Four Climate Questions We’re Asking Right Now at IDEO CoLab

Parker Woodworth
Mar 5, 2020 · 4 min read

An important part of the design process is asking actionable questions. With a challenge as far-reaching as climate change, it’s a vital starting point.

It feels daunting to even talk about a challenge as big as climate change. Words like “trillions,” “gigaton,” and “planetary” are well beyond a familiar scale, yet we need to become fluent in them to accurately grasp this crisis. The size, scope, and implications of the problem set it apart from much of the work we’re familiar with, but also make it crucially important to figure out how we can help.

Climate change (and the resulting crisis) raises so many questions and provides so few obvious answers that in our emerging work in the area at IDEO CoLab we’re starting exactly there: with the questions that climate change raises for us as designers. This list is hardly exhaustive, but it’s a useful starting point for us — and perhaps for you as well.

Designing for a Finite, Shared Planet

How might we make planetary boundaries a tangible constraint of our design process?

Buckminster Fuller suggested that we think of our planet as “spaceship earth” — a complex system adrift in space with all of humanity as its crew judiciously using finite resources to pilot the mission of human civilization. This model currently feels more apt than ever, as many emissions aggregate together to change the climate for everyone. The universality of climate change merits similarly universal shifts in mindset. Using design to stabilize the climate is not just a matter of doing more projects that consider climate; it’s also a matter of considering the planet’s limits every time we design.

Challenging Consumerism

How might we reframe the idea of consumerism to minimize resource use while maintaining a high quality of life?

A consumerist society, one where nearly infinite goods and services are available on demand at relatively low cost, has become the gold standard among modernist societies. Consumerism is so culturally ingrained in the United States that “consumer” has become synonymous with “person,” and consumer confidence, the measure of people’s willingness to participate in the system, is treated as a proxy for the overall health of the economy. While consumerism has allowed for the democratization of a lifestyle once only accessible to an elite few, it also encourages the exact rampant use of finite resources (and creation of rampant waste) that has resulted in climate change. Stabilizing the climate will necessitate challenging consumerism and finding new mindsets, behaviors, and societal models to take its place.

Transforming Organizations

How might we transform organizations to be attuned to minimizing their planetary impact?

Historically, suggesting that a business measure how much carbon it produces would be similar to suggesting that they measure how many shirts their employees own or how much air they breath; it has been treated as something so external to the business’s concerns that economists have termed it exactly that: an externality. Adapting to a new model involves challenging some of the fundamentals of how businesses operate, which is no easy feat. But this isn’t the first time businesses have needed to change themselves; if significant organizational overhauls are possible in pursuit of challenges like Digital Transformation, why can’t the same be true for Climate Transformation?

Future Optimism

How might we make the transition ahead about moving towards a better future instead of away from a worse one?

Climate change is bad news, and it won’t get better until collective action takes hold. By the same token, climate change is an invitation to design a new world to live in. Momentum is building in new and exciting ways, but what happens next to keep things moving? The potential of the next economy, society, and world we build together is only limited by our ability to get started.

These questions are piquing our curiosity and our concern. They’re inspiring us to design. While identifying questions is a critical first step, we have to start seeking answers or at least sharpening the questions we’re asking. At CoLab, we’re using design to begin prototyping what the future could look like to make these abstract words far more tangible. In this domain, we have to keep moving; the planet can’t afford for any of us to hesitate.

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