Sustainable Development Goals in Design Education

Design has increasingly positioned itself as a field capable of catalysing change and responding to complex social issues. In its ability to deal with uncertainty, or in other words, to explore potential solutions through a creative process without à priori guarantees of the outcomes, it’s been understood as capable of dealing with “wicked problems”. A term described by Rittel and Webber in 1973, to identify complex problems, with interconnected issues and ever-changing requirements, for which a single solution is impossible.

Design’s main contributions are generally seen as the ability to quickly visualise concepts, ideas, and information, to rapidly prototype and test solutions, as well as to employ creative thinking in creating novel concepts and solutions.

Within the broad field of design, we have seen the emergence and establishment of social and critical movements, such as participatory design and critical design. Both of which are politically and socially engaged, with the aim of questioning current practice, providing alternatives to the status quo, and envisioning preferred futures. As a result, designers are increasingly commissioned to address issues such as housing[1] and homelessness [2], sustainability[3] [4] and air quality [5], food [6] [7], water[8], and health[9], to name only a few. This often happens within larger teams, where designers work alongside policy-makers, scientists, engineers and citizens to innovate around bottom-up, and top-down, solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges.

It is surprising then, that design education doesn’t explicitly align itself more tightly with the United Nation’s (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Even though environmental sustainability is a factor in some design courses, such as Product or Industrial design, we are still failing to educate young designers on the pressing challenges facing humanity and on their roles in shaping the future. It is easy to envision how design briefs and student projects could be shaped around SDGs to foster the education of designers who are prepared to engage with big challenges such as poverty, education, and health. Instead, most design education focusses on the creation of sleek products, services, and advertising campaigns, strongly influenced by a capitalist agenda of production and consumption.

Events like the UNLEASH Innovation Lab 2017, not only provide a hotbed for innovation, but also prepare the SDG Talents to go back home and engage with SDGs within their own practice, teaching, and research activities. This can potentially result in more projects, more teaching and student briefs, and more research and innovation activities focussed on the problems addressed by the SDGs, through a contagion effect where the SDG Talents’ professional and social networks are essentially contaminated with the ideas and concepts discussed at the UNLEASH Lab.

The long-term impact of coming together as part of UNLEASH may be just as significant, or even more so, than the outputs generated during the event itself. The sharing of ideas, opening up horizons, and broadening mind-sets will undoubtedly have a long lasting effect on the SDG Talents, their future activities as professionals, as well as on awareness raising amongst their wider professional and social connections. Personally, I aim to leverage this opportunity to equip myself with a better understanding of the SDGs and envisioned future trajectories that I can import into my practice, research, and teaching.