Sustainable Product Creation: Design, Engineering and Behaviour
Source: Core 77
© Buckminster Fuller Institute via flickr
From “The Key to Sustainable Product Creation: The Marriage of Engineering and Design” by Dawn Danby:
These days I spend a lot of time with students and brand-new grads. They’re fired up to make an impact, and are impatient with solutions that don’t directly take on big issues like e-waste and energy scarcity. Many of them know what greenwashing is, even if they don’t know what it’s called. Young designers have been vaguely led to believe that designers hold the power. But when they set out to create green product solutions, they often fail—it’s just not work that can be done alone.
Many of the best sustainable design student projects I see come from interdisciplinary teams. A colleague and I recently coached a team of students who were designing a new refrigerator. Half of the team was made up of UC Berkeley engineers, the other half product designers from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. The engineers investigated technologies like thermal battery innovations, essential for creating a high-efficiency appliance. But they were developing a mass-market product, not simply a new technology. The designers focused on user behavior, cultural context, aesthetics and ease of use. To succeed in the Mexican market, any environmentally friendly technologies had to be affordable for everyone. The biggest waste in fridges, though, isn’t necessarily solved by new technologies: it’s in addressing the huge amount of cold air that pours out when the door is held open. The team’s final design incorporated an insulated window and quick access tray that allows users to ponder, and then to pull out the food they use most, without opening the full door. All of this keeps the fridge closed longer, which saves energy by preventing the cold air from escaping.
Technical solutions can be dreamed up by scientists and clean tech engineers, but the viable projects incorporate beauty, form and human factors. Consider the BioLite stove, which addresses the in-home air pollution problem faced by half the world’s population. In aggregate, this is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Their HomeStove reduces fuel consumption by half, cuts smoke emissions by more than 90 percent, and improves the health of the whole community by nearly eliminating black carbon soot.
Design researcher Dan Lockton has made an exhaustive study of how to understand and adjust behavior, with an emphasis on social and environmental benefit. Lockton’s free, downloadable Design with Intent Toolkit is full of provocations for rethinking a product’s interface, such as “How simply can you structure things, to make it easier for users to do what you’d like them to do?” This is where design can excel: make it easy to switch a computer into a low-power state; make it obvious how much water is being used to fill a bath; or eliminate the option of having a TV remain in standby, “vampire power” mode.
You can design for more complex behavior, too; designing for product lifetime can help slow waste streams and allow recyclers to recover valuable materials. By providing product teardowns and guides on how to fix most common electronics and mobile devices, iFixit’s entire mission is encouraging repairability and long life for electronics, all of which is determined by the way that they’re designed.
I signed up to study industrial design in 1997, in a fit of inspired frustration. I’d freaked myself out on tours of landfills and road trips through forest clear-cuts. Squinting into the future, the design community seemed like it secretly held the reins. I believed that ecological design could change the world—all we seemed to need was the will, and some better data. As a student, I worked on projects that hooked into ecology in obvious ways: salt marsh conservation, degradable food packaging. Looking around at the time, there wasn’t much to see. Bamboo furniture, and a meltscape of recycled plastics: sustainability seen only through the lens of picking greener materials. “You’ll never find work if you’re interested in the environment,” said one well-intentioned teacher. And that’s the main difference between then and now. Engineers develop the technology for green products, and design makes them sing. For this generation of designers and engineers, this is the work worth doing.
Read the full article by Dawn Danby on Core 77.