Imagine a world where buildings create more electricity than they use, green plants clean up toxic spills, cars quietly whiz by emitting only water vapor, and effluent leaving factories is cleaner than it came in. Well, these things have begun to transpire as the world commences to repair the damage it has inflicted on itself in past years. A revolution is brewing that is addressing a new type of industrialism that values the planet, the life on it, and a way to integrate economic, environmental, and social prosperity.
This revolution will require new paradigms and literally rethinking everything we do. Spawned from an increasing sense of responsibility and stewardship over our ill planet, it will require innovative thinking to turn around old-school ways and century-old habits. Now more than ever, industrial designers have the opportunity to lead a new generation of thinkers to successfully rebuild the next millennium, serving our ever-growing population and conserving our resources. Many issues are to be simultaneously addressed which involve materials, energy, residuals, ecological factors, human health, and safety. As designers, we must balance these with performance, cost, culture, and legal design requirements.
From Apple iPods to Nike high-tops, industrial designers leave a mark with every product they create. The question is whether that mark is a permanent scar or a temporary henna-type tattoo. A product's impact can easily remain as an eternal blot on the global landscape or with some forethought, a transient experience that serves its purpose and gracefully disappears after its useful life, absorbed by nature or reborn to live another life. Unfortunately, the past industrial patterns we have chosen to perpetuate in the mass production of objects are fatally flawed. Current technologies are highly inefficient and are largely based on finite resources without plans to replenish them. These systems are doomed to failure as materials run out and energy supplies dwindle.
Sustainability has recently become the conscience of industrial design. Sooner or later every designer realizes that their passionate labor will ultimately become landfill. This realization has led many to reexamine their contribution to this dilemma and what they can do about it. The same thinking that got us to this point will not get us out. This generation is faced with the monolithic challenge to decrease or eliminate the negative impacts of products on our environment. Design students today must be armed with eco-tools and strategies, along with the wisdom in how to incorporate them into a new industrial system promoting healthy life on earth, social well-being, and economic prosperity.
Sustainability means different things to different people, and it is not a straight-forward checklist of activities. It is a complex intertwining of many interrelated systems affecting each other. The most widely-accepted definition of sustainability comes from the Brundtland Report, which is often credited as the origin of sustainable development: "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
For students to be effective advocates of sustainable product development they must understand a range of subjects that contribute to sustainable success and adopt eco-strategies to help attain it. Sustainable product design cannot be taught exclusively within industrial design; it's too broad, too encompassing. This multi-disciplinary subject is as big as our earth and as of yet, we don't fully understand it. Acquiring comprehensive eco-intelligence must include biological knowledge, the workings of social systems, an understanding of commerce, toxicology, and urban planning, and the ability to attack problems in new ways. Innovation is critical because the greatest potential for realizing the positive benefits of sustainable product design is in the early design phases of product development, when opportunities to affect outcomes are greatest and the resources committed to a solution are smallest.
The educational goal is to merge the best of modern industrial design practices with a science-based approach to identifying and addressing ecological and social impacts at every step of the designer's process. Integrating a sustainable methodology as permanent criteria in everything we do is essential. The following are snapshots of eco-strategies, thoughts, concepts, and philosophies that may help guide and inspire a sustainable industrial design education and greater awareness.Don't pee in the pool!
We are natural beings doing unnatural things to ourselves and our environment which affects both the future of mankind and the survival of the planet. Acid rain, global warming, and pollution are by-products of our current industrial system and a result of linear thinking. The bottom line is that we are outputting more bad stuff (i.e., pollution) and permanently losing the good stuff (i.e., natural resources). Until we balance the equation with cyclical solutions and renewable strategies there will remain a natural deficit and ultimately the depletion of finite resources and irreversible contamination of our home. We cannot continue to urinate in our global pool without dire consequences.Eat your leftovers!
Reclaim, reuse, recycle has been our mantra verde for several decades. The only problem is that we are still sitting on a lot of garbage. In his book, Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough's concept of waste equals food is profound and is evident in all natural systems. Cycles occur abundantly in nature and the emulation of these cycles by closing the loop will help us keep our resources. In the waste equals food paradigm, all materials whether manmade or naturally occurring, can become biological or technical nutrients and can be re-consumed for their next life. In natural systems nothing edible accumulates; all materials flow in loops that turn waste into food, and the loops are kept short enough that the waste can actually reach the mouth in a reasonable amount of time. In a natural ecosystem, there are no such things as landfills or incinerators that isolate or destroy the value embedded in the discards. THERE IS NO GARBAGE IN NATURE!!! Instead, the discards are designed for easy disassembly by soil microbes. Once taken apart, the materials are taken back into the natural supply chain where they will be made into new seeds and leaves. Nothing is wasted and cheap feedstock is readily available for the next product cycle. If all our design intents included this philosophy we would be garbage-less. The goal: zero waste. Eat your leftovers!Waste = Food!
21 million people in Tokyo expel about 5 million tons of sewage each day. The Tokyo Sewage Bureau has been studying practical applications for this waste. One idea is a sludge-ash brick, made entirely from dehydrated sewer sludge. The bricks are pressed in a mold and heated to 1,000 degrees Centrigrade to burn off all organic matter.
In India, human feces are channeled to 55 plants, where it is converted into bioenergy for cooking and electricity. This could be used in poor countries for hospitals and prisons where there is little energy available. Imagine generating your fuel for your home after using food as fuel for your body!
Philip White, IDSA said that "Protecting life on earth is the unprecedented responsibility of our generation." Guaranteeing not only quality of life for our posterity but life itself is a priority. Setting up perpetual systems with renewable resources will be the insurance our grandchildren will need for the continuation of life. The new policies we set in motion will ideally have to last forever. Many current systems need to be reversed.
A strong example of reversing the loop took place at the University of Zurich in 1988. Each year chemistry class students "turned $8,000 worth of pure, simple reagents into complex, nasty, toxic goop that cost $16,000 to dispose of." The professors decided to reverse the process by "redesigning the exercises to teach instead how to turn toxic wastes back into pure simple reagents." This saved costs at both ends and was "the best investment for environmental protection by chemistry." Cyclical thinking that will perpetuate our resources is our children's life insurance.
A few years ago, I designed a project to immerse the industrial design students in many of these concepts while engaging them to make a difference. This project, along with other conceptual creations, allows the industrial design students in our program to practice thinking about sustainability in product development.
ReMade is a yearly assignment that blends sustainable design and entrepreneurship. It is a material-driven project focused on reusing discarded materials and turning them into commercial products, or in other words, trash into cash. The project begins by intercepting a steady source of raw materials that are readily available in the form of industrial scrap, factory waste, or excess materials left over from industrial or commercial processes. There is a strong reliance on experimentation of reclaimed, reused, or recycled materials. Students get dirty as they cut, finish, form, and glue these discarded materials and begin to understand their strengths and limitations. The challenge is to not only incorporate recycled materials into the product but to assure that the product they are creating can also be recycled once its useful life is over. As the students are doing this, they become familiar with the key philosophies associated with recycling (e.g., product life cycle, cradle-to-cradle, design for disassembly, post consumer material, etc.). They are also challenged to use sustainable practices throughout the process (e.g., avoiding toxic chemicals, finishes, or unhealthy processes).
The second part of this project is entrepreneurial. Each student must specify a target market for their product that identifies their customer. These marketing strategies address basic consumer needs, foresee user problems, and identify price points for each product. With these things in mind, students create their first prototypes for evaluation. Once a design is chosen, each student must fabricate 20 copies of their design. This small production run is manufactured in a dorm room, apartment, or university facility. The quantity of 20 and the limited facilities really simplifies each design dramatically! Each student then brands (name, logo, etc.) their product and graphically designs an appropriate hang tag which includes their story of sustainability. If packaging is required (e.g., for protection or loose pieces), it is also designed and created by the students.
As a class, students set up a point of purchase display in a local business venue that is willing to share their retail space for a two- to three-week period. The past three years this has been available at the Whatcom Museum of History & Art (see press release). Each product is inventoried, priced, and bar-coded so sales can be tracked. In a consignment agreement, a percentage of the sales go to the participating business which reflects the reality of the business world.
Students have the opportunity to observe consumers firsthand during business hours or solicit feedback from the salespeople in the store. With this information they often adjust their pricing (up or down) based on the success or failure during the first week of sales. Much to the dismay of some students, the final sale is not always the end of the process. Occasionally products are returned by unsatisfied customers but more commonly, students sell out their entire inventory and are faced with the option of taking additional orders (which means back to the factory).
This 10-week project creates an indelible entrepreneurial experience for each student whether their product introduction was successful or not.
To date, this project, in its entrepreneurial version, has been carried out for three consecutive years and the results have been extremely successful. Each year most students sell out their entire inventory and one product has even spawned a small cottage industry that is flourishing today.
Imagine a highway that captures the rolling energy of automobiles that pass over thousands of street mounted electric generators. Each generator sits slightly above the street surface and as cars drive over them they cause a piston to rise and fall thus creating a small current. Linked together they can generate enough electricity to power street lights, toll booths, and signage. The generators would be placed in areas where traffic speeds naturally decrease such as off ramps. In large cities, where power requirements are greater, more energy is created with more traffic! This WWU student concept shows the unlimited potential of innovative thinking.
Another WWU student project, POLMO, is a jacket modeled after the way a fish extracts oxygen from water. As you walk, air passes through two fabric gills located at the sides of the jacket. The air is filtered and is then released in natural increments around the face. This smart fabric brings new meaning to the term breathable. The jacket could be introduced into highly polluted cities to fight air pollution. This wearable technology concept helps decrease carbon-dioxide levels and other harmful pollutants, as well as provides users with clean filtered air.
Awarded a grant from Procter & Gamble, Huxley Professor Nicholas Zaferatos and I put together a multi-disciplinary team of eight students to address the issue of global water purification. The results were published in a book, printed on waterproof paper, that can be used to create a customized water purification system in any part of the world.
The team originally focused on product-driven solutions and generated many concepts ranging from rainwater catchment systems to sophisticated filtration technologies that could purify water. Upon further research and investigation (and more than halfway into our project) we found that the most impoverished nations around the world could never afford what we were proposing! A few pennies made a difference in whether a person could eat dinner or have purified water, but not both. With this new insight, a dramatic shift occurred in our project focus and we realized that global information on water purification could be more important than another water purification contraption. Thus, the WATERbook was born and addressed ways that anyone in the world could access potable water using local materials, a range of low- to high-tech systems, and common sense. (WATERbook is available online as a PDF document.)
During the fall quarter of 2006, I worked with16 students from northwest universities (and one from Greece) to create sustainable architectural concepts for rebuilding the Greek island village of Farsa which was destroyed by an 8.0 earthquake in 1953. The redevelopment plans included on-site work, contact with former residents of the village, and design proposals on how to restore this Venetian-era community both historically and sustainably. Integrating sustainable tourism was also encouraged; we tried to avoid negative impacts on the island's natural and social assets while generating positive economic and social benefit. An additional focus was to revive the island's agricultural economy which had dwindled over the years.
The Kefalonia study abroad research program functions as a form of community service learning and emphasizes respect for the village's former past while planning for a sustainable future village. The academic curriculum was designed to be interdisciplinary involving urban design and planning, environmental resource management, historic preservation, sustainable technology, agro-ecology, transportation planning, social anthropology, architectural design, and other related disciplines. The program incorporates a philosophy that seeks to balance historic restoration with sustainability principles. Also, the curriculum was designed in such a manner that it could evolve each year, shaped by the work accomplished in previous academic quarters. Each year new courses are created to examine all aspects of community planning. Despite the fact that the village has remained uninhabited for the past 50 years, remnants of the village's 160 former structures remain, providing students a skeletal template from which to accurately depict the past and draft baseline site plans. With the assistance of the villagers, individual homes were carefully identified and deconstructed in order to characterize features of architecture and building style, and, most importantly, to uncover the social history of the structures that constituted the village.
Each summer I use my artistic talents to transform garbage into art and attend art festivals throughout the northwest and Rockies. The recycled baskets are woven from discarded metal strapping previously used for banding lumber. The quirky animal masks are assembled from old bicycle seats, handle bars, and many other found objects and each has a personality of its own. The graffiti inspired train art is created with many layers of paint on old doors and reflect the aged sides of rusted, steel boxcars.
Industrial raw materials are discarded daily around us and often in large volumes. Finding a steady source of reusable waste and creatively incorporating it into my functional art brings me great satisfaction. My mind and hands are heavily exercised as I search for new materials to reclaim and experiment with new applications and methods of fabrication. Most of my work is done three-dimensionally and is dictated by the limitations and nature of the material.
Although the days of roaming the landfills and beachcombing the dumps are gone, the garbage continues to flow. Finding a way to intercept it, tame it, and give it new life brings me great joy.
The recycled metal baskets and receptacles are fabricated from spring steel banding which is commonly used for strapping lumber and other industrial materials. It is found virtually outside of every lumber yard, hardware store, or any business that receives palletized goods. Approximately 60% of metal banding today is currently recycled while the other 40% ends up in dumpsters. Each basket is hand woven from selected pieces of reclaimed banding guaranteeing that no two are exactly alike.
The steel banding is wildly unmanageable and the challenge of taming this sharp, spring-loaded material makes the creation of each receptacle a memorable event. Collecting the raw material is equally exhilarating as each new source is discovered.
The animal masks are an eclectic collection of found objects that celebrate new combinations of materials and form. Each mask is a careful synthesis of disparate and seemingly unrelated discards which are masterfully assembled into unified pieces. If these pieces could talk, they would each portray distinct and individual personalities.
New homes are meticulously found for orphaned objects whose useful lives are blatantly not over. The intent is to celebrate the renewal and dignity of the common object and exalt it to a higher plain and value than it once possessed. The fusion of the diverse parts collectively imbues each mask with new meaning yet there is still a historical significance in each identifiable component. One cannot help but contemplate the individual components and their previous functions yet at the same time marvel at the magical amalgamation of each composition as it goes beyond the fulfillment of the measure of its creation.
Graffiti is an ephemeral, secretive, and rebellious form of street art. Imbued with sociopolitical messages and personal significance, it reflects the current state of our culture in a blunt and succinct fashion. Expressed through the media of spray paint, markers, and homemade paraphernalia, this cultural phenomenon (whether you like it or not) has become America's newest folk art.
This work attempts to capture the spontaneity and fleeting nature of street art yet make it accessible by creating it on an urban canvas, a piece of the metropolitan landscape. The urban canvas provides an appropriate physical context and background for the raw art and ranges from pieces of riveted steel train cars to brightly colored street signs.
Many techniques are employed to create both the canvas and the art. Some canvas materials are simulated while others are authentic panels from buildings and industrial materials. Inspiration for the art comes from life around us, weekly trips to the train yard and playful experimentation with various rattle-can spray tips, large permanent markers, and hand-cut stencils.
A new green aesthetic is slowly emerging, but it has very little to do with outward appearances. It is an aesthetic that is defined by a deep spiritual concern for our planet, environment, and people. It is a moral and ethical viewpoint residing quietly within a product. This new aesthetic is embedded in social responsibility and only made possible by the collaborative intertwining of governments, industry, designers, and individuals who make careful decisions about how they act, what they buy, and ultimately, who understand the impact of all things. The bottom line is protecting and preserving life on earth, insuring air quality, preventing water pollution, avoiding natural resource depletion, and conserving energy consumption to perpetuate the quality of life on earth.
Once the principles of environmental stewardship are taught, it is equally important to instill within each student a moral and social conscience to act responsibly in carrying out these principles. Conditions and situations will continue to change but the commitment to act responsibly will remain constant. It's not just about recycling our aluminum cans or purchasing locally, it's about rethinking and redesigning EVERYTHING we do and make.