Sustainism: the next design movement?

Is "sustainism" the next design movement? A look at the benefits and drawbacks of eco-conscious design and what's holding it back from true success.

If Michiel Schwarz and Joost Elffers are to be believed, "sustainism" is the next movement -- and it's already underway.

In their the new book, "Sustainism is the New Modernism," the authors declare the dawn of a new cultural era in which the world is more connected, more localist, more digital and more sustainable.

They write:

Sustainism marks a shift not only in thinking and doing but in collective perception--of how we live, do business, feed ourselves, design, travel and communicate, as much as how we deal with nature.

Hmm, okay.

The target audience for the book is the design community, which is already familiar with these principles courtesy Michael Braungart and William McDonough’s “Cradle to Cradle," which covers everything from responsible sourcing to production and recycling.

(That book famously proclaimed, "Nature doesn't have a design problem. People do.")

But Alice Rawsthorn, writing in the International Herald Tribune, extracts something deeper about Schwarz and Elffers' proposal:

Progress is hindered by the general confusion over fundamental questions such as what does — and doesn’t — constitute environmentally sensitive design, sourcing, manufacturing and disposal; and how we should judge them.

One reason is that there is no consensus on these matters among scientists and environmentalists. Another is that, up until now, most developments in design were triggered by advances in physics, which has a long tradition of proof and measurement, whereas much of the work in eco-responsible design is rooted in the more elusive science of biology. This uncertainty makes it difficult for designers to proceed with confidence, particularly when they know that whatever is currently accepted as “best practice” may soon change.

Complicating the picture is the inherent optimism of designers, who seek to find opportunities to solve problems, Rawthorn writes. Now that those problems have expanded to include complex global socioeconomic issues, design turns political -- a Western "soft power" tool to reaffirm imperial hierarchies.

To make her case, Rawsthorn references a November 2010 blog post, "Checks and Balances," by IDEO president Tim Brown.

In it, he writes:

There is little inherent in the design process that protects design thinkers from these same failures if we choose to tackle abstract, intangible questions such as services, systems and networks. Instead we might imagine how to apply the same rigor and discipline to the design process that has emerged from hundreds of years of practice in the tangible world. We might concentrate on how to make the process of the design of the intangible as transparent and open to observation as the design of the tangible. We might develop prototyping environments that allow us to learn through failure without catastrophic implications. We might accept that we need better mechanisms for criticism and feedback so that we begin to establish a body of knowledge about what works, and what does not, in the design of these things that don't go 'thud' when we drop them.

The point? The concept of sustainism and its values may be promising, but we won't know for sure until we have a system of feedback to tell us whether this design principle, or any other, is effective at solving the problems it aims to address.

Writing at The Huffington Post, environmentalist Michael DeJong doesn't buy it:

"Sustainability" might be achievable as a relevant goal for eco-conscious individuals, NGOs, not-for-profits, government municipalities, social entrepreneurs, and even Big Oil, Big Pharma, etc., if their intent is to reach that goal increment by increment. "Sustainism," on the other hand, might sadly be just another elitist marketing bandwagon for which a small privileged percentile in the developed world will be affected, but close to 100% of the under-privileged in the developing world won't be affected in any meaningful way.

Neither does Design Observer's John Thackara:

Sustainism is rather like a butterfly collection. Many of its specimens are renowned, and some of them are beautiful — but they are also — how to put this delicately? — lifeless.

Sustainism, in consequence, achieves the opposite of its ambition. It's a very Modern book.

I'm on the fence; there has certainly been a shift in perspective, but it's unclear how conscious that shift has been.

So I'll say this: you can call it what you want, but at the end of the day, design -- especially the "green" kind -- needs data.

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