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Design for Planet festival: a digested read

Introduction

It’s a complete pleasure to write about our Design for Planet festival. More than usual, typing these words brings back fantastic memories of the energy, insights and connections that this landmark event brought. Although COP26 may have not reached the agreement we hoped for, the UK design industry is ready to act.

Over two days, we brought together 120 of the UK’s leading design and sustainability experts at the beautiful V&A Dundee. We were joined by 5,500 people who connected virtually from all over the world.

My goodness, did we pack a lot in! This blog is a run down of what happened across the two days and beyond. It starts with some key reflections, before moving into a ‘digested festival guide’ so you can get a flavour of the talks, workshops and conversations, and you can dive back in here to rewatch any of it at any point.

There are also some sketchnotes (created by Hazel White) for those that want a visual reminder.

Pupils from Claypotts Castle Primary School and their designed banners from S.H.E.D. workshop
Some of our favourite speakers from Design for Planet: Minnie Moll, Anita Okunde, Indy Johar and Immy Kaur

Top 4 reflections

Before I get into a chronological run down, I’ll share my top 4 takeaways:

We have to redesign the invisible

We used to say that good design is invisible because it makes things smooth, frictionless and easy. But we need to use design to expose the invisible things that govern how we work and think, and provide the context for what we design — the economic models, worldviews and beliefs about what we value. We need to make visible the consequences of our western consumerist, extractive culture — showing where the ‘waste’ goes and reframing it as a resource, showing the impact on the global south, and shifting power (but not sole onus) to them in order to lead solutions.

We have to design with community and nature

We have to recognise that there are many — often undervalued or marginalised — ways of making change and living sustainably, which we might not traditionally recognise as design or have been formally ‘taught’ as design. There is huge imagination and inspiration to be found in communities and nature. Designers need to work with these stakeholders to bring this to the fore, doing so in a way that empowers and doesn’t appropriate this creativity.

We have to be powerful together

The two days brought together amazing examples of design practice across fashion, graphics, architecture, interior, urban planning, landscape, service, policy, digital and more. Designers need to work together to share practice, moving further faster. And to work beyond design, with scientists, engineers, communities, businesses, policymakers and mythmakers.

We have to be hopeful

The warnings are stark, and visibly here. We need to reach net zero by 2030, not 2050. This requires a huge transformation of how we live. For example, only buying two items of clothing per year, retrofitting one new house per second. With the context of a weakened agreement at COP26, this can feel paralysing. But across all the talks, there was a sense of hope. Design has the power to help us move forward and turn ideas into action. We don’t need to wait for policy, designers can make new ways of living tangible, delightful and inclusive for all.

Kate Raworth and Indy Johar in conversation digitally and IRL

Day 1 morning

Expanding our minds: to a hopeful future, to the ‘invisible’ models and beliefs that surround us, to the Global South

We started and finished with an eye on the future. On day 1, Anita Okunde, a 17-year-old climate activist kicked us off with a call to action to us designers, reminding us that it is her future, and her future generations’ futures, that we are using our creative power to shape. Even before that, on Monday, we had worked with the S.H.E.D. project and pupils from Claypotts Primary School in Dundee to design placards for climate action. Jane Davidson finished off by showing that we can create the conditions that allow designers to do this. The Welbeing of Future Generations Act makes it a requirement that policy — and everything that flows from that — considers the long-term impacts for people and the planet.

Minnie Moll, Design Council CEO, introduced our new Design for Planet mission. She reflected back on our history, why we were created in 1944 to use design to solve the biggest challenge of the day (post-war economic recovery), and how we are now shifting all our energy (and that of the 1.69m strong UK design community) to design for planet. Minnie also shared the beautiful film that we would be sharing in the COP26 Blue Zone later in the week.

Then came two big hitters who blew our minds. Indy Johar, (systems architect) and Kate Raworth (rebel economist) shared how we need to redesign everything, and that means the economic models, governance and value structures that determine what ‘things’ we create that can reinforce more regenerative ways of being. Kate shared her Doughnut Economics model, to be borrowed and used the world over, and Indy advised that we should start with ourselves, and redesign our design organisations as the first step.

Payal Arora, named by Forbes as a Champion for the Next Billion Users, reminded us that we need to consider how we can design with the Global South, and that we need to co-design new forms of work so that, particularly women, can use digital and data to lead the green transition.

Finn Harries, an architect and filmmaker, shared his approach to designing regeneratively as well as the way he uses film and communication design to raise awareness of the real causes of the climate crisis, and how indigenous knowledge — so long devalued and hidden away — is the way that we can return to living in harmony with the planet. Check out the film (The Breakdown) he shared with us here.

Professor Payal Arora, technological anthropologist at Erasmus University Rotterdam, and author of The Next Billion Users and Finn Harries, designer and filmmaker at Earthrise Studio

Day 1 Afternoon:

Disrupting everything we do

Joe MacLeod took us on a journey about endings, and how we have neglected these. Our greedy focus on creating the new has meant that endings have become invisible, which makes it easy for us to throw things away without worrying too much about where these things go. Chief Endineering Officers would change this, by creating experiences that help consumers see endings as a beginning and waste as a resource for something new. Fresh from a visit to the Binn eco-waste facility in Perthshire, which Sophie Thomas had organised, Joe reflected that the best bit of his festival, was …well… rubbish!

Leyla Acaroglu’s barnstorming talk was a different journey — of how she decided as a design student many years ago — that she had to disrupt how she designed, from a practice that was about making things, and extracting resources in a linear way — to a more circular and systemic way of working. Her Unschool helps other designers break down and relearn how they work.

Sophie Thomas and John Ferguson taking us on a tour of the BINN Group Eco Waste facility

Track talks: where design is most needed

Six track talks with 25 people shared different design perspectives on how design can be part of the pathway out of the climate crisis.

Resilient and adaptive places. Sowmya Parthasarathy from Arup chaired a panel where Professor Kees Dorst shared how he applied his reframing approach to shape how Dutch citizens had to change their ways of building, farming and driving in line with the Paris Climate Agreement. Anthony Dewar explained how Network Rail are using design to create a rail and station infrastructure which is good for the planet and communities, and Simon Jones from Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park told how they were designing with nature (reintroducing peat bogs, forest and flora) to create a place where people and nature co-inhabit.

A behavioural revolution. I had the pleasure of exploring different ways in which design can shift behaviour, from Naresh Ramchandani’s Do The Green Thing idea for Ungifted, an alternative Secret Santa which makes it a delightful experience to give a gift-less (and therefore waste-less) Christmas present to colleagues, Orsola de Castro’s beautifully engaging Who Made my Clothes? and What’s in my Clothes? campaign which connects consumers with the people and materials that make our clothes, deepening how we value them, and John Thackara’s collection of visceral experiences that designers should encounter to deepen their connection to nature and how precious it is. One such experience could have been Deborah Szebecko’s sound gong workshop on the Tuesday night, which reconnected us with nature.

Designing with Nature. Martyn Dade-Robertson from the Hub for Biotechnology in the Built Environment introduced his colleague Pippa McLeod-Brown who took us through her bio-design work which sees biological organisms as the designers and makers of new architectural construction materials. Jane Findlay (Landscape Institute) shared examples of how landscape architecture and nature-based solutions, such as gardens, waterways and wetlands, can be the best solutions to sequestering carbon and increasing biodiversity. Julia Watson will join us in a special post-festival edition to share stories from her book LO-TEK Radical Indigenism which highlights the many ancient nature-based technologies that communities around the world have been using to live in symbiosis with nature.

A circular economy. Simon Widmer from theEllen MacArthur Foundation brought together three perspectives on post-extraction design. Sophie Thomas from URGE collective talked about reframing waste as resource, Josie Warden from the RSA gave the example of making fashion circular and her broader approach to regenerative design, Tessy Britton from Participatory City shared how she was working with communities to design a local circular economy, and with John Knights from The National Lottery Community Fund, how we need to build a wider civic infrastructure to support communities to reimagine their places, (which Tessy calls Universal Basic Everything).

Co-design with community. Jim Anderson from Architecture & Design Scotland took us on a tour of different community-led design work. Immy Kaur started by sharing her work Civic Square, which is deeply embedded within the community of Port Loop in Birmingham, and how they are supporting the community to retrofit homes. Rhiannon Jones gave the story of the SHED project, which are physical spaces that can be reconfigured to fit different community settings and host conversations about the climate. Rosie Blake and Andy Llewellen from the Argyll and Tayside Climate Beacons gave a non-designer perspective of using design approaches in their work on climate.

A just transition. Iain MacKinnon from the Global Disability Innovation Hub introduced three speakers who shared how the climate crisis is a justice issue, that will impact different communities of people in different ways, and therefore the need to design plural futures. Joycelyn Longdon (Climate in Colour) shared how we need to decolonise design if we are to design for racial equity, Jason Tester (Queer the Future) gave a LGBTQI+ perspective and showed how queerness can help challenge deep-held beliefs and Araceli Camargo (Centric Lab) explained how we need to design with nature, and create kinship with the non-humans that share the planet.

Iain MacKinnon and Joycelyn Longdon, and Simon Jones, Sowmya Parthasarathy and Anthony Dewar in our virtual studio

Day 2 morning:

A place for different knowledge to come together

Day 2 started with Leonie Bell sharing the story of V&A Dundee and how as a cultural institution, it is a place which can bring together different types of design from over different centuries, and also create a space that is deeply connected to the local community where they can come to imagine the future. The current exhibition ‘What If…?’ told stories of different local people and what their hopes were for the coming years.

Next was a combination of a stark reality and hope, of science and design. Professor Kevin Anderson set out the sobering facts, which was that we need to achieve net zero not by 2050, but by 2030. Then, Dr Tayo Adebowale, a designer and environmental scientist, provided some helpful — and hopeful ways in which designers can work together with scientists and other professions to help that to happen.

Jonathan Wise provided numbers from Purpose Disruptors’ new report, that the advertising is adding an extra 28% to the annual carbon footprint of every single person in the UK, which is why it’s so important that climate is in the brief. He gave 5 tips for how to raise the climate elephant in the room, and gave us all the gift of two minutes to close our eyes and just deeply think about the hard question that we didn’t ask ourselves.

“When you have a sector of really talented, creative people, what could we do as a group?”

Before we finished with Jane Davidson, it was time for practical action. First off, practical action was showcased by the reveal of the UK’s new iconic electric chargepoint, created by Dan Toom from PA Consulting and Clive Grinyer’s RCA Service Design team. Watch the film here.

For those online, there were 12 workshops for people to learn about methods ranging from eco-conscious interior design, life-cycle assessments, disruptive design, green and blue infrastructure, inclusive design, natural dying, sustainable materials, and our Systemic Design Framework. All of these, like everything else, can be found to re-watch again at www.designforplanet.org

For those in Dundee, it was over to them, with Sarah Drummond hosting an unconference, which was expertly facilitated by Snook. The idea of an unconference is that the agenda is co-designed together in the room. Sarah invited participants up to pitch ‘the conversation that they didn’t want to leave the conference without having’. We had about 30 people pitching a conversation and 12 spaces, so the Snook team did a fantastic job of what designers do best — spotting patterns, clustering and synthesising so that all conversations found a home. You can see the conversations here.

We did predetermine two things. One was a policy workshop hosted by The Policy Lab and with the All Parliamentary Design & Innovation Group, where we developed policy ideas which could support the 1.69m strong UK design community to design for planet. The other was to co-design the next version of our Systemic Design Framework principles, another tool alongside the film that designers can use to start bringing climate into the brief with the client.

Tash Willcox from Snook and Sarah Drummond expertly synthesising proposals into 12 conversations
A conversation about heat transition

A global movement

As if all that wasn’t enough, Minnie Moll and Sevra Davis from the British Council also hosted an international round table of 20 design councils and national design bodies around the world, from Australia to Latvia to South Africa. Each country shared a best example of design for planet from their country, and a commitment to supporting the estimated 60m designers globally.

So that was the low-down. You can watch everything back online here. And watch this space for some of the actions that the festival created the platform to emerge.

If you want an alternative view, here are some of the blogs and reflective pieces that others are writing about the festival. We’d love to hear yours too!

Blogs and reflections about Design for Planet

Joanna Choukier, RSA, A Design Revolution for the Climate Emergency

Ed Hobson, Design Council, A Tale of Two Cities

Molly Long, Design Week, Design for Planet: using storytelling to reframe the climate crisis

Molly Long, Design Week, UK government unveils EV chargepoint design in electrification push

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Cat Drew

Cat Drew

Chief Design Officer at the Design Council, previously FutureGov and Uscreates. Member of The Point People.