How can design influence sustainability in the 21st Century?


With the end of a term based constellation came the introduction of the dissertation study. In the past, I had not enjoyed constellation what so ever, I found the lectures irrelevant and found it almost impossible in attaining a topic which I enjoyed. The beginning of my journey through this challenging yet rewarding dissertation, therefore began slowly, as for the first time I was permitted to look at a topic which was of interest to myself. During my first dissertation tutor meeting, I found myself lost with the possibilities I could undertake, my lecturer therefore gave me a set list of books, and told me to glance over them. With the acquisition of these books I found myself finally showing an interest in my constellation studies, these books not only caused me to think, but kick-started a thirst for the unknown.


After reading the first set of books from my lecturer I began looking at similar literature in the hope of inspiring a topic for my dissertation. These books include topics such as ‘wabi-sabi’ and ‘cognition’, which I had no prior knowledge about. In hindsight both the lecturer and these books had an enormous effect on me, and embedded in me an interest in sustainability. Although an extremely large topic, I was curious of how sustainability was of relevance to me and my course. I therefore began looking at product designers such as Tony Fry and Stuart Walker and their perspectives of the aforementioned issue. I also produced a range of research which offered insight into the severity of the issue. This research offered a strong insight into the both the world itself, and the unacceptable effect the population has on the planet it survives upon.


I therefore looked at current and past practices in a hope to find a solution to sustainability, I looked further into ‘wabi-sabi’ and was intrigued by the strong, bold and extremely recycled aesthetic which was both emotive and inspiring. This need to preserve all that currently exists, was uplifting. The emphasises on maintain value through every aspect of life and safeguarding history for future generations was encouraging. From a young age, I was brought up with the same beliefs by my grandfather, this value of history is therefore of great importance to me.


After a duration of looking at ‘wabi-sabi’ I began to look at the importance of preserving materials within and economy in order to ensure less waste was propelled into the ecosystem. I looked at the devastating effect of virgin materials and how with the depletion of these materials, could arrive the collapse of product design. This caused me to look into the economy, which in turn enlightened me on how dominant it is in our everyday lives. Without knowing, over the past three years I have been blindly conforming to this industry through designing consumer objects, which have been designed purely with the assumption, that these virgin materials would be readily available to myself. This insight and knowledge gained has therefore not only changed my way of thinking but has also undoubtedly altered my way of designing. With the realisation of this economy I looked at a range of different systems which could be implemented in order to facilitate the resources currently available to us, which meant that the depletion of the earth’s resources would be avoided. Through the implementation of a circular economy several areas have seen an enormous rise in efficiency whilst seeing waste decline. This both excited and angered me! Why aren’t these systems implemented globally? Why is this discovery not common knowledge? In the way that Edison historically invented the lightbulb, In the way that Graham Bell devised the first telephone, why does no one know of British environmental economists David W. Pearce and R. Kerry Turner who envisaged the circular economy? With the introduction of this economy, design as we know it would change. Lives would be reoriented and humans would be reconnected with the earth.


Consequently, after knowledge gained from research into economic systems I then looked at politics and its effect on both sustainability and design. Through political research gathered it was evident that through the power of politics, a circular economy could be attained, thus changing design and influencing environmentally sustainability. Although power was needed and the most sufficient political system for power was dictatorship I was apprehensive due to the past issues encompassing this stone age system. Several of the sources viewed shared the same concern as I did, although they were assured that through short term implementation, problems would be avoided. This insight definitely offered a different perspective, it also reaffirmed my view that the economy is the single most powerful system in the world, it has the ability to cause disasters and prosperity both at the same time.


I then continued my journey through this dissertation by looking at the consensus view and cognition of individuals towards sustainability, this would offer insight into what design should emotively convey, in order to achieve a positive user outlook on sustainability. Although focussing on cognition I found this chapter tedious due to it veering away and reintroducing politics. I therefore looked into this, and found that the consensus view within politics was that sustainability was extremely achievable through simple changes. I therefore question why this is not conveyed to the mass population, as it would offer newfound hope towards sustainability and give the term a more positive meaning.


I then collected all the information gathered in order to look at designs direct effect on sustainability. This reassured my previous findings as it emphasised the need to place the environmental impact at the core of every design decision. I find this could suffice in causing change, as mass manufacturing would be decreased and material choices would be improved thus causing change. To conclude my findings, I believe that at present the economy is the single most important anomaly in initiating immediate sustainable change. Although this may currently be the case, sustainability needs to be a collected effort which is done by all industries. This would ensure success!


This dissertation study has not only furthered me as a student of product design, but has undoubtedly improved me as an individual.  Although I found it extremely difficult to achieve completion. I have no hesitation in saying that this is the largest academic challenge of my entire life so far. And I could not have possibly completed it without the help of my dissertation tutor, along with my girlfriend, family and friends. I am therefore extremely grateful for all the help and guidance along the way.


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