European roundtable: Sustainable design

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Chris Sherwin recently participated in a European roundtable on sustainable design. Unfortunately he learnt more about the design of roundtables than he did about accelerating design for sustainability
In my experience, designers tend to be doers, frequently shying away from discussion and theorising about what they do, in favour of practical problems and briefs that allow them to get their hands dirty.

But there can often be benefi ts in stopping, taking stock of where you are, and charting a clearer path for the future.

For that reason, a European roundtable invite titled ‘Fostering Innovation through Sustainable Product Design’ certainly caught my eye on popping into my inbox a couple of months ago. So I duly hot-footed it to Brussels to participate in a 25-person event to unpack the issues around sustainability, product design and innovation.

Joined by corporate stakeholders including Ikea, Nike, Dow, Sodexho, EDF and by other stakeholders and infl uencers like CSR Europe (think tank), Capricorn Venture Partners (venture capitalist), European Environment Agency (government agency), Lund University (academia), this promised to be a rare occasion for in-depth debate on the specifics of sustainable design and product development.

I joined with a combination of excitement and some trepidation that our discussions would dissolve into the usual generalities.

A ‘cards-on-the-table’ opening saw participants list their main questions for the day, giving a useful barometer of the challenges people are facing on sustainability and design.

There were quite a few familiar questions listed, but it’s useful to hear where people are. Participants asked: how do we create demand from consumers for sustainable products? What are the main drivers for eco-innovation? How to design for recycling at the beginning? What are the ‘real’ impacts of sustainability on product design today? Why is sustainability not represented more in design briefs?

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Hardly groundbreaking, but reassuring to hear nevertheless.

Presentations kicked off with two business perspectives: from Alcatel-Lucent and Proctor & Gamble (P&G) on how they are both embedding sustainability into innovation and product design, followed by an introduction to the European Union’s LIFE+ fund for ecoinnovation.

The presentations delivered a couple of useful nuggets, which I thought I’d share with you.

Firstly, ICT network provider Alcatel-Lucent informed us that sustainability in information and communication technology should be less about the impacts and emissions from their tech itself, and more about it being an ‘enabler’ of sustainability.

I’m always suspicious when I hear things like this as it sounds like corporates trying to deflect attention from their real impacts and paint themselves as our eco-salvation, but Alcatel-Lucent did tell us that ICT could save us an estimated 16.5 per cent of the world’s future greenhouse gas emissions if applied to the right problems by 2020, reducing transport through teleconferencing, saving energy through smart energy monitoring in buildings, smart livestock management, and such like.

In this sense ICT could be doing more good than harm. They also apply ‘Design for Environment’ methodology internally by ‘starting with the end in mind’.

Put simply this means R&D is in the driving seat of identifying new technologies and customer needs, especially for product development that delivers more energy effi cient solutions to customers.

Working ‘back-to-front’ in this way bizarrely does seem the right way round!

P&G’s approach to sustainable design — Sustainable Innovation Products (SIPs), as they call them — is driven by a twin methodological track of a) Consumer understanding — segmenting the market by
sustainability needs and targeting the 75 per cent of mainstream consumers they serve, and b) using Lifecycle Assessment – to help unearth the main product environmental impacts.

Notably P&G has set sustainable design goals as a fi nancial, rather than environmental target, to make $50billion in cumulative sales from SIPs between 2007- 2012. They made $52billion in total.

Both corporates spoke at length of the needs and benefits in collaboration within their sectors.

Alcatel-Lucent showed its industry leadership by participating in the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), with 40 other ICT players to improve sustainability standards, while P&G introduced a ‘Transforming Transportation’ project: more efficient logistics in which P&G trains are shared with peers and direct competitors, thus everyone wins through fuel and emissions savings.

What did I take away from all this? Not a great deal that I didn’t know already, to be honest. Corporates can be pretty guarded with their stories, never dropping their PR-veil, and often unwilling to unpack the real challenges and obstacles they face — even in a closed platform like this.

Also, everyone is still asking the same questions: about changing consumer demand, about how to get a company’s innovators engaged with sustainability, about weaving this systematically into design and innovation processes. At some point we need to move on with solving some of these.

The roundtable did get me thinking that we are in real need of a platform to debate and discuss issues specific to sustainability and design, though this event wasn’t it!

Facilitation wasn’t great and I don’t think there were enough designers and innovators in a room of policy wonks, corporate affairs people, consultants or think tanks — so we were always likely to miss the mark.

WRAP’s excellent Product Sustainability Forum looks a good model for this, yet seems only for retailers and manufacturers at present. I’ll certainly be giving it some thought; ideas gratefully accepted.

What Chris Sherwin took away from a recent European roundtable on sustainable design
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