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Design Is the Problem – Nathan Shedroff April 8, 2012

Posted by Arthur Che in Systems Thinking, Uncategorized.

Design is the Problem cover

Design Is the Problem: The Future of Design Must Be Sustainable by Nathan Shedroff is a comprehensive account of sustainability in the context of design. Above all, it demonstrates the responsibility designers carry and the opportunity that they have to craft a more sustainable world.

The slightly provocative title reflects a compelling realization that despite good intentions, design has contributed to the unsustainability of the world around us. Designers have often made new things when they weren’t necessary, emphasized low cost over durability, and designed in the name of short-lasting fads, all without sufficiently considering the bigger picture. For example, Shedroff points to the concept of planned obsolescence as an example of complete disregard for sustainability at a strategic level. Shedroff aims to turn this dynamic upside down, and calls for designers to integrate sustainability as a fundamental part of their overall processes. This initial challenge serves as a foundation for the rest of the book.

Shedroff lays out a clear picture of sustainability that clarifies it against vague concepts such as “green” and “eco.” He presents a systems-level perspective that values social and financial implications as much as environmental ones. Designing sustainably is a complex balancing act that requires us to step back, look at different systems, and see how they connect. Of course, this is easier said than done, and Shedroff provides numerous examples where looking at individual products simply isn’t enough. On the surface, paper bags might seem more environmentally friendly than plastic ones because they are biodegradable. However, when you factor in the increased environmental costs of producing and recycling paper bags, along with the significantly higher transportation costs due to weight, the picture becomes much less clear.

From there, Shedroff gives a review of sustainability frameworks, including Natural Capitalism, Cradle to Cradle, Biomimicry, Life Cycle Analysis, the Sustainability Helix, and numerous others. As an aspiring designer with little background in sustainability, I found these summaries extremely useful. Clearly, Shedroff has done his research and chosen a good variety of relevant frameworks from the field. My own work experiences have led me to an arm’s-length understanding that sustainability is important, but I’ve never learned the details and complexities of the topic. The meat of the book is extremely valuable for anyone with a similar lack of experience.

In particular, I was intrigued by the Cradle to Cradle framework (also called “eco-effectiveness”), which espouses a bar for sustainability in which waste actually becomes food for another process. For example, some manufacturing solutions make it possible for factories to output cleaner water than what originally went in. The Biomimicry framework looks at nature (which similarly has no concept of waste – everything is used by something else) as a model for developing better solutions. While the specifics of each individual framework vary quite a bit, together they provide compelling ways to examine societal, environmental, and financial factors and their respective impacts on sustainability as a whole.

DITP032: Figure 3.25

Sustainability frameworks juxtaposed

Shedroff goes on to provide an overview of techniques for increasing sustainability, divided into the categories Reduce (“less is more”), Reuse (increasing durability), Recycle (increasing likelihood of actual recycling, vs. being recyclable), and Restore (making “positive” rather than “zero” impact). As with the frameworks, this section of the book is thorough and well-organized, with excellent examples of each technique throughout.

While some may seem obvious, Shedroff frequently takes concepts a step further. For example, Shedroff uses the iPhone as an example of dematerialization, the idea of reducing materials and energy in our design solutions. Indeed, Apple has clearly stripped materials to the bare minimum from product to packaging, but Shedroff also points out that the iPhone has dematerialized other products entirely by combining the mobile phone with an audio player, PDA, digital camera, GPS device, watch, and e-reader. Integrating these together (and allowing people to have 1 device rather than 7) has an even greater impact on sustainability than the reduced physical materials of the actual iPhone.

DITP039: Figure 5.4

The iPhone - 7 devices in 1

Finally, in the last section of the book, Shedroff lays out a strategic innovation process and discusses how designers can bring sustainability into their organizations. The process is logical and well laid-out, and it reflects many of the ideas we’ve been learning about in class.

DITP068: Figure 16.1

Shedroff's Strategic Innovation Process

The biggest takeaway for me in the process model is the separation (and interdependence) of the corporate strategy and product/service phases. Shedroff convincingly argues that the development of corporate strategy is where sustainable thinking can make the biggest impact. It is during this phase that an organization really decides what it wants to be and how it wants to function. For a sustainable mindset to truly take hold, it must be considered by leadership at the highest strategic levels. I think one issue Shedroff could address further is the challenge of convincing other stakeholders.  Still, the model provides a guide for how sustainability can be addressed, and uses concepts such as diverging/converging and leveraging multi-disciplinary expertise to get there.

Meanwhile, the product/service development phase is critical for executing on the established strategy. Shedroff does a great job of mapping different parts of the process to the frameworks and techniques established earlier in the book, giving designers actionable, useful ways to promote more sustainability into their design processes.

Overall, the book provides a thorough set of tools for designers, but also great value to business people, engineers, and anyone else that wants to make a better future. It presents the issues along with directions on where to look for deeper dives. Most importantly, it paints a broad picture of sustainability as a complex interconnection of systems, and demonstrates how it cannot be ignored.