Seeing sustainable futures: the potential of design education

Dewberry, Emma (2002). Seeing sustainable futures: the potential of design education. In: The Design History Society Situated Knowledges Conference, 3-5 Sep 2002, Aberystwyth.



The process of sustainable development requires us all to think differently about what we do, how we do it and why we do what we do. Questioning activities in the context of sustainability can often result in difficult and perhaps uncomfortable conclusions about our current development paradigm – one that gives primacy to economic growth and wealth creation over welfare and well-being.

The practice of design operates within this development paradigm and is complicit in the unsustainable activities of the business domain. Designers support the economic system through the conceptualisation and production of goods: goods multiplying in variety and number, responding to escalating global demand. Unfortunately most current business operates for economic profit alone, ignorant of key sustainable ecological and social parameters. For example material throughput is linear rather than cyclic in nature; social inequities exist in relation to trade and well-being; and natural resources are considered convenient dumps for pollutants and toxins. Designers, among many others, are thus implicated in the augmentation of unsustainable outcomes rather than the reduction of them.

This paper aims to explore how this situation can be reversed to enable design to play a positive and supporting role towards the goals of sustainable development. Challenging the current paradigm of development will need people who have the ability to think creatively and laterally and draw on disparate areas of knowledge to vision new, more sustainable futures. Design education has a big role to play in this transformation and as such needs to alter its focus from the current outcomes of design activity to a range of alternative responses that embrace joined-up thinking and generate apposite learning outcomes. This paper investigates the sort of knowledge required and discusses the potential shift in values needed for design for sustainability to be accepted as a catalyst for change. It addresses the potential of current design education in channelling such change and investigates the sort of tools required for this to happen. Ultimately, the paper proposes, it is a key responsibility of existing design educators to prepare the graduate designers of tomorrow with the skills and inspiration to vision sustainable futures for this century and beyond.

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