Saving the environment through design

Liam Hinshelwood

green route 300x225 Saving the environment through designLiam Hinshelwood and Tom White, Designers from PiStudio at Goldsmiths, University of London talk about the importance of design in helping the environment.

Every paper we open, United Nations report that we read or scientific study that is carried out points us to the same conclusion – we are damaging our environment and the effects are being felt, not just through our climate, but also increasingly in our economies. It is easy to point blame at ‘them’; the individuals, businesses or government as the cause of these problems.

However, the hard reality is ‘they’ are often not to blame; it is ‘us’, specifically our collective behaviours that have created the unsustainable society that we live in. These are the behaviours that consumerism has fostered and allowed to proliferate un-checked.

The same behaviours that, in the UK, make us throw away £12bn worth of our food annually in the face of a global food crisis, drive 4X4s in suburbia while fuel prices escalate, and pore over that latest shiny new mobiles whilst our current ones become obsolete in the space of a keynote presentation.

The vast majority of our responses to the environmental crises have so far been technological – electric cars, carbon capture, etc. While there is a place for these technologies, they are often short-term symptomatic responses seeking to maintain the status quo. We need to tackle this most pressing issue at source: our behaviour. But how can we create a change in the unsustainable behaviours that form such an intrinsic part of our daily lives?

Over that last century, many of our behaviours have been manipulated, even defined – sometimes intentionally, sometimes haphazardly – by the design that surrounds us. Examples are easy; just think how much mobile technology has changed the way that we communicate. This is the unsung power of design – it can and does shape our behaviour. The question is now, how do we use this power in the service of our long-term prosperity rather than short-term urges of consumerism?

The answer is to design ‘what we do’ rather than to simply design ‘things’. We must design the everyday items of our lives, landscapes, our streets, our buildings, our services and institutions in a way that will foster behaviours that will continue to sustain us.

As designers with the Pi Studio at Goldsmiths, University of London, we have been exploring how to influence behaviours to this end. Seeking to learn from a positive example, we reached out to a community group in Yorkshire that have had success doing just this. Founded four years ago in the former mill town of Todmorden, Incredible Edible Todmorden (IET) was born out of frustration at the lack of governmental engagement around the issues of environment, community and local economy. IET use the simple, universal language of food as a Trojan horse to engage and educate their town in the wider issues of local business and the environment.

Through a number of schemes, IET are establishing a community with a strong participative culture that provides the framework for building sustainable behaviours. This can be exemplified by their most notable campaign, which encourages residents to grow food for anyone to pick on publicly-owned land throughout the town. It would seem that as the community in Todmorden have taken ownership of their public spaces, they are engaging with, and taking ownership of the larger issues we face as a global community.

As part of our research, we’ve rolled up our sleeves to collaborate with IET to explore how design can amplify their activities. The frameworks IET are providing – by creating opportunities for wider community engagement and ownership – have served as the inspiration for our work. We’ve used our skills as designers to assist members of IET, and the wider community, to see the potential of the IET Green Route – an edible walking route drawing visitors and residents to the commercial and growing sites of the town to boost the local economy.

To inspire potential local entrepreneurs, we have prototyped new business models and brands for soap, tea and honey that offered an attainable future vision of commerce in the town. We have recently worked alongside architects, town planners and local residents to assist with the development of an alternative town plan for Todmorden that puts food and local business at its heart rather than the generic model replicated all over the UK.

As IET will say, this is a ‘forever project’ and our work with them has only just begun, we still have a lot to learn. However, we are starting to see some early results, the Green Route was launched earlier this year and is helping to attract ever more ‘Vegetable Tourists’ from all over the world to Todmorden. Also while these visitors are in town they can buy ‘Incredible Soap’, now on the shelves in local shops and in the not too distant future enjoy a nice cup of Tod Tea too.

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  • hannahb

    There is a lot to be said for stepping away from a ‘blame culture’ and people taking responsibility for their own actions…

  • Marcela T

    The role of designers as Papanek argues, not to be doing things at the top of the triangle but addressing the -real- problem.

    The notion that “we” are part of “them” can be trully empowering, if we aren’t satisfied with the way the world works then let’s find alternatives, especially us that are in a priviledged position, not only because we are on a state of mind where we are able to engage in these discussions but also in a place where we can make choices both as designers and as citizens, that can influence the world around us.

    Great to read you are doing it at Pi Studio.

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