Design for a future sustainable experience

Thoughts and open questions about the role of design when it comes to designing for a sustainable future for the environment, society and business.

Alex Cascarano and Alessandro Di Benedetto
Executive Design Directors

30.10.20 - 8 min read

The dimension of sustainability, in recent years, has rightly entered more and more overbearingly first into the social, then political and finally economic agenda. With different nuances, with other ambitions and often with mixed motivations, people, groups, companies and society are wondering how it is possible to continue to meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same.

What destiny awaits the generations to come? Will we have a better future? How can we make sure that this happens and that what awaits us is no worse than what we have already experienced? 

And it is not a matter of longing for a past mythical golden age: the evidence multiplies and unfortunately, as Sergeant Hartmann said, the circle narrows. The economic crisis that has gnawed at levels of collective well-being since the 1990s; the spread of political instability throughout the world since the collapse of the Berlin Wall; the ongoing climate change and, last but not least, the pandemic that is still claiming victims everywhere... all are elements that make this dimension urgent, felt and crucial. 

And that makes the issue so knotty that it can only be tackled with a powerful personal and collective effort. 

As far as the personal dimension is concerned, we can only hope that everyone makes responsible choices aimed at general well-being. For the collective extent, instead, as designers, we have something to say and several arrows in our bow to contribute.

Attention, we do not want to say that design will save the world. It would be a statement at the same time silly and superb. Instead, we want to say that it is possible to design for a sustainable future, incorporating the dimension of continuity of value - understood in a broad sense - in the way we conceive products, services and processes. 

It also means that from now on we will focus on the dimension of corporations and organizations, the places where we, as a design studio, have the opportunity to influence the design processes and their outcomes, well aware of all the connections with everything else. 

A new dimension of sustainability for companies

Economic sustainability means the ability of a financial system to generate sustainable growth of indicators: in particular, to generate income and work for the livelihoods of communities. It also means the ability to produce and maintain maximum added value by effectively combining resources to enhance the specificity of the products and services offered. But it also means protecting economic, human, social and natural capital. It is not just an ethical dimension but a strategic one.

Continuing to generate value over time is the necessary condition for the survival of entrepreneurial initiative.

There is an increase of awareness on the part of companies. The mirage of infinite growth is now in decline, and we are looking for the most sensible way to continue. 

We talked about this some time ago; even companies are changing their perspective: from redistributing revenues only to their shareholders to reinvesting value towards the community, society in general and the environment. 

Whatever their motivations - and in most cases, we are sure they are genuine - companies are incorporating the dimension of corporate and social sustainability into their actions: continuing to generate value over time is the necessary condition for the survival of entrepreneurial initiative. 

No company is an island. There must be a whole system of regulation and access to financial resources built around the concept. Corporations are happy to do sustainable projects if they are supported by governments that recognize their contribution within society and work by reducing the tax burden. In the same way, investment funds must acknowledge the value of sustainability to stimulate corporations in this sense. 

Speaking of corporate sustainability, then, means embracing the dimension of the future and conceiving everything - from the corporate structure to the last of the services or products offered - in this perspective. It means starting to identify those aspects that allow us to discern today's lines of business transformation and embrace other dimensions (society, environment, politics). It is, therefore, a design dimension. 

Design for a sustainable future 

Sustainability must be based on the ability to integrate now the reasoning on the implications of design choices to move towards future scenarios that are better in terms of ethics, environmental sustainability, financial sustainability and social sustainability. 

In this sense, choosing is fundamental. Sustainability is part of a very complex matrix of meaning; the choice is an important issue to understand how to be sustainable. 

Design needs to reposition itself within the system to tackle sustainability and, therefore, impact on the future. No longer deliberating on a solution that brings value in the short and medium-term - also considering the development time -, it needs to assume that the choices made today have implications on the future. Hence, these must be taken into account to conceive a product, a service or an artefact that has value within 5, 10, 30 years. 

To do this, you need to make some changes in the way you approach and conceive a project. 

From human-centred to society-centred design

Approaches like design thinking and human-centred design, too often look at people only as individuals. Or, even worse, only as consumers. They do not look at people with their communities or society in general.

It is not necessarily that the benefit to a person is automatically that of the community to which he or she belongs - a community in the broad sense, from the neighbourhood to the much wider community of the human species.

Designing for society means planning for the broader context of the systems we impact and design, without ignoring the individual. It is an approach that must be shared - inside and outside the corporate world - to have an impact.

Let's be honest: when we talk about design, even entrepreneurial design, designers do not have a central role. The grand visions of companies are made by the founders or CEOs, not by the design firms as their consultants. If we are lucky, we have a supporting role in the definition of a company's strategy.

Building awareness and facilitating debate between the parties

Our actual value, in the perspective of sustainability, lies elsewhere. Design can create debate as it has always done, even within these realities - corporate, government, investment funds -; another role is to fluidize the dialogue between the parties, therefore a role both as contributors and facilitators. 

Design can help companies to be more aware, through research and design thinking, on what will be the strategic direction of the company. We can help to bring out data, implications, some of our reflections in connecting the signals and understanding the trends and forces of change. Then it is up to the company to define which direction to take. 

Design must generate debate and produce the right questions to ask the right stakeholders: in doing so, it can help companies better define what could be the possible futures, and then, among these, choose what they consider preferable. 

The tools we have at our disposal are transition design, futures studies and foresight activities. Through these, we can identify possible directions and imagine future scenarios on which to base reflections and generate valuable decisions. 

But let's try to go a bit deeper (all the methodological insights will be explored in the next article in the series): 

  • Transition design: Evolves the concept of experience design by moving the discipline towards the horizon of future change and its social, economic, political and natural effects. It shifts the systemic conception on the human figure and its network of relationships and interdependencies overcoming the mere aspects of service and embracing the terms of impact on a broader time scale than 'product'.
  • Futures studies: These are explorations that range from scientific to sociological research. They include different activities dedicated to the analysis and understanding of the signals and implications that contribute to the definition of future scenarios.
  • Strategic foresight: Collects all those activities conducted by realities present in the markets, from large corporations to institutions and organizations of different scales, to prepare and anticipate possible futures. These are activities closely related to business and its sustainability in economic and other terms, implemented to assess, understand and sometimes increase awareness of short-term choices.

Future is a doing word

To move towards a more sustainable business action, it is necessary to expand the conception of value, setting objectives for creating growth not only on the economic side but also considering the environment, society and governance. Companies have to address the issues from within in terms of workers' welfare, the sustainability of the supply chain, redistribution of value among stakeholders. 

What must be clear is that talking about sustainability is not an academic dissertation, a habit for the most sensitive, but an urgent necessity. 

The challenges and transformations are certainly not behind us, in all the uncertainty surrounding us what we can be sure of is the volatility of the coming years. 

We can have some awareness of what will be the technology adoption curve, i.e. we can know when technologies that are emerging today will enter a phase of maturity - such as 5G, self-driven vehicles to give a couple of examples. 

The way companies, already today, plan their transformative acts towards the future that they identify as preferable, among all those possible, will determine the anatomy of tomorrow. That's why it's so important to begin to understand now how the role they will play towards their business and their customers, but also towards society and the planet (until we can go further).

This article is the first in a series of two. In this one, we will explore the rationals that guide our way of designing for the future; the second one will address the way we do it.