Global Designers Share Their Perspective on Making Sense of the Complexity of Sustainable Design [Service Design Global Conference 2022]
The Service Design Network (SDN) has brought together service designers from around the world since its founding in 2004. As a non-profit, they focus on driving growth and innovation in Service Design and leveraging connections to create a thriving design community.
Every year, the SDN holds a Service Design Global Conference, a fully hybrid gathering of hundreds of designers from all over the world. This year the conference was held in Copenhagen, Denmark, and my colleagues and I joined remotely from Tokyo.
This years theme was “Courage to Design for Good”. In a period of unprecedented global crisis, especially with regards to the climate, it was an exciting opportunity to join the conversation and hear what designers around the world have to say about our future.
Design leaders, students, and academics spoke on climate change, equity, inclusivity, and the power designers wield to make positive change in the world. Below, I’ll highlight just a few of the inspiring speakers who shared their thoughts.
Leyla Acaroglu: Activating Agency
The first speaker at the conference was Leyla Acaroglu, Australian designer, sustainability leader, and founder of Disrupt Design and Eco Innovators. She has been named “Champion of the Earth” by the United Nations— and for good reason. Acaroglu has spent her career leveraging the power of design to solve ecological problems.
Setting the tone for the conference, she focused on the mindset of designers and how that mindset can be altered or amplified to create lasting change for good. Here are a few interesting takeaways:
- Design actually creates a lot of problems that we don’t see until after implementation. For example, the inventor of plastic bags was trying to help with the deforestation caused by paper bags, assuming people would reuse plastic bags over and over (in the 1950s). Clearly that is not what happened, and this “solution” has had unintended negative consequences.
- Designers love parameters and constraints— they are what help us make sense of complexity. So, designing for sustainability should be in our nature— we have a set of exhaustible resources in the planet, and we need to design within those constraints.
- Saying that we’re doomed reframes everyone as thinking that the future is decided, when in fact it is not. We can, to a degree, control our futures through out decisions.
- How can you transform the way companies offer value? “We need solutions that add value to the economy understanding the losses that waste has built into it” Creating wasteful solutions is a loss of value for everyone. We need to create solutions that acknowledge this, and acknowledge that truly sustainable solutions end up adding more value to businesses, and the world.
- Generally speaking, modern education is reductionist. This means that instead of learning about things as a whole, or a system, we learn about individual parts. For example, we learn about parts of a cell (mitochondria, etc.) separately from when we learn about the anatomy of the body. This way of learning in turn encourages a linear economy, an idea that is fundamentally flawed because it ignores the connections between elements.
As you can tell, Acaraglu covered a lot of ground and left us with a lot to think about. She finished her session on an important note—
“We as designers should be solving the problems today that will become tomorrows solutions. All of the problems of today were somebody’s smart solution in the past.”Leyla Acaroglu
Mansi Gupta: Designing for the Missing Half
Sustainability is about more than our natural ecosystem— issues of diversity and accessibility are also deeply intertwined with the success of a sustainable society. Mansi Gupta, founder of Unconform, and leader in the world of design for women, gave an enlightening lecture on the ways in which design often intentionally and unintentionally ignores womens’ needs. Just as Leyla Acaroglu mentioned that the problems of today were somebody’s smart solution in the past, Mansi Gupta reminded us that designers may be creating more problems than solutions when they disregard the perspectives of their users. Oftentimes, those disregarded perspectives are female.
“Design research can be clouded by dominant perspectives and can anchor on what exists instead of imagining what could be.”Mansi Gupta
Gupta introduced several ways to reevaluate how design impacts women:
- Be conscious of “the woman-centric eye”:
- Solutions are often created for problems that don’t actually exist for real women, and problems are invented to make women feel they need a solution— this is often seen in cosmetics. Since childhood, women are often exposed to images of “perfect” skin and figures that many women grow up to think are normal. Products are then created to help fill this “need”.
- Fitness and yoga apps fail to acknowledge menstruation, pregnancy etc
- Women are often only considered in the design process in products that are made specifically for women, despite the women use all sorts of products and services
But not all hope is lost. Gupta offered a pathway towards better design for women, through several non-negotiable principles to keep in mind when designing for women:
- safety — safety is, unfortunately, a primary concern for many women around the world and must be kept in mind during the design process
- trust gap — we tend to see women associated with innate risk aversion, imposter syndrome, and a lack of confidence, but these traits actually stem from being repeatedly failed by the system
- biological differences — these include professional path differences, gendered responsibilities, time poverty
- the role of community — women have collective struggles, and thrive by learning together rather than being told what to do
- the role of men — part of the problem, part of the solution, who should hold part of the burden
Louise Vang Jensen: What’s Next versus What’s Valuable: Ethnography in a Future-Focused World
Louise Vang Jensen is one of the few speakers at the SDGC who was not a designer, but an anthropologist. Her academic focus is on ethnography, and the ways in which ethnography can be used in design.
She posed an important question— what is valuable to us, what should we hold on to, and what must we let go of as we prepare for the future?
Often, we are tasked with thinking about what will change. But Jensen brought up an interesting idea— what if we focus instead on what won’t change?
“In an uncertain world, the safer bet to futures might be to explore, identify, and invest in what will most likely not change.”Louise Vang Jensen
She focused on three points, to reinforce the idea that to truly prepare for the future, we must also take a look at our surroundings.
- Identify and invest in the values most likely not to change.
- Technologies might change fast, whereas human needs might not. Innovation is not just about seeing what’s new, but seeing what’s there in new ways.
- Embracing the ethnographer’s ability to uncover nuances of the present to spark positive change and set direction for desirable, sustainable futures.
Her way of thinking brought an interesting perspective to a day full of talks about designing for the future and solving complex problems. Any issue, from motivating people to take action on climate change, to designing for gender equality, can be reframed and solved for by considering what elements of our uncertain world might not change and can be leveraged.
Something that struck me throughout the conference was the coupling of realism and a positive outlook. Many people talk about the need to act more sustainably, and to work to better society. It is easy to feel bogged down and overwhelmed, or for the future to seem out of our control completely. I was struck by the overall optimism, the actionable insights, and the idea that through design and research we can still make real positive impact.
At Neuromagic, it is our goal to act with courage and to disrupt through the leveraging of our collective impact. Please feel free to reach out if you are interested in being a change-maker in your organization, town, city, and the world at large via sustainable transformation.
Elena is passionate about systems thinking and designing for equity. As a strategist, she works with the Sustainable Transformation (SX) group to research, identify key insights, and develop strategies that can propel organizations’ sustainable transformation.