Driving Sustainable Design

With Dott 07, John Thackara looks at daily life as a design opportunity and tackles social issues in small doses

Despite all the talk of the "power of design" to drive sales, C-suite executives and industrial designers often butt heads when working together. Business leaders complain that designers don't have any idea what it takes to run a successful company; designers promptly counter that those same leaders don't have a clue how to commission or champion the design process. Then there are the environmentalists, getting more air time of late, who fear that neither group is concerning itself with asking the correct questions (is a product really necessary?) or trying to solve the right problems (is a product sustainable?).

Luckily for all three groups, there's John Thackara. Working at the intersection of business, technology, sustainability, and design, the former journalist, educator, and director of the Netherlands Design Institute is in the business of meshing innovations that drive social change with design.

As the director of design futures network Doors of Perception, and program director of Dott 07, an ambitious, year-long initiative to establish a sustainable region in cities throughout the northeast of England, Thackara is at the forefront of the flourishing sustainable design movement. And as far as he's concerned, the right question to be asking is, "What might a sustainable world look like?" with a prompt follow-up, "What sort of design actions can we take to get there?"

Life as Design

Resolutely pragmatic, Thackara champions a down-to-earth approach that requires action and doesn't shy away from either trial or error. This is a man who's interested in talking, for sure—he's lectured in more than 40 countries around the world—but he's also concerned that projects should be rooted in reality, and have a purpose other than high-falutin' idealism.

That's why Dott 07 is so interesting. Organized in collaboration with Britain's Design Council and the regional development agency One NorthEast, it's looking at "daily life as a design opportunity," says Thackara. The program of events tackles issues from health to food, energy to tourism to travel, examining how design principles can be applied to help achieve the goal of sustainable living, or a lifestyle that preserves and protects natural resources.

A number of things are pretty remarkable about Dott 07. For one thing, Thackara centered activities in the struggling, post-industrial northeast of England. It's an area that has been in slow decline for the past 20 or 30 years, since the area's chemical industry slid painfully but inexorably into oblivion. Such willful parochialism is almost unheard of in Britain, where the focus is almost always trained on glamorous London (in the south), or trendy cities such as Liverpool or Manchester, which have embarked on determined, relatively successful rebranding exercises in recent years.

Collaborative Approach

But that's Thackara through and through. He's not interested in what's fashionable, he's interested in making a difference. Nor, rather more surprisingly, is he interested in hyping a designer's role in the process of creating socially responsible, profitable businesses.

"The designer is at the center of things, but not wholly in charge," he said by phone from his home in Ganges, France. "The notion that a designer should tell everyone what to do doesn't make sense and isn't what happens: No real-world project has a designer at the helm. But a designer is good at bringing together different points of view—team building and project assembly is also a design activity." In Thackara's world, the designer can act as a change catalyst, able to spot flaws in the system and visualize creative, inventive solutions. It's a collaborative approach that meshes business with design rather than have them live in separate worlds.

The other remarkable thing about Dott 07 is the cast of characters that has been drawn into its orbit. From London architect Andre Viljoen, with his inventive work on urban agriculture, to British/Norwegian service innovation specialists Live|Work, the disparate group is drawn from all fields, bringing an intentionally radical outlook and spirit to the various projects, while simultaneously remaining committed to obtaining parsable results. There are no stars or "big names" here—this is about genuine collaboration and invention.

"With urban farming, we're looking to see what it would take to grow the food required by a city within those city limits," says Thackara. "Rather than publish some massive plan, we're doing a project with 1,000 people growing food in containers. Then we improve the connections between the people growing the food and those who need to eat it. We're not developing an alternative agricultural system, but in this way we can learn about the practical obstacles to doing this on a wider scale." So where Al Gore took a more alarmist approach to global warming, Thackara has opted to strive for incremental change that he hopes will nonetheless have a huge effect.

Real-Life Action

This network is a natural byproduct of Thackara's other brainchild, the popular, 14-year-old biennial conference Doors of Perception, which premiered in the Netherlands in 1993. Bearing similarities to a conference such as TED (see, 3/12/07, "The Talk of TED"), each Doors event attracts around 1,000 people from the worlds of design, architecture, government, education, tech, and science.

The most recent event was held in New Delhi at the end of February (see, 6/3/07, "Taking on the Global Food Crisis"). Again, the emphasis was on practical analysis, leading to real-life action that happens even after the conference is officially over. Thackara & Co. place themselves at the center of this disparate group of interested parties, many working at a grassroots level, all committed to driving real change.

And while businesses have perhaps been slow or unwilling to embrace sustainability, that's also beginning to change. "In the past 18 months or two years, business around the world has started to move in a dramatic way," says Thackara. "There was a long period of denial—people seemed to hope that the issues would just go away. But the Stern Review [the report on climate change published in October, 2006, by Sir Nicholas Stern, head of Britain's Government Economic Service and former World Bank chief economist] has been a huge catalyst for change.

"This wasn't written by some wild-eyed, hemp-wearing, mystical environmentalist, but by an economist for the Chancellor of the Exchequer [Britain's finance minister]. It outlined that there's a hard-nosed economic justification for doing something about climate change—if you don't want to pay more down the line."

No More Business as Usual

In other words, businesses have realized that they can't hide their heads in the sand any longer. "Businesses are partly about selling products and services, but they're also about managing risk, and the judgment shifted from thinking that sustainability was something unnecessary to the opposite—[the realization that] we have to do something now," Thackara continues. "I'm frankly staggered by the radical nature of the plans and the changes that are not just being talked about but also being implemented. Marks & Spencer, Wal-Mart (WMT), airports and airlines—are all confronting the fact that 'business as usual' is not an option anymore."

Businesses are beginning to pay closer attention to Thackara's ideas, too, as are designers and academics from around the world. "What I love about John is that he is righteous without being self-righteous. He is certainly a tireless preacher but under no illusion that this makes him better than anyone else," says Rebeca Mendez, professor of design and media arts at UCLA, and principal and creative director of Los Angeles design firm RMCD, who heard Thackara speak at an AIGA conference in Seattle in 1994 and was so impressed she immediately booked her ticket for the next year's Doors of Perception conference. "He is never about the world of design, but always about the design of the world."

Going Small Distances

"He has a very comprehensive way of thinking about our entire way of living—and how we can all design a more sustainable life," says Dana Hutt, director, architectural documentation and special projects at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., and co-curator of Open House, a recent exhibition looking at current smart architecture and technology. "For John, it's not about high-tech solutions or for us having to change everything all at once, but to start changing our lives piece by piece."

For his part, Thackara is neither evangelizing a technology-centric approach, nor espousing a return to a more Luddite-inspired, pre-industrial time. "The Internet is a very powerful way to organize the distribution of information and goods," he says. "But it has been used to send things very long distances at a huge environmental cost. That same infrastructure can be used for small distances as well as large. We just have to change the question that we ask of it." Every business, he argues, must reevaluate what and how it operates in terms of sustainability.

And a tip of the green hat simply isn't good enough. "We need clear and explicit benchmarks of where we are now and where we have to get to," says Thackara. "What does sustainable really mean? If one company says it's greener than another, it's still meaningless if both are operating in an unsustainable way." He gives an example: New Zealand farmers claim that their lamb is produced more organically than lamb in Britain. "But if you ship frozen lamb from one side of the world to the other, well, that's very bad," he says. "I'm not unsympathetic, but we have to have objective measures to assess these things." Practical systems must be developed to allow for explicit, clear measurements of sustainability.

Oh, for a Benefactor

It's this pragmatic attitude and this fervent—but not slavish—belief that design can be used to change the world that has made Thackara a force to be reckoned with. That, and his realization that for anything to be effective, the right stakeholders have to be involved. "These can't be merely boutique projects," he says. "Forty percent of our time is spent bringing the right people together, from citizens to government to property developers. For Dott 07, projects are run by local community groups: The mayor's there, public spaces are involved…"

The bottom-up approach certainly keeps Thackara busy while he retains a sense of optimism that change can happen—and change can be good. "He has never lost this deeply held love and hope for humanity," says Mendez. She adds wistfully, "I wish there was a rich old lady who would donate some of her millions to the work that he does with Doors of Perception. Or maybe Al Gore should give him a call. Then we would see some real change."

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