The next decade of design. For Planet, by Humanity.

Thinking and Designing around sustainability.

Written by: Felix Lee

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For the past few decades, companies have been thinking and creating products and services that solve society’s problems. Today, Uber gets us a ride in minutes, Facebook connects us to our friends and Stripe facilitates payments globally. These are just some of the many companies that are a testament to how we’ve done remarkably well as a civilization.

It’s time that we start looking at the bigger picture, one that we should have looked at a long-time ago. How do we start designing products and services that serve our planet and people at the same time? How can we build solutions that revolve around environmental sustainability? These questions lay the foundation of “Planet Centric Design.”

Planet Centric Design is the next iteration of human-centered design. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not neglecting the fact that the design should be about humans. Rather, this iteration emphasizes the need to consider our planet as a “stakeholder in our conversations.” Yes, our Planet now needs a seat in every board meeting.

Our social, business and economic surroundings are dependent on our environment. Rising sea levels threaten the habitat of millions of people living in coastal countries (which may lead to mass migrations). Deforestation of rainforests such as the Amazon negatively affects global air circulation and reduces the amount of carbon that can be sequestered from the atmosphere. The pattern is obvious.

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Deforestation and other human activities have negatively affected our environment

All human activity, whether physical or digital, affects our biosphere, lithosphere, atmosphere, and hydrosphere. Unless we can rethink the way we create and invent, this will continue to happen. We cannot let it continue.

I’m deeply convinced that this starts by changing the way we design our products and services. Jovan, a close friend and Chief Evangelist at Tria (a sustainable food ware packaging firm), told me, “We have to start thinking, are we trying to do less bad or more good?” In other words, are we just trying to reduce harm or are we innovating new alternatives centered around our planet? To transition into a circular economy, we need to do the latter.

All this starts with a shift in mindset. How do we start?

It is insufficient to focus on desirability, viability, and feasibility when designing new products and services. We have to start thinking holistically and start creating things for the wider ecosystem beyond interfaces. Embracing the complexity of the value chain and the network of stakeholders is a good start. This means including sustainability in our creative process and considering the impact of our creations. Since it helps to get experts and thought leaders into the conversation, we have to start sharing information. While this might be seen as an “extra step” in our creative process, it is absolutely necessary.

As with all forms of design, measuring metrics is key to making iterations that work (eventually). Similarly, for sustainability, we need to adopt this practice of measurement. We have to start looking beyond metrics like engagement and retention (they are still important) and start looking into sustainability metrics like carbon emissions and electricity usage. The metrics you choose matters, as they represent your primary impact concerns.

As we discussed above, we’re in a time where we have to design new creative and sustainable alternatives instead of just trying to “save more” (aka doing less bad). In doing so, we are building towards a future where our sustainable alternatives replace pre-existing solutions. Building something “less bad” won’t get us there. As designers, this is should be our mindset and vision.

All that we discussed thus far is about a shift in perspective and process. This does not happen automatically, and we need to be intentional in making this shift. In other words, this can only be achieved by design, not by default.

“Every year human resource consumption exceeds — by more than 50% — Earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources that year. We are draining aquifers faster than rainfall can naturally fill them. Topsoil is eroding faster than it can be formed. Oceans are overfished. And since 1970, half of all vertebrate species in the air, water, and land have become extinct.” (Huffpost)

A planet centric design approach would help us in our search for answers to the world’s most complex problems. It does not guarantee that we will find them. Nevertheless, understanding the limits of our current approach in solving large-scale and complex issues will move humanity toward planet-centered action. Hopefully, through this, we may improve the outlook for our planet as a civilization.

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