The role of designers in the era of climate crisis

For designers, the intentions are always laser-focused on the bigger picture and holistically improving the lives of users. So, how can this role be leveraged to aid against the climate crisis our society is faced with?

The role of designers in the era of climate crisis

As the COP27 in Egypt occurs this week, it inspires thought about the current state of the climate crisis the planet is faced with. It may very well be the most imminently pressing issue that our modern society is faced with. The impending effects will be felt at least at some capacity by every human on our planet, and it seems to be an unavoidable reality for the human race to experience.

It may all sound a bit hopeless, but it doesn’t have to be! The potential for people to shift their current skills towards climate mitigation and adaptation is vast, as they can attempt to create positive experiences out of tough circumstances.

Design is about providing value to emergent and present needs through deep human understanding. This purpose provides potential for designers to take action in the climate sector due to their expertise in providing value to innate human needs and desires, as they find the opportunity to expand their principles beyond solely human-centred design.

In this manner, designers are already closely involved in the workings of the planet, committing to human services and systems that dynamically and radically shape the planet in different ways. Design expertise revolves around adapting to new situations and outcomes, so can these skills be shifted towards adaptation to these unpreventable circumstances?

Where is there room for designers in mitigation of the climate crisis?

The innate potential and creativity behind design is an inherently double-edged sword. It’s optimised experiences to benefit humans worldwide, but convenience has undeniably had a negative effect upon the planet to the benefit of human experience. The positive benefits have malformed into proponents of the consumerism and consumption that is having a longterm effect on the planet's ecosystem.

Climate activist and designer Céline Semaan believes that “Designing for human survival will become the new necessary field of design: ecosystems over aesthetics”. Instead of aiding humanity in living separate lives from the planet, design can question the consequences of living in such a way, and shift thought towards instead co-existing, and even collaborating, with the planet. It seems relevant to embrace an idea propagated by anthropologist Bruno Latour that we are not 'from the earth', but 'of the earth': business as usual simply can’t cut it any more!

Designers don’t possess the key to survival and resilience, but they do offer the potential to shift the dial in unique and interesting ways by introducing unusual stakeholders into the conversation. Non-human actors that inhabit the world’s ecosystem such as animals can become directly involved in the discussion through the work of designers. This blurs the lines between human affairs and ‘planet affairs’, as designers can work towards empathically and holistically benefiting more than simply humans.

Switching from a human-centred design philosophy to an avenue of design thinking that incorporates the immensely powerful effect that humans have on the environment, both in the potential positive and negative effects, is a logical step forward that designers can assist with building for the incoming next phases of climate breakdown.

Designing frameworks to help make a difference

Design is central in providing the opportunity for businesses and society in general to thrive under the circumstances and consequences of climate change through resilience and adaptation. Lilli Graf states:

“A recent study showed that climate change and extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, floods and fires, directly impact 70% of all economic sectors worldwide. If I translated this in the simplest terms: 70% of companies will need to design ways to deal with the consequences of the climate crisis.”

To assist with tackling climate change, innovative design can help transform the ways businesses operate in order to shape a sustainable future and preserve the planet. Design can help businesses locate where they’re sorely lacking on sustainability and producing waste, to build ways in which they can combat them. For example, a framework that can assist with building a sustainable company is the circular economy.

The concept of the circular economy is an avenue where design is vital in assisting with climate adaptation. Most of our current economies operate in a linear fashion, taking natural materials, making products from them, then discarding them as waste. It’s unsustainable in its current form, as Lilli describes waste as ‘design gone wrong’.

That is why circular economy’s looping and regenerative design principles are so important. Eliminating waste and pollution, circulating products and materials, and regenerating and rebuilding nature are three holistically beneficial principles to design for, and design can truly make a difference in achieving them.

Design consultant Caroline Baumann states that “We must redesign infrastructure, regulations, tax incentives, other devices to start the revolution, the new way of thinking and living”, and the framework of the circular economy is emblematic of this.

Design can massively benefit sustainability practices by redesigning systems and processes to be more sustainable and efficient: such as shifting towards renewable materials, improving energy efficiency or reducing CO2 emissions in manufacturing processes. By applying the design principles of circular economy in practice, companies move towards a more sustainable model of production and consumption that minimises waste and maximises resource efficiency.

Adaptation can’t be achieved alone

Although the potential for the role of design in the climate crisis is huge, designers cannot move the dial back alone – no profession can. It’s undoubtedly a massively collaborative process, as a common thread surfaces between humans to have a positive impact for humanity and the planet to thrive.

Working towards climate mitigation and adaptation provides a common goal, underpinned by the idea that everyone has a role. It's a process that underpinned by the idea that it requires a holistic involvement from everyone. From customer to stakeholder to company to governing body, everyone has their role to play. Ethically dubious practices such as greenwashing can’t continue, as the communicative line between company and customer must be open and honest with regards to sustainability.

To many, the future of the climate crisis may appear bleak. However, design acts as one of countless fundamental agents of change that can collaborate to potentially imagine and deliver a brighter future. Verda Alexander, climate designer, states:

“I believe designers are fundamental to solving the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. […] Now we need to channel all our efforts into a common goal. If we can do that, designers will play a key role in salvaging the future and finding a place where humanity can thrive along with the planet.”

Design is in the field of innovation, understanding the needs and improving the lives of people – and the potential of innovative minds collaborating and thinking outside traditional boundaries as a solution to such a pressing global issue is fascinating and hopeful.

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