By Raghavendra Kuppuswamy
A new age has dawned upon our planet now. An age when even children are up in arms about the Earth’s future. A time when world leaders stand on sinking islands while citizens die in warming cities. The sustainable design ought to be a ‘hot topic’ for a warming world, and it certainly seems so when the United Nations, some united nations, as well as giant corporations, are raising the call on this front. Yet, it seems like coral reefs are declining at the same rate as the data sheets about them are increasing. Experts agree that our earth is in trouble. The man on the street concurs. Maybe we should also ask the bird in the sky through a double-blind peer-reviewed non-symbolic referendum, just in case. Obviously, someone ought to do something somewhere to address all of this, and somehow sustainable design is a part of the solution. But what exactly is ‘sustainable design’?
Does it apply to the built environment alone? Can product design also be sustainably designed? What about fashion or UX (User Experience)? What exactly is the ‘sustainable’ aspect of all these domains of design? Some may point to the sensitivity shown towards the materials used in production, while others may consider the ease of decomposition as the gold standard of sustainability. The elephants in the room however are the dependence of the global economic juggernaut on rising consumption, and our rising inability to deal with the waste already generated. The designing of new products and services through an environmentally aware design process necessarily assumes (and requires) both the global consumption of these new products and services, as well as their safe and easy disposal. However, championing reusable bamboo straws and dedicated cycling lanes as the kind of solutions needed for our dying world may not be our best bet.
A few definitions are offered here for the terms ‘design’ and ‘sustainability’ before discussing ‘sustainable design’ itself. Design is the manipulation of an environment towards a goal(s). Sustainability is the continuation of a specific state of existence in an environment. Please note that both these definitions implicitly assume both a clearly identifiable pre-existing environment and the unconstrained capacity to manipulate it. But are the definitions of both these terms, and their implications to our everyday lives, clearly understood by us? Consider the following case – an Australian airline serves packaged American food, the waste of which was transported by a Chinese container ship, to be dumped in the Indonesian sea. In every instance of this sequence of actions, there were self-aware humans manipulating the environment, i.e. designing their actions – however, the ‘environment’ was defined differently each time, and the ‘design’ executed was constrained. Thus, the Australian air hostess can not be held responsible for the death of an Indonesian (Irrawaddy) dolphin. But whose dreams would the dolphin’s ghost feature in?
Understanding that our bio-physical environment is a finite and tangible system, with laws, constraints, and limits independent of our social, financial, and intellectual constructs is a fundamental requirement for working with sustainable design. Cognizing that the concept of sustainable design itself is an intellectual-social-financial construct is thus a corollary of the same. How much sustainability is the right level of sustainability? Is voluntarily switching off the lights for an hour a year enough? Or is involuntarily living without electricity in large agrarian groups the appropriate degree of sustainability? What if the former don’t want to live like the latter, while the latter aim to live like the former? An unbiased and universal demand for sustainability would require such levels of civilizational regress that the pursuit itself may face untenability. And pursuing tenable levels of sustainability only through ‘design’ would imply passing the dirty job of enforcement and compliance to some other agency that is both adequately concerned and sufficiently empowered. This position does not imply that there can be no sustainable design. The first stage of grief is denial while the last is acceptance. This argument is merely an acceptance of our precarious existence as it were. Once we accept the futility of merely designing ‘sustainably’, we can better address the need for sustainability itself.
A holistic strategy for sustainable design requires a vision for the kind of lives we would like to lead. A study of some such holistic visions from the history of India is explored in the next entry of this three-part study. Thank you for engaging with this content. Republished with permission from Ekam Insights LLP / Raghavendra Kuppuswamy. Check the bibliography here.
Raghavendra Kuppuswamy is a sustainable design enthusiast who heads Ekam Insights LLP – a sustainable design and strategy consultancy. He was trained in architecture at SPA Vijayawada and IIT Roorkee, and is currently based in Bangalore. His interests include modern art, Indian philosophy, and rock music.