By Fraser Scott (for designindustry Limited)

Published in the Christchurch Press, 16 November 2005.


There was a children's book in the 1970s that featured a picture of a boy playing on a beach in the rain.

Behind him stood a tall, silver, sleek robot impatiently waiting for the boy to finish building his sandcastle so that they could climb aboard the spaceship and leave Earth. Because Earth was kaput.

The problem was that mankind had raped and pillaged the planet to such an extent that it was now uninhabitable. Resources had been depleted although apparently spaceships and robots were still chugging along nicely and the environment had been trashed.

As pestilent, consumerist westerners we were apparently getting our comeuppance and were having to move on to the next planet where, no doubt, we would choke and pollute again. Advanced though we are, the book gently chided, we are unceasingly stupid and woefully neglectful of our world.

Bow your collective heads in shame.

Thirty years hence and this is still the sort of harangue many of us associate with sustainability concerns. We often feel it is about do-gooder tree-huggers berating us about the washing powder we use and looking down on us because we don't own recycling toilets.

Yet despite our natural New Zealand inclination to dismiss and let's be honest, mock those that express a passion for anything other than rugby, time is catching up with all of us, and we are starting to see that having a little consideration for the world we are living in may not be that bad an idea.

Environmental sustainability concerns are, it would seem, becoming mainstream.

But sustainability in the context of design is much broader than just recycling and organics.

The fifth designindustry design quality principle, sustainability, dictates that design's use of resources must cater to both current and future needs.

This means that any design, be it process, product or service, must consider the world as it is today, and the world as it will be tomorrow, and ensure that the design does not sacrifice long term good for short term gain.

We are certainly not short of examples of designs that have been thrust into the marketplace without due concern or sufficient knowledge of what they will do to the planet and to humanity.

Consider the use of asbestos in ceilings, thalidomide in pregnant women or fast food in school tuckshops. How about cigarettes, discharging waste into rivers or untreated wood and leaky homes.

How many design decisions are made with what looks in hindsight like a callous disregard for the safety of the environment, a particular demographic, or the end-user?

Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project that gave the world the atomic bomb, looked upon the first successful test of the bomb and, quoting from a hindu text, said I am become death, the destroyer of worlds. Oppenheimer, it would seem, recognised that what he had created was something of a monster. The short term gain was very real, in that it stopped the war months early and avoided a land invasion of Japan that would have killed many hundreds of thousands, but the long-term effect on global stability and security has been all-consuming.

Thank goodness we, as businesspeople, are not asked to make the sorts of decisions that would have tormented Dr. Oppenheimer in the early forties. Yet we are still very much faced with weighing short term concerns against long-term ones.

In putting a new product or service into the marketplace, business managers and designers are often under huge pressure from rising costs and pressing deadlines. If you are involved in product or service development, you will know these scenarios very well indeed.

The shareholders breathe relentlessly down your neck, other projects are screaming for attention and budgets are not being met. What do you do? What do you do?

Do you stop and think about the long-term social implications of the product? Do you engage in further rounds of testing to make sure you're not putting chemicals or materials into peoples hands that are going to do them or the environment harm?

The fact is, modern commerce affords us few easy opportunities to give time to these questions and so we tend to focus on the real and the now. It is difficult to justify speculating on what might or might not happen in five or ten or twenty years.

But it is this very lack of forethought that has plagued humanity for as long as we have been undertaking commercial ventures.

The Spanish conquistadors didn't think about the effect their plundering would have on the Incas they just wanted the gold. The moahunters didn't consider that their prey might be depleted they just wanted the food. The oil industry didn't worry too much about creating whole industries reliant on a finite resource they just wanted the profits.

And maybe your company is busy designing a product or service which might just cause some significant social, environmental or economic harm, and no-one is stopping to think too much about it because of the everyday pressures of business.

The most strident advocates of sustainability in design recognise that designs are often our legacies; they are what remain of us after we have moved on.

It is for this reason that Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel decided he would rather be remembered as the name behind the Nobel Prize than as the inventor of dynamite.

For design to be truly good the designer must pause for thought about the future and consider the legacy he or she will leave with the design. It is an inescapable truth that design has a conscience, a moral element, a soft, fuzzy human side that demands attention. It requires the designer to stand back and look at what they have created and ask whether it will make our lives better or worse.

A design that reaps short-term rewards and causes longer term harm is not a good design.

And what's more, history is not kind to the men and women who create such monsters.