Designers, stop designing for yesterday's planet

13 September 2018

Mario Caruso

Alex Crowfoot is the UK principal designer at Futurice, a digital innovation consultancy. He’s also a man who evidently thinks hard and often about what the creative sector can to do ensure sustainability isn’t just a concept scrawled on a whiteboard in a brainstorm. Ahead of a talk as part of the 2018 London Design Festival, he talks us through five ways do their bit to keep the earth rotating that little bit longer.

Humans are currently consuming the Earth’s resources 1.7 times faster than nature can regenerate, the Pacific plastic waste zone is now twice as large as France and air pollution-related deaths exceeded 6 million in 2016. Yet many of us are still designing for a world that doesn’t exist anymore – a world that believed resources were limitless, fossil fuels could be used with no implications and waste would just sort of… disappear.

While it’s easy to understand the impact of manufacturing, heavy industry and farming, people tend to forget the impact the digital world is having on the environment. The internet is currently producing more than 830 million tons of Co2 every year, exceeding the amount emitted by air travel. Factor in the way digital products and services are increasingly able to connect to the physical world, from e-Commerce to home delivery right through to IoT devices, and the implications are huge.

Digital designers could be playing a crucial role in helping to reduce the human impact on the planet. Every year, we bring thousands of new products and services to life, devise different ways to interact and create new habits. Digital means these can scale at an unprecedented rate. It’s why the World Economic Forum said, “digital transformation can help set the world’s economy on a sustainable footing”.

The challenge for designers is to start thinking about how we can integrate sustainability into every project we do and not only change consumer behaviour for the better, but also offer digital services they can feel good about, knowing the environmental impact has also been considered. Consumers are sending unprecedented signals that they expect brands to address sustainability. For designers keen to start reducing the impact of projects, here are five simple design hacks.

Design better defaults

Are we unwittingly part of the problem? Many digital products and services come with defaults that have a negative impact, but which can be easily changed. For example, instead of every food delivery coming with disposable napkins and cutlery, the designers behind food delivery platforms could force users to choose to add these, as Deliveroo has now done. Even better – designers could make users pay extra. Better still, they could offer them biodegradable options like bamboo.

Minimise data

Some of the impact of our work is completely hidden. It has been estimated that streaming just an hour of video per week for a year requires more energy use in the server farm than two domestic refrigerators. And where is that energy coming from? In many countries it’s by burning coal. We can mitigate this by designing services that reduce the transfer of data – designing lighter weight pages and screens or giving careful thought to when using video, for example. This has a side benefit of making services more usable in countries with narrower bandwidth and less reliable networks.

Audit the inputs

One of the simplest ways of reducing impact is to ensure that all the suppliers or inputs into a product or service also have a lower impact. Patagonia famously tries to do this as part of its global supply chain, ensuring that its partners complement Patagonia’s ethical corporate culture and drive towards sustainability. Could we, as designers, take a similar stand with our networks? Ensure our suppliers are doing the right thing and we are halfway there.



Make better choices the most attractive

Platforms like Amazon give users zero ways to compare the impact of buying one product over another or from one supplier versus another. For example, does the product we’re buying really need to be shipped halfway around the world when a second, albeit slightly more expensive version, is just down the road? If the global shipping sector were a country, it would have the world’s sixth largest greenhouse gas emissions, ahead of even Germany. Designers could help to reduce this by rewarding users for choosing an option with a smaller carbon footprint. If we’re smart, that will be at no extra cost to the service.

Add the planet to your tools

Using tools or methods like the Lean Canvas, Business Model Generation, Design Principles, or Service Blueprints, it’s easy to engage teams and clients on environmental factors by ensuring they are, simply, visible. At Futurice, we are experimenting with new methods to encourage our teams to prioritise environmental factors in their projects. For example, we add a box called “Environmental Impact” on the Lean Canvas, so that it won’t be forgotten, and people will design for lower impact from the start. If you are building a service blueprint, add a swim lane called “environmental impact” or “resource use” or “pollution” so that all concerned are designing thoughtfully and consciously.

These are just five ways that designers can start to use their influence. With an open mind, there are countless others that designers can find. So, what else could teams be doing to bring sustainability into projects? How can we reduce our impact if we don’t know what it currently is? For teams that don’t know the answer to these questions maybe it’s time to found out.

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Alex Crowfoot

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