The problem with software in sustainable design

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Software tools undoubtedly have an important part to play in the development of sustainable products but sustainable design is so much more
The search for a sustainable design tool will almost certainly lead you to a software solution, with no shortage of options out there; from stand-alone full Lifecycle Assessment tools (Gabi or Simapro), to more streamlined versions (Sustainable Minds or Okala).

From sustainability integrated into software design tools (Autodesk’s Eco Materials Advisor or Solidworks Sustainability plug-in)’ to design consultancies themselves developing proprietary tools (IDC’s LCA Calculator).

At a glance, this looks like a pretty positive development. Yet I’m increasingly uneasy that everything seems to be software-based, and it’s something of a default setting for sustainable design tools at the moment. I’m not against software, I just wonder if we might need something else. Here’s why.

My first sustainable design tool

On my first job as Ecodesign Consultant to Electrolux’s Industrial Design Centre back in the late 1990s, I arrived at the office armed with a Lifecycle Assessment software tool (EcoScan).

I Intended to start analysing relevant electrical and electronic products for us to work on, but was surprised to find designers themselves carried around simple file folders of inspiration, new materials and case studies.

Their key ‘tool’ wasn’t software, material assessments or product analyses, it was a collection of interesting stuff. I was miles off with my sustainable design stimulus in comparison to their way of working and design process. I’m concerned about an emerging mismatch in sustainable design tools today.

So what is problem with software?

Underneath most sustainable design software tools is a similar model for how you do it, based on the following factors. First, use a lifecycle perspective — looking at product impacts from cradle-to-grave (material extraction, production, distribution, use, disposal). Second, select a reference product — to do an assessment of key lifecycle impacts.

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Third, assess against a set of key metrics or parameters — to give a measure or footprint on things like carbon/greenhouse gas emissions, waste, water, resource use, etc. Finally, redesign or incremental improvement of the product, based on the hotspots identified in your assessment. A simplistic description, I admit, but not far off the accepted, standard process. But what if that model is limiting?

Sustainable design in the spotlight

There are a few questions of whether this model, on which software tools are based, is really fit for purpose. In particular:

It focuses on redesign, not new design: a lifecycle approach is great for redesign, but what about new–to–the–world products? How do you accurately assess the impacts of something that doesn’t exist yet?

It promotes incremental, not breakthrough, disruptive innovation: assessing an existing product’s impacts only ever really leads to an improvement of that existing product, whereas we’ll need step-change or breakthrough technology to deliver a sustainable future.

It’s late, not early: accurate assessments of a reference product mean a product really has to exist, or certainly be at detailed design stages. As 80 per cent of products’ impacts are determined really early in design, these interventions are rather late.

It’s a mechanistic, analytical, rather than a ‘creative’ approach to design: These design processes are driven by
(ac)counting and analysis, fuelled by software. Call me old–fashioned, but I still get a thrill when designers take out their fine-liners or Speedry magic markers C7 to sketch, or when we sit together to create ideas in teams. I’d like sustainable design tools to reflect some of that too.

If not software tools, then what?

Obviously it’s unfair to single out software, which after all is just a medium, then not highlight other sustainable design options. At Seymourpowell, we’re using a lot of sustainable design principles at the moment, to get our heads round sustainability in these early phases — see Puma’s Eco-Table as an example. I also think there’s lots of merit in more qualitative tools like Lifecycle Design Strategies (LiDS) wheel or EcoReDesign matrix for sustainable design projects too.

If it’s numbers or analysis you want, why not start with material databases on embodied energy, carbon or material impacts (Pre Consulting gives away Eco-indicator ’99 material rankings). Take advice from a former environmental accounting colleague when using these, and start with an excel spreadsheet or the back of an envelope.

Moving beyond assessments, many products — like vehicles, boilers or most electronics — have their big impacts in use through energy consumption or inefficiencies from users and consumers, so we’re using ethnography and user observation to unearth these insights.

Finally I do find futures tools, like sustainability visions, foresight or scenarios (see WBCSD Vision 2050 Project) incredibly helpful to present a picture of emergent trends, like projected water shortages or material scarcity. These tools are much more upstream research tools, before ideas and concepts are even formed.

Truth is, I’m not against software tools per se. I just wouldn’t want people to make the same mistakes I did on my first day at Electrolux and out the software ‘cart’, before the ‘design’ horse. Software will undoubtedly have an important place in sustainable design, but I’m looking for a more balanced toolkit that reflects the full richness and diversity of design.


Chris Sherwin argues that software is not the only sustainable design tool
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