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Strategic Conversations about Sustainability: Can Design Strategy Accelerate Change through Collaboration?

CCA LiveE | Tuesday December 21st, 2010 | 1 Comment

This post is part of a year-end series by MBA students at California College of the Arts’ Design MBA Program. Read more about our annual partnership here.

By Arne Salonen

I am frustrated! It seems to me it is time certain questions are asked:

After decades of shrill and dogmatic rhetoric, shouldn’t we have made substantive progress toward a sustainable future? Why do we appear stuck at the discussion stage for the most part, unable to reach consensus on core issues and action? Are our staunchest advocates for sustainable development losing the thread and the audience?

Unfortunately, it seems to me the answer to these questions is yes. Sustainability remains an issue of first world technical “elites” and fails to inspire the average citizen. The discussion is focused on complex technical issues, the agenda has been hijacked to sell products and services, there is no unifying idea or philosophy, and the discussion emphasizes grim pronouncements instead of an engaging vision. We are struggling to implement and scale innovative ideas.

Make no mistake, as I see it, we’re making progress, just not enough and too slow to be meaningful. We cannot be satisfied with piecemeal cosmetic changes when we need fundamental change NOW. It’s going to take the literal reinvention of our ecological, political, and economic systems to redesign our livelihood on a finite planet while nurturing human aspirations and dreams. The need for drastic change is urgent. We don’t lack for coherent and engaging visions; for example, the mission statement of the Viridian Design Movement: “Creating irresistible demand for a global atmosphere upgrade” – Bruce Sterling. I was inspired by a recent talk by Bill McDonough that took an inspiring Jeffersonian tack to discuss life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, relating these principles to the design of sustainable economic opportunities.

As a student in the Design Strategy MBA, I wonder – How might design thinkers impact the conversation?

We need to help reframe the conversation to move past paralyzing rhetoric and create a space for innovative design solutions that consciously define desired outcomes, behaviors, and choices. This is our chance to create a new story – maybe the origin of “enough” instead of plenty?

But, a crucial element is missing – collaboration – that is vital to build a shared vision and create the demand for action. Harnessing the power of the crowd will help build momentum for change. Traditionally, we have relied on politics, government policy, and the market to signal our priorities.  Recent events challenge that reliance – speaking for myself, I cannot imagine that dysfunctional systems and organizations can create positive outcomes.  New problems require new institutions and new livelihoods to respond to our current challenges.

As we consider how to accelerate this undertaking – and this we must! – we might examine past social movements that reshaped our thinking, politics, and economics. From the Grange and the reforms of the Progressive Era to the Civil Rights movement, from Earth Day to the modern success of the Vihreat Liitto (The Green League) in Finland; from World War II rationing to recycling; there are many precedents for great change and impact created by many individual acts taken in concert.

Archimedes once said “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” We need a lever; but, more importantly, we need to find the fulcrum to rest our lever upon. Then, we can create the game changer…a powerful idea to guide our approaches to our desired future.

Let’s work to create the fulcrum for sustainability by building the conversation around common meanings, motivations, and behaviors, recognizing that we are all in this together. Build collaborations and create inclusive discussions. Tell a simple and coherent story. Emphasize positive change through a combination of public policies and economic activity where that creates progress and reshape economic analyses to fully illustrate the choices that confront us. Let’s focus on action, rather than fixating on blame – that doesn’t matter as much as the change we need. Finally, do more, do it now. Don’t be afraid to try solutions and stay flexible.

Design thinking may provide value to shaping future discourses on sustainability as well as offering integrated solutions. What I’ve learned is that design by itself is insufficient, no matter how innovative or cutting edge it may be in a technological or material or form-making sense. It is far more crucial to understand the meanings and behaviors that underlie our systems and lives and then collaborate on design solutions. Communicating in a deliberate and strategic way to comprehend and persuade is essential to the process. Telling a coherent story that combines meaning and analysis in a resonant way offers more value than hyper-accurate technical documentation. We must concentrate on understanding our long-range choices. Design strategists can integrate meanings, values, and analyses to create new innovative solutions based in collaboration.

Design thinking empowers solutions; it does not create solutions in isolation.

This is not an exercise; this is our future.


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  • Dolly Parikh

    Arne, great article. I would argue that the average citizen is so caught up in trying to make the ends meet that if the so called Sustainability initiatives require them to part with their individual depleting resources, they are not thinking of the planet.

    I was recently at the Marine Highlands talking to the Marine Biologist there about Garbage Patch and he was quick to point out that we can do whatever we need to as a resourceful country about introducing programs to stop it, but countries from the other side of the Pacific Ocean do not have similar programs which defeats the purpose.

    This is true for the use of plastics. Developing nations are just being introduced to the notion of “plenty” and forgetting living with “enough”. The plenty introduces extra toys, convenience of using plastics etc.

    Where do we focus on our energies?

    I say divide and conquer. We split up with the common vision and reach out to various parts of the word with a common goal of fixing one thing at a time.