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Thomas Schueneman headshot

What Design Can Do and the Climate Action Challenge: The Product of Ideas


Mission: Impossible

The challenge, should you decide to accept it:

“Make the huge – and for many people abstract – issue of climate change tangible and understandable, while at the same time offering potential and practical solutions.”

In the iconic 60s American television series Mission: Impossible, the task every week was simple: accomplish the impossible. The premise revolved around a diverse team of competent, confident, and dedicated individuals willing to take on each week’s new “impossible” task.

The lesson? What may seem impossible isn’t. Difficult in ways never before imagined? Of course. But with enough daring, creative thinking, and singular perspective, we can push the barrier of “impossible” much further than we think.

With this compelling stamp of optimism, for all who would accept it, the Climate Action Challenge launched in May 2017.

The three stages of response to climate change

When Amsterdam-based research and technology initiative What Design Can Do laid down its challenge in May 2017, they minced no words:
“Climate change is inevitable.”

Indeed, the luxury of time for sidestepping our predicament is long past. Earth's vast workings operate at a scale beyond common perception.  Anthropogenic climate change is here and it's coming, already baked into the system. What to do? I argue that there are three broad categories of human response to climate change:

  • Abdicate: Simply wring our hands in surrender to the inescapable catastrophe we’ve brought upon ourselves, selling out future generations by our lack of will;

  • Reject: deny there is a problem. Full speed ahead.

  • Face it: look squarely at the situation before us and not see so much as a problem (which it is), but more of a challenge, even an opportunity, to make a better world.

Of these responses, the first, untempered, is defeatist and weak; the second, foolhardy and dangerous; the third option sustains hope for that better world, organizing action by understanding and accepting our responsibility as a species, much as we expect of the individual beings within it.

So let’s focus here on the third response: action and opportunity.

GPS for good ideas

Now more than ever - and in ways we never could have imagined until we all got iPhones - humans huddle around the proverbial campfire for warmth and a sense of security in an uneven world. We lament a vague sense of unease, of existential fear, and rail on as to what someone should do about it.

Navigating the seemingly intractable problems of our world today, let alone what's ahead in the coming decades, demands more than infusions of cash or endless government interventions programs. Don't get me wrong, business, economics, and sound governance are ultimately the mechanisms for change in a neoliberal, globalized economy. But if the gears grind away with outdated, ineffective models, nothing really changes.

What is different than ever before is the scale and nature of the social transformation to which we must apply the power of change. In many cases, we must design our way out of failing designs of the past.

We need new ideas that fit within the context of the 21st century. It doesn't take an Elon Musk, either. We all have ideas to contribute.

The hard truth is that there are ideas and there are products. Products sell. Ideas, of themselves, are utterances around the global campfire. One could argue that most products are bad ideas in the end. Certainly, not all products are good ideas, but could it be that for a good idea to have a real impact in the context of liberal capitalism, emerging economies must, at least in some sense, become a product?

How do we find the good ideas and turn them into valuable products?

Just do it

We are immersed in design. That seems obvious on the face of it, but much like the fish unaware of the water in which it swims, we move through the world unmindful of the layers of inner belief and external structure that culminates in accepted reality.

But we must design for a new reality, learn to swim unfamiliar waters. This is the motivating drive behind Amsterdam-based What Design Can Do: through the creative possibilities of thoughtful design we can shape our world and what we hope it to be.

When Founder Richard van der Laken started WDCD, he sought a way to focus the disparate, often diffuse creative energy of visionary thinkers and the preternaturally optimistic perspectives of creative designers. Laken and his colleagues recognized that designers must be allowed to push into new frontiers. Social change happens when old boundaries are set aside in the pursuit of new ones.

What sprang up from the beginnings of WDCD was a global, collaborative, multi-disciplinary community of designers, entrepreneurs, business leaders, and NGOs, cross-pollinating ideas, showcasing best practices, and, oh yes, issuing challenges.


The Climate Action Challenge

So, back to our "impossible mission" - climate change is inevitable.

In May of 2017, WDCD, in partnership with Ikea and the Autodesk Foundation, WDCD issued its global Climate Action Challenge, calling on designers and creative thinkers to submit their best ideas for confronting climate disruption, especially in the world's poorest and most vulnerable regions.

“The collaboration with IKEA Foundation and Autodesk Foundation is unique,” says van der Laken in an Architecture Lab interview.

"We don’t just reach out to the global creative community to come up with solutions, together we also have real developing power.”

Three categories of participants, students, creative professionals, and startups, were invited to submit their best ideas relevant to their communities, passions, or areas of expertise. Recognizing the imperative of mitigation, the organizing principle of the challenge centered on adaptation "to the unavoidable impacts of climate change".

In all, WDCD received 384 entries from 70 countries. In September, a selection committee nominated the 35 most promising designs. With feedback from WDCD, the nominees had until November to refine and resubmit their ideas for the final round in São Paulo, Brazil.an international jury. A "broad swath" climate experts, business leaders, philanthropists were charged with the unenviable task winnowing 35 nominees to 13 finalists.

"it's a completely different way to analyze opportunities," Joe Speicher, Executive Director of the Autodesk Foundation and one of the judges in São Paulo, told Triple Pundit in a recent interview.."The way that an architect would analyze an opportunity is completely different in the way that myself as a funder would look at opportunities. And so we had a very interesting melding of the minds."

Designing the design challenge

Speicher admits to generally being "skeptical" of design challenges. A nice academic exercise, perhaps, but hardly game-changing.

"I think a lot of design competition tends to be a lot of wasted work," says Speicher. "Folks do their design schematic, mockups, CAD drawings, whatever.

"They submit it, the top three are chosen, and you're done."

It is this design challenge "vacuum" that the WDCD works to address.

"What we're talking about with What Design Can Do is how do we programatize this.. and really get people to engage on a much greater degree," says Speicher.

"The way that I see this is that we need a lot of options on the table to solve our existential climate crisis. And the more that we can get different communities thinking about this and engage with it as a topic the better."

Engagement goes both ways. At each step of the process, entrants received feedback on why a particular design did or didn't make it to the next step.

"The big opportunity is to get more folks thinking about (climate change), taking the best ideas and helping them come to fruition, which is the idea behind the accelerator program," Speicher says.

"That is very valuable in terms of making sure that it isn't just purely academic."


For the past five months, each of the finalists has honed their ideas alongside a team of experts guiding a customized accelerator program developed in partnership with Social Enterprise NL and STBY. A fast-track for turning ideas into products.

On May 24 in Amsterdam, each finalist presents prototypes and business plans to the world. A year-long process from the call for ideas, to the presentation of those ideas as developed solutions, ready for prime time in the marketplace of ideas.

Be the Lever

One of the biggest impediments to adopting a wholesale global response to global warming is the sheer scale of the challenge. Entire nations, let alone individual citizens, claim that, all by themselves, they are inadequate to the task. They’re right. Human collaboration is the essence of how tackled every existential challenge. Nobody goes it alone.

But at the same time, they’re wrong.

The history of our planet and our species is non-linear. Delving into a discussion of the philosophy of history is above my pay grade. I argue, however, that both natural and human history is marked by tipping points; watershed events that changed everything henceforth. A lone researcher, artist, or thinker with a vision unseen by most, could feed the spark of an idea that changes the course of humanity. But if that idea languishes in obscurity, who will know?

For any good idea to flourish, it must be supported by a community of like-minded thinkers.

“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
― Winston Churchill (attributed)

Finalists of the What Design Can Do Climate Action Challenge

Creative Professionals:

  • Artificial Glaciers: Artificial ‘ice stupas’ that store glacial meltwater in a form that makes them melt slower in spring, so water is available when it is most needed.

  • The Children’s Scrappy News Service: This project takes the weather report as a starting point to change children’s view on how we should adapt to the changing climate.

  • Dronecoria: An automatic reforestation project that uses customized DIY drones to disperse seeds.

  • Keepers: Creates a space for scientists and local farmers to share a meal and discuss how land can best be used and revitalized.

  • Power Plant: A greenhouse that––apart from food––also harvests energy from the sun.

  • The Vertical University Project: A university along the slopes of the Himalayas in Nepal that encourages students to learn from local farmers about the deep physical and biological diversity of the landscape.


  • Backpack Radio Station: This portable radio station can help remote communities to become more resilient before, during and after natural disasters.

  • Desolenator: This device offers a centralized solution to make water abundant in places where it is a scarce commodity.

  • EvoCCo: This web-based platform can help change consumer behavior at the point of purchase by offering information to make the better choices.

  • Students

  • The Change Rangers: This project prepares the next generation with how to deal with a warmer world.

  • Freewind: This project acts as an unplugged air conditioning unit for the thousands of heatwave victims in the slums.

  • Nivara: This open source do-it-yourself solution creates carbon for water purification out of locally available biomass.

  • Twenty: This project saves transport emissions by proposing to use ship detergents and other cleaning products without the water they usually are diluted in.
Thomas Schueneman headshot

Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of GlobalWarmingisReal.com and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

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