Nico Macdonald | Spy   Communication, facilitation, research and consultancy around design and technology

The great leap forward
Blueprint (subscribe), Endstop, September 2003, page 170. (Article as submitted.) Provoked a letter in the October issue, to which I replied in the November issue. In the same issue Goldsmiths academic John Wood wrote a response to my piece, also published as an Endstop (but not online).
These days, the idea of designing for sustainability goes unchallenged. Taking a stand that is bound to be controversial, Nico Macdonald says it should be

Who could argue with the idea of designing for sustainability? Defined by Beatrice Otto in the Design Council’s ‘About Design’ resource as “the strategic use of design to meet and integrate current and future human needs without compromising the environment”[i] it sounds fairly innocuous. But it reflects an unsophisticated, and un-designerly, way of thinking about the world.

Sustainability has become an unquestioned tenet in design thinking, as unquestionable as pre-Lutheran Catholicism. There has been and is almost no debate about the concept of designing for sustainability. Milan professor Ezio Manzini’s unquestioned comment, while addressing the last Doors of Perception conference, that “the real problem is to translate [the concept of] sustainability into something that can work”[ii] well reflected the state of the debate.

A key argument of the sustainability crowd is that the Earth has finite resources and for humanity to survive we must cut back on their use. In Natural Capitalism[iii], the sustainability bible, Paul Hawken contends that we now have a surplus of labour and a decline in natural resources. This common sense observation taps into our passive experience as consumers of definite limits to our access to commodities. But it ignores the more important side of human beings: that we are producers, and very innovative producers at that. Upon examination it seems likely that Hawken’s concept of natural resources is bogus, and that there is no such thing as a ‘natural resource’, only human-created resources.

Humans exist in opposition to nature, which often kills us indiscriminately (through famine, flood, disease and the like). This ‘natural selection’ accidentally produced a species which became aware that properties of nature could be shaped to its own ends. Naturally occurring materials and phenomena that were at worst a danger to us and at best harmless were evaluated by applying empirical or rational thought, and put to use by applying human labour. Soil was not a natural resource until we created agriculture, coal until we discovered fire, oil until we invented the internal combustion engine, or uranium until we understood the inter-relationship of matter and energy.

Yes, one day we will use up things that are resources in the present. However, if properly facilitated and supported our ingenuity will have discovered uses for things which today appear to have none, or of which we are wholly unaware.

Our ingenuity has been amply demonstrated in the past. In the late eighteenth-century, when the population of England could be counted in the low millions, apocalypse-monger Reverend Thomas Malthus predicted that famine and poverty would result from the population explosion begat by the industrial revolution[iv]. In reality he was to be disappointed, as scientific enquiry and technical application combined with a progressively organised society to multiply production beyond all expectation. Today, with the global population well over six billion, our ingenuity at producing resources and satisfying needs and desires in new ways has delivered an average standard of living way above the level that Malthus knew. Of course there is still inequitable access to resources but this is a result of social and economic factors and a lack of political will – as we are too aware fields and factories lie fallow while ‘excess’ food and products are arbitrarily stockpiled.

The increasing human population, still a cause for much hand-wringing today, is in fact a boon in a number of ways. Many more people can be involved in the scientific and related research that will lay the basis for further innovations, and the increasing number of urbanised workers supports a more productive division of labour.

Design is also crucial to our ingenious progress. Designers apply creativity and lateral thinking to solve old and new problems in better ways. They optimise, and they make more with less. As the materials and processes we have at our disposal multiply, and products and services become more complex, designers will be even more critical to devising and evaluating the best solutions, and in simplifying complexity.

However introducing sustainability into this design approach – in which the best solutions mediate the fixed poles of client objectives, user needs, and material and other project constraints – simply confuses things, not least because sustainability is so nebulous it is hard to measure.

Products designed for sustainability and recycling are rarely the best designs for the people who will use them, and often make their lives more complicated. For instance sustainable design favours multi-functional products when it is well known that they are more difficult to learn and use (though we have now mastered clock radios). At its worst the sustainable design approach abandons design entirely in favour of socially engineering people and culture to fit the ‘needs’ of the environment. This can be seen in the transportation debate, where we are asked to find ways to discourage people from ‘excessive’ travelling rather than help provide them with faster, more comfortable, and cheaper means of transport.

Sustainability thinking is inherently conservative, preferring adaptation of what we know to discontinuous and large-scale innovation based on new knowledge. In this respect it also undermines the search for the ingenious and grand solutions of the kind we will need in the longer term.

Meanwhile we should avoid undue hand-wringing about our short-term future. Societies tend towards more efficient use of time and materials, and modern capitalism, the current acme of social organisation, is a great advance on the feudal and mercantile societies it succeeded. Of course we can improve on capitalism, just as it improved on those societies, but we will end up going backward if we adopt the cautious and timid doctrine of sustainability.

The truth is the sustainable design sect has no vision of the future beyond its Bosch-esque tableau of a blighted society, and it undermines real progress in the present. If its high priests want to make any practical difference in the world today they should focus on becoming better designers. And if they wish to engage in political campaigning, which I heartily encourage, they should credit us our critical faculties by presenting arguments that are both rational and objective, rather than taking for granted our support for their views.

It in the meantime it is likely that it will be the more optimistic and humanistic designers among us who will contribute to solving any considerable problems that have been identified.

[i] ‘About: Sustainability’ Beatrice K Otto http:[email protected]=6004&[email protected]=1317

[ii] At Doors of Perception 7 ‘Flow’, in response to the statement: “To what question, if any, is pervasive the computing the answer?”

[iii] Background Web site on Natural Capitalism

[iv] ‘Essay on the Principle of Population’ (1798) Republished by OUP, 1999


Last updated:
Nico Macdonald | Spy 2004