What Is Sustainability?

Design is in great transition, thankfully. Tra­ditionally, design has been practiced with a focus on appearance, whether it is represented in graphic, interior, industrial, fashion, furni­ture, automotive, marine, or any other kind of design. In truth, design has never been merely about appearance, although that’s been the most prominent phenomenon throughout its history. In addition, other disciplines use the word “design” to describe other functions, such as structuring databases, systems, servic­es, or organizations (further confusing its use and meaning). But there have been moments in design’s past where truly great designers showed us that design was also concerned with performance, understanding, communication, emotion, desire, meaning, and humanity itself, even though these haven’t been the most last­ing movements.

Ultimately, this is the design that I want to speak about in this book—design that encom­passes the synthesis of usefulness, usability, desirability, appropriateness, balance, and sys-

tems that lead to better solutions, more oppor­tunities, and better conditions, no matter what the endeavor or domain.

In the end, there is no reason that great design can’t be beautiful and meaningful and sustain­able.

Sustainability, too, isn’t well defined—even by its own practitioners. To many, it is syn­onymous with green (not that green is any more clear) or eco, meaning the environment. To others, it connotes bleeding-heart nou­veau hippies, who seem more concerned with plants and animals than people. Sometimes, it’s portrayed as a way to promote old, flawed economics as a way of ensuring “business as usual.” Often, it’s a threat to a way of life that can only, possibly, mean less of everything. Or it can be interpreted as a rational blend of con­straints both large and small and a way to serve

1 The term green has become so problematic that Adam Werbach, CEO of Act Now Productions, suggests using blue instead. This alludes to a natural color that is devoid of hippie overtones, friendly to business, and is ubiquitous on the planet (the sky). www. saatchis. com/birthofblue

human needs on all levels, as well as those of other systems.

Sustainability means more than all of this. It refers to human and financial issues as much as environmental ones. The systems perspective inherent in sustainability encompasses cultural impacts as well as ecological ones, financial constraints as well as physical limits, and heri­tage and legacy as well as a perspective about the future.

The most agreed-upon definition of sustain­ability comes from the Brundtland Commis­sion^ and dates back to 1987:

(Use and) development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Put simply: Don’t do things today that make tomorrow worse.

There, that doesn’t sound so silly, or dumb, or dangerous, does it? It sounds like common

2 For more definitions of sustainability terms, consult the Dictionary of Sustainable Management.www. sustainabilitydictionary. com

sense. Unfortunately, designers have been very bad about this. The fact that engineers and politicians and marketers and accountants and business leaders and educators and everyone else have been equally bad doesn’t absolve us from this reality—or our responsibility.

An even deeper meaning to sustainability points to the need to restore natural, social, and economic systems (and the effect they’ve had on society, nature, and markets), and not merely “fix” them to make them perform better. This concept of restoration will be addressed later in this book, but first, let’s be sure we un­derstand how to fix the systems themselves to reduce the damage created and to stop it from advancing.

The essence of this definition, which may not be obvious immediately, is that needs aren’t just human, they’re systemic. Even if you only care about humans, in order to care for hu­mans, you need to take care of the system— (the environment) that you live in. And this environment doesn’t include just the closed

system we call the planet Earth. It also includes the human systems we live in— our societ­ies—and the forming, changing, and constant­ly evolving values, ethics, religion, and culture that encompass these societies. We aren’t sepa­rable from each other, and we can’t ignore the effects of the whole—nor should we. Indeed, that’s where much of the humor, cleverness, and fun lie. To take a systems perspective ac­knowledges that individual perspectives don’t necessarily speak for or represent the whole when talking about the environment, the economy or markets, or any aspect of society. Yet, to take systemic action requires that we act in concert with others, despite our differing approaches. This is what makes sustainability difficult. It is also what poses the biggest de­sign opportunity.

Sustainability, then, needs to address people (known collectively as “human capital”), our cultures, our needs and desires, and the envi­ronment that sustains us (known as “natural capital”), as well as the financial mechanisms (known as “financial capital”) that make most

forms of design thrive. Solutions that don’t en­compass or work in concert with others across these aspects of our lives significantly reduce their ability to succeed. Therefore, designers need to find ways to address all of these issues in their solutions.

Updated: September 23, 2015 — 8:42 pm