Design + Sustainability


How can we redesign economic and industrial systems for long-term sustainability? And how can funders support these shifts? The answers provided here affirm that design, broadly understood, offers one of the most promising avenues for addressing the social, economic, and environmental challenges of the 21st century and beyond. The report was prepared for The Summit Foundation in support of its development of a program to support innovations in sustainable design.


Figure 1. A comprehensive vision
We can envision a world where products and services in all sectors optimize economic, social, and environmental benefits for all. Each individual aspect of this vision -- energy, incentives, etc. -- depends upon the realization of one or more of the others. Resource productivity, for instance depends upon effective use of renewable energy, whose economic feasibility could in turn hinge upon appropriate government policies to align incentives for new technology development and implementation. Appropriate, effective action derives from a clear understanding of these relationships.
Figure 2. Internalization of costs
Free markets are not perfect. They efficiently establish accurate prices, but they do not account for full costs. The hidden social and environmental costs of economic activity are referred to as "externalized costs." Government policies and incentive programs that encourage internalization of these costs into the market price of goods and services put the free market to work for the long-term benefit of society. As shown, the cost to industry of internalizing costs is typically lower than the externalized social costs that they resolve. For instance, the cost of pollution-prevention measures are typically much lower than the total costs to society if the measures are not installed.
Figure 3. Systemic analysis
As organizations set out to redesign industrial and economic activity, the "sustainability triad" of Economy/Ecology/Equity (or People/Planet/Profit) may prove less useful as a conceptual tool than more detailed analyses of complex, systemic interrelationships among stakeholders, resources, and operating conditions. The unique opportunities for creative action and leverage documented in this report could only emerge from such detailed, context-specific systemic analysis.
Figure 4. Contexts of influence
Patterns of consumption and use are structured by the entire economic and industrial system, which itself is subject to the influence of the natural systems on which it depends. Activity in any part of the system is conditioned by the influences of its own context. Production and distribution systems, for instance, are defined by design approaches, which are, in turn, determined by business strategies. Incremental changes within individual arenas of activity are both possible and necessary, but an ambitious vision for sustainability will require changes at all levels. Sustainable consumption initiatives, for instance, can alter patterns of use, but their potential for deep, systemic impact lies in the degree to which they can alter the structure of demand, a fundamental market force.
Figure 5. Reforestation bonds
Rain forest damage from rapid logging threatens to compromise the ability of the Panama Canal to serve the needs of commerce. New "reforestation bonds" leverage the interests of canal users, their insurers, and re-insurers to finance forest restoration projects expected to mitigate these problems, making the canal more dependable and efficient.
Figure 6. USGBC LEED Program
The USGBC emphasizes in public presentations that LEED is a leadership program that aims to "push the envelope" at the top end of the market. As the building industry as a whole moves to more sustainable practices, USGBC expects to progressively adjust its standards upward over time to continue to target the top 25%. LEED will never be aimed at transforming the mainstream of conventional construction practices, but by steadily advancing the highest standard for excellence, it may tend to raise the overall bar for achievement, as well.
Figure 7. Shifting the curve
CleanGredients creates a "pipeline" of chemicals that is intended to shift the distribution profile for the entire industry. As usage of CleanGredients grows, the number of "green" ingredients in use will steadily increase, while the number of problematic or hazardous products will steadily decrease. This shift will occur in parallel with a steadily more demanding definition of "leadership" in green chemistry.
Figure 8. Attribute-based decision-making
As designers and decision-makers seek information to make intelligent, educated choices, they will increasingly turn to resources that provide attribute-based information about the relative sustainability of materials, components, products, and systems. Just as consumer product information has shifted from the simple "seal of approval" to the Nutritional Facts label and attribute-based indices, so too will eco-labels and certification systems be supplemented by decision-making frameworks based on more complex, context-specific attributes.