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Design for the climate: the role of design in reaching net zero

​Opinion | 12 November 2021

An empty workspace with a chair, desk and plants arangaed

Dr Katie Beverley, Senior Research Officer (Ecodesign Centre), PDR

"There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few…by creating a whole new species of permanent garbage to clutter up the landscape, and by choosing materials and processes that pollute the air we breathe, designers have become a dangerous breed...and the skills needed in these activities are taught carefully to young people ". 

The words of Victor Papanek in his 1972 book 'Design for the Real World' - familiar to thousands of design graduates.  It is tempting to believe that modern design is only about making more stuff we don't need, from more resources we don't have, and generating more pollution we don't want in the process - but design can be a powerful agent for positive change.

In 2020, an Arts and Humanities Research Council Fellowship found me investigating the role of university-based design in supporting the UK's net zero objectives.  I discovered a thriving community of design researchers, practitioners and educators, not least here at Cardiff Met, who envisage the net zero transition as a design problem and apply their creativity to generate innovative climate-positive solutions.  Three key characteristics of their research and practice enable them to have the greatest positive impact on climate change; but a fourth limits the extent to which we can catalyse a more sustainable future.

Design for the climate is systemic, it doesn't simply focus on the products about which Victor Papanek was so dismissive. Classical ecodesign strategies are still important - recently PDR's Josh James saved the emissions associated with 40,000 cubic metres of closed cell polyethylene foam going to waste simply by redesigning packaging for one of our commercial clients - but the scope of design research and practice has shifted in recent years to encompass services, processes, business models, systems and policies for the transition of entire sectors or regions where the potential benefits of interventions are much greater.  From product/service business model concepts for Orangebox, through optimising the design and manufacturing processes of Sevenoaks Modular's timber-framed low carbon homes and Clwstwr's work with Ffilm Cymru to lower emissions from the Welsh film industry, to developing an action plan to make the entire design sector in Scotland more circular, our design academics and practitioners are instigating systems-level change.

People have always been at the heart of Cardiff Met's design approach - as our recently-established Global Academy in Human Centred Design attests.  Typically, human-centred design has been focused on the experience of the person who is using a product or engaging with a service; but design for Net Zero requires us to use the same approaches to engage more deeply with a broader range of stakeholders and the complex interactions between them that result in system change.  In the recently-concluded Horizon 2020 PRESTIGE project,  we developed a design approach that engaged stakeholders across the value network - end users, product owners, component suppliers, materials scientists and design specialists in the goal of creating more sustainable products and services.  Meanwhile, In Cardiff School of Management, the team behind CIrcular Economy Innovation Communities has developed a human-centred innovation programme that encourages our public and third sector participants to co-create sustainable solutions to public service challenges with both users and the people responsible for implementing the new solutions.

In planning for Net Zero, we are crafting a transition to a desirable future state in which designed activities no longer contribute to climate change.   In that future, designers will require a different skillset to that design educators provided in Papanek's day.  We're privileged at Cardiff Met to have design educators who are passionate about developing our graduates to be fit for the future - and about sharing their knowledge with international partners.  In Cardiff School of Art and Design, live projects focused on sustainability, such as this one with D.S. Smith, give students the opportunity to apply their creative abilities to design problems that go beyond the traditional product design brief.  Meanwhile, through initiatives such as the Ukrainian-British School on Design for Circular Economy, our students and academics have the opportunity to work alongside, and learn from, people in different parts of the world, understand the influence of cultural and geographic factors on climate issues, and gain first-hand experience of what it means to design local solutions to global problems.

Clearly there's a lot to feel positive about.  However, I can't help but feel that if Victor Papanek was alive today he would be horrified by the relative lack of progress we've made as a profession in the last fifty years.  If we are to take anything as a profession from COP26, it should be that it is time for us to make design for the climate the norm, not the exception.