Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sustainability as a Principle for Design Action in India

Image: The Design Vortex: The Expanding role of Design. IDSA Lecture pdf 812 kb (Click image to enlarge)
Design is changing and expanding as we understand its boundaries and reinterpret it as a human ability for the creation of viable and sustainable human futures. This model of the Design Vortex was created to share our understanding of design at NID as we now teach it to our students in the Design Concepts and Concrens course that has evolved over the years. This is not to claim that all teaching at the Institute is based on these premises but this would not be true since other colleagues may not subscribe to these positions and therefore the course content and emphasis would vary greatly. Design for me is changing to move from a focus on material, function and aesthetic sensibilities to include a broader set of parameters, which include social, environmental, political and ethical values in the expanding order shown in the model.

Image: An Ocean Voyage as a Metaphor for Sustainable Learning. By a student group in the DCC class at NID. (Click image to enlarge)
Once again we have returned to an oft-repeated topic in design education at NID and that is of “sustainability” by and how it can be and should be used as a principle of design action in India. The current batch of students taking our Design Concepts and Concerns course have been assigned the task of brainstorming and categorization to make sense of the concept of sustainability across five broad areas of focus, namely Learning, Food, Health, Play and Mobility. This work can be seen at our education blog called “Design Concepts and Concerns” where they have built models and metaphors to explore and represent their understanding of the subject and the variables that impinge on their particular area. More about this class at this link.

Image: The Iceberg Factor: recognition of the tangible and intangible factors in design thinking and action. (Click image to enlarge)
What is sustainability?, How do we recognize it and to what fields does it apply? What are the attributes and features of sustainable systems and how do we embed these qualities into new design opportunities that we may wish to address in each of the fields under study? To answer these questions we asked the students plumb their collective life experiences and use the data that is generated to build models of what is known to the group as well as build a tentative structure of what they think would be included in the scope of such an exploration. The exploration also tends to reveal areas of the unknown and areas where the information is less clear to the students. These would then help raise pertinent research questions to be clarified as the work progresses either by contact with potential experts as well as concerned individuals who are likely to know more about the subject if they can be contacted in the field. They could also access such information from published sources and the internet based on their new understanding of the subject having completed a structured review as a team.

Image: Space Bubble Earth: Fertile Soil as a measure of Future Wealth on Earth. (Click image to enlarge)
Sustainability is not a new concept but it is certainly being taken more seriously now than it was some forty years ago when it was being discussed as a desirable quality in architecture and design by some of the leading design thinkers of the day. Gregory Bateson's "Steps to an Ecology of Mind" was the first source that introduced me personally to the concept of "ecology" in human systems although we had been discussing the concept as students at NID (in the 70’s). Bucky Fullers works with John McHale, particularly in the Design Science Decade volumes where World Resources and systems implications are discussed in great detail. Stafford Beer' "Platform for Change" is another holistic perspective that helped clarify concepts of systems and ecologies of relationships in the early 80's and late 70's. “Limits to Growth” a 1972 report by Donella Meadows, which was commissioned by the Club or Rome, and the World Conservation Strategy report in 1987 show the possibility of current thinking leading to unsustainable situations. Eric Jantsch, The self organizing universe, Scientific and Human Implication: of the Emerging Paradigm of Evolution, New York: Pergamon. 1980 was another source of inspiration. I mention these sources since we at NID were looking at product design in our local context and some of these sources helped greatly in setting our own goals and directions in the early days. The discussions in the Hfg Ulm Journals on structure and systems models were definitely another influential resource that comes to my mind.

Image: Bamboo Initiatives at NID: Sustainable model for Rural Development using local resources and local uses. (Click image to enlarge)
“Sustainable development” is defined as balancing the fulfillment of human needs with the protection of the natural environment so that these needs can be met not only in the present, but also in the indefinite future. Sustainable development does not focus solely on environmental issues. More broadly, sustainable development policies encompass three general policy areas: economic, environmental and social. Today with global warming looming large with its associated range of natural and social consequences that could be disastrous for humans as well as to life on earth as we know it today the concept is slowly gaining attention in learned circles in the sciences and the arts as well as in design. John Thackara with his Doors of Perception initiatives as well through the Design Council activity of DOTT07 are exploring new approaches to thinking and action through design for sustainable living. Ezio Manzini with his service design workshops and his “Sustainable Everyday Projects” work at the Politecnico di Milano are trying to create a platform for an international thrust for getting the concepts of sustainability embedded into society and into design thinking at a deep level in education and in practice. Ezio Manzini’s call for a change of mindsets is being heard in China but not in India where it is growth at any cost, environmental, social and ethical….with very few exceptions in industry and government.

In his comment on the Indian National Design Policy, John Thackara expressed shock at there being no mention of global warming and the need for a serious support for sustainable design at the core of the Indian policy framework. Much of the policy document calls for efforts to grow exports exponentially in consumer goods and economic services in manufacturing industry and business as well as in the IT sector through the use of design. This is almost like missing the bus altogether when the world is being sensitized to the next big opportunity for the use of design at a higher level of understanding and using this as an opportunity to address real needs in as many as 230 sectors of our economy across the country. John Eliot writing for the Fortune Global Forum reports on the fiasco of the Tata Motors SEZ initiative in Singur for the Rupees one lakh car project (USD 2500) which brings into sharp conflict local poor farmers and the State’s ambition to industrialise rapidly using the Chinese Style SEZ approach, unsustainable due to politics of conflict that it spawns.

The automobile policy too can be questioned when one looks at the result of haphazard development in Bangalore and Hyderabad where each new automobile added to the street just chokes the system in huge traffic snarls that are an everyday event in both these dynamic cities. Sustainable approaches would need a macro-micro strategy and an understanding of design at levels above that of material, form, function, aesthetics and economics of growth to include the environment and social aspirations that are mediated by politics and ethics of sustainability. At this level design takes on a whole new meaning for society and it is not a mere tool for industry and business but a way of life itself in the shaping of culture. India needs to adopt this expanded form of design and implement it in education and in governance across all sectors of our economy of we are to attain sustainable development as a way forward, but although this is not easy, we cannot afford not to use it in any case, and we must find a way forward. If design continues to operate at the level of the surface aesthetics and style in making fast & sexy cars that can go nowhere, we need to do a serious rethink of our education and our national policy for design. I do hope that we can shift gears quickly and face reality.

Image: What is Design? A systems perspective with Fire as a Metaphor for Design (Click image to enlarge)
We are in the real world of socio-economic consequences that Victor Papanek proposed in his 1972 book “Design for the Real World” and we are now dealing with the fall out of the ecological mismanagement that his book “The Green Imperative” suggests. Papanek had visited NID in 1979 and the Ahmedabad Declaration and the Major Recommendations remain unread and unattended documents and we must look at the writing on the wall and seek out the design way in the threads of wisdom which are already with us, if only we are willing to listen as a country to the real meaning of design. Last week I obtained through an internet bookstore a used copy of Tomas Maldonado’s visionary book “Design, Nature and Ecology: Toward a Critical Ecology” first published in 1970 in Italian and translated in English in 1972. Once again the Ulm school master amazes one with his insight and expression and we hope that these lessons will be used in India. Design goes well beyond the manipulation of material and form and it has to embrace the political and ethical if it has to produce sustainable futures for all of us.

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