasible until the distant future. For example, a fully realised, accessible bus network is likely to be a more effective use of resources right now than renders of hydrogen powered driverless cars and electric mag-lev trams. It is true that new technologies and materials emerge all the time, and these have the potential to be ground-breaking. However, many speakers covered simple steps we can take to work creatively within existing infrastructure, such as designing for longevity, reparability, and disassembly, choosing recycled and readily recyclable materials, and minimising the different types of materials within one product.


Don’t reinvent the wheel

A favourite anecdote of Engineering Design lecturers is that of the space pencil: during the space race in the 1960s, NASA supposedly spent years and a small fortune in tax dollars developing a ballpoint pen that could function in zero-G. The Russians, allegedly, used a pencil. The story is little more than a myth and a parable, but the point stands.

In her talk Design for the Next Billion, Payal Arora gave insight into how, in spite of being scapegoated by the Global North, the Global South have been exercising principles of frugality, resourcefulness, stewardship, and collaboration for decades, if not centuries. She spoke of how these principles are being talked about now as if they are new ideas. Similarly, the track talk A Just Transition highlighted that in failing to consult indigenous knowledge, we miss out on a wealth of understanding. Even in the Global North’s relatively recent history, it was the norm to repair possessions when they break, source materials locally, and so on. One size does not fit all projects, but by asking questions without assuming that our “default” methods are superior, we can learn a lot. All of these things may seem ambitious to us in our convenient, disposable consumerism, but they are not fantastical or magical. These futures that we are imagining have existed before.