30.2 Design as a problem and design as a solution for sustainability

Nicola Morelli , Architecture and Design, Aalborg University, Aalborg, Denmark
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  • Design as a problem and design as a solution for sustainability

    The role of industrial design has been essential in the definition of an industrial model based on large production volumes for broad markets, but they have also contributed to the maturation of such a model towards sophisticated production platforms and product architectures, which allowed industrial production to customise solutions for smaller target groups.

    Because of such strong link between the design discipline and the evolution of industrial system, this discipline is particularly sensitive to the question of sustainability. However the need for a decisive change of perspective for designers is not just a necessity, but also an opportunity to propose new design-oriented scenarios for sustainability.

    Redefining the role of designers

    The question of sustainability would radically reverse the way to look at design: if in the industrial system design represented that part of the industrial system that translated technical possibilities into material products , the evident unsustainability of this system suggests that designers are in fact part of the problem. If economic development models are based on quantitative growth, on the use of more products and consequently on the circulation of more material and on the use of more resources, designers' work has been one of the strongest support to this trend and therefore they have been contributing to make this development more and more unsustainable.

    The debate about the redefinition of design's role and competences has emphasised that the border line between old and new perspective for design and for industrial production cannot be clearly defined, but it could rather be seen as a blurred transition zone in which the old paradigm has been criticised, although being still in place, and the new one has been progressively developed, though it has not found consolidated forms.

    Beyond the limits: designers and quantitative growth

    Since the earliest evidences of the limits in the existing development model a part of the design community started an exploration of new scenarios for well being, in which the satisfaction of user needs did not necessarily implied the production of new products. In such scenarios the focus on products' material features was replaced by a new interest in how products and services are used. A discussion focused on the usability of products and services provided a broader frame to the earliest designers' effort to work on a strategic turn consisting in a radical change in the way design is working for industry and for society: Such change is characterised by some fundamental landmarks:

    ·         Designers need to shift their focus from products to services;

    ·         The idea of comfort, which lead industrial strategies, need to be replaced by strategies for users' activation and participation;

    ·         Industrial companies should consider forms of individualisation of solutions beyond the present framework of mass customisation

    ·         The new solutions for sustainability should no longer consist in finished products, but rather in platforms for solution-oriented partnership

    From Products to Services

    The measurement of quality and well being of people should no longer be related to quantitative growth, but rather to individual capability to satisfy basic and complex needs. This approach is consistent with a strategic shift of business companies, which are no longer focusing on product, but rather on service provision. In the perspective of sustainability this focus shift is a promising chance to reduce resource use.

    The focus on services leads designers and companies to work on the interaction with users. A user-centred approach reshapes the role of business companies within the production and consumption system; it propose that those companies be no longer the producers of products and services, but rather the organisers of value creation systems in which different actors including final users, will play an essential role.

    Revising the idea of comfort: designers and users' activation

    The concept of comfort has been shaped, in the last decades, by the idea that human work and personal involvement could be replaced by products and services provided by business companies. Such idea of comfort is therefore causing a progressive inability of people to express their needs and to solve their problems.

    New phenomena, such as globalisation, and radical changes in the structure of society require a different level of people involvement in new solutions. Such solutions must be based on a paradigmatic change in the organisation of production and consumption systems, with relevant revision of the value creation system, and with the involvement of a constellation of actors, including users and other actors immediately around them.

    Beyond mass customisation

    Despite the increasing industrial capability to mass customise products and solutions, the level of individualisation and localisation of the demand would press companies for an effort that would exceed any economy of scale. A new perspective is emerging, in which designers and industries will work to harness individual capabilities to generate innovation and to define their own solution. The level of individualisation allowed by such collaborative systems may open perspectives that exceed the existing mass customisation strategies.

    The new initiatives will need to focus not only on technological possibilities, but also on the social change. One of the critical factors for the success of those initiatives is a different organisation of knowledge, including both the technical knowledge of companies and the tacit and latent knowledge embedded in a local context. The focus on local context is also a promising approach to reduce resource use.

    Platforms for solutions oriented partnership

    The monolithic image of companies as sole owner of technical knowledge is continuously challenged by cooperative initiatives of users who modify existing products and generate innovative solutions. The idea of value-coproduction is suggesting that innovation be distributed, instead of centralised. This model of innovation has also a good resilience in case of major environmental changes. In this business companies should expect the outcome of their activity to consist no longer in a set of finished material products or defined services, but rather in platforms on which different actors, including local service providers and users, can create solution oriented partnerships.

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