Conference Review: Sustainability in Design NOW! (Bangalore/India 2010)

We recently attended the Sustainability in Design: NOW! Conference in Bangalore/India. The Conference was promoted and organized as the concluding event of the EU funded LeNS project, which aims at the development and diffusion of design for sustainability in design institutions.

As a “regenerative” web platform the network allows interested people to up- and download
open source and copyleft learning resources that can be modified/remixed and reused, i.e. adapted according to each one’s specific didactic needs, institutional requirements and local context peculiarities.

Although this Learning-by-Sharing approach is honourable, one might critically put into question the difficulties in guaranteeing quality in education here. Thus the Sustainability in Design: NOW! Conference offered a good opportunity to act as a platform for sharing knowledge and experiences not only in Product-Service System design, to promote sustainable systems thinking in design education, research and practice communities, but also in discussing chances and barriers of implementing best-practice models from one context into another.

Based on the assumption that sustainable development requires a system discontinuity (In other words: radical changes are needed in the way we produce, consume and socially interact), it has more or less become common sense amongst large parts of the design community, that these changes will not only be technical, but also social and ethical. A shared opinion is also that, not only that action should be taken now (!), but that important contributions to change are directly linked to the role of design.

Many projects and presentations at the conference have shown and discussed this link from various perspectives. The results can be seen in the big proceedings package (2 volumes = 1700 pages), that can be downloaded here:

Proceedings Volume I
Proceedings Volume II

Some of the presented projects seemed good, some of them seemed to be running on spot, but most of them probably and stayed unknown for the majority of participants, unfortunately. Victor Frostig later summarized this old problem many big conferences still seem not to be able to get a grip on: “To choose lectures only by their title is gambling on your time. At least the abstracts could be forwarded ahead of time”.

Although the conference organizers did a fantastic job, and we really have to thank and congratulate Carlo Vezzoli and the whole team for all their effort, in this aspect Frostig is definitely right. We were not the only persons around the refreshing discussions during the coffee breaks, who regretted the feeling to have sat in “the wrong presentations” too many times.

While such organisational aspect can definitely be reworked next time, the more important aspect will be the one concerning content. Some talks used and promoted strongly questionable approaches and ideas of/for sustainability. Although some of these have been discussed individually amongst some of the participants, a bigger forum (and use/practice) of discussion in the beginning and end of the conference, could have been helpful.

Jinan KB formulated an important aspect, which wonderfully represents the ambiguity among many sustainability-discussions: “The mind set seems to be the same: Wanting to save the world, wanting to save the poor etc and also talking about profit at the same time. Or else we should make it clear that we only have ‘academic’ interest in this new issue which can be turned in to a department and new products for business. The whole green architecture has become a farce.”

This is only one challenge, and something that the design learning community as a whole must come to terms within an arena that is increasingly interconnected and based on knowledge-sharing.

Nevertheless we also saw some inspiring stuff. Only to mention a few, I heard interesting aspects in the talks of: Birger Sevaldson (“Systems oriented Design and Sustainability”), Jinan Kb (“There is nothing called waste in indigenous ‘illiterate’ communities! So what do they do with our waste?”), or in Aguinaldo dos Santos’ Key Note (“Designing Leapfrog Solutions”), where he emphasized that systemic change is a slow process, since it involves collective learning, which again can be triggered by small solutions.

John Thackara (“The Pretending Phase Is Over”) was good, although not surprisingly new. Ezio Manzini (“Design Research Topics in the age of Networks and Sustainability”) instead also summed up in his keynote parts of his already well known work, but formulated it into what he calls the SLOC Scenario (“Small Local Open Connected”), which as a term (better: working title) was at least new to us. Eloquently he once more described that a scenario is not only a wish, but it relates to something that can be true. Working towards sustainability, he claims, therefore also requires “to look at and use best what we have now”. In his vision of letting design schools become distributed design agencies for a sustainable change, he did not miss to correctly advise to also be cautious: Ideas of “Small”, “Local”, “Open” or “Connected” are not by definition good!

One central aspect (not only in Manzini’s work) is that change must come from what is configured as ‘normal’. An aspect which is also very close related to our personal field of research. We therefore agree with what Tom Fisher mentioned in an after-conference online discussion: “The most interesting academic discourse I have found on sustainability is about re-configuring ‘normality’. And in principle, Design is able to engage with that re-configuration”.

It mainly were discussions like these (including the contradictory or unsatisfying ones), and not least the warm and friendly atmosphere, that made this conference still worth a visit. Taking also into account the aspects that could be optimized, chances are pretty good that the title for the (yet unplanned) next conference, that Carlo Vezzoli suggested in his opening statement will turn to be the right one: Sustainability in Design: WOW!

Tom Bieling

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