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Down to earth: Simple design thinking solutions for sustainability

By Academy Xi

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With sustainability now the world’s most pressing problem and our long-term environmental prospects hanging in the balance, this blog will explore how Design Thinking can change our relationship with consumer products and help us all realise a greener future.

Victor Papanek begins his landmark book Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change with an eerie line, “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few of them.” 

Design for the Real World laid out a systematic design process that would evolve into the Design Thinking model of Examine, Understand, Ideate, Experiment and Distil. Papanek’s approach was simple but effective; develop a deep understanding of users and create products that meet their long-term needs. 

Papanek’s design theories were developed in the 1970s in response to the heightened consumer culture of the 1950s and 60s, when modernised industries supplied society’s ever-expanding list of wants and needs. Consumer goods were increasingly single use and disposable, while seductive marketing techniques meant customers replaced even expensive items at the soonest opportunity. 

Sound familiar? It’s a blueprint our society’s still largely based on. 

A recent Columbia Climate School Report found that the end-to-end life-cycle of consumer goods is now responsible for over 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions. 

Spotting an earth-sized problem, Papanek realised that until society slowed consumerism, reduced pollution and preserved finite natural resources, our environmental future would only become more problematic. 

Papanek’s response was to tap into customer needs and provide lasting solutions to user problems, extending the product lifespan. In doing so, he laid the foundations for what would come to be known as Design Thinking.

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking focuses on developing an understanding of the people products and services are created for. By asking probing questions about the customer’s needs and ideal experiences, Design Thinking aims to develop products that provide lasting solutions to customer problems.

Traditionally, customer research has been an impersonal process. An expert will analyse user data and feedback from focus groups and surveys, drawing conclusions about customer needs. The trouble with this approach is the person conducting the research inevitably sees the data through the lens of their own biases.  

Design Thinking takes a different approach and intentionally places the customer at the centre of the research. Design Thinkers will challenge any pre-existing assumptions they have about the user and connect more deeply with the lived experience of choosing and using a particular product, including any environmental dilemmas this may entail.

Better Products, Less Waste

The principles of Design Thinking also emphasise the need for experimentation and prototyping. This ensures usability and prevents the development of products that don’t serve their intended purpose, or, on a more basic level, aren’t wanted by consumers in the first instance. 

As well as determining functionality, the testing phase of Design Thinking establishes if using a product offers an emotionally satisfying experience. The stronger our emotional connection to a product, the more we’re likely to repeatedly use it, and the less likely we are to dump it (just as you wouldn’t ‘dump’ someone you’re head over heels in love with!).

While heated discussions about sustainability indicate an environmental ‘awakening’, the amount of discarded products going into landfill in Australia remains high.  

A 2021 Australian Bureau of Statistics Waste Report found that throughout 2020: 

  • Australia generated 76 million tonnes of waste (a 10% increase since 2016-17)
  • spent $17 billion on waste services (an 18% increase since 2016-17)
  • exported 6% of total waste for international processing and disposal

This means Australians produce over 71 million tonnes of waste, 35% of which goes directly into Australian landfills. This equates to nearly 25 million tonnes of waste, a large percentage of which is constituted by unrecyclable products. 

Design Thinking has the potential to drastically improve these statistics. So long as the customer’s long-term needs are the first and last consideration, the level of ineffective or unwanted products going into landfill can be cut significantly.

Empathy Maps & Eco-Design

Following the Design Thinking approach, businesses are now using empathy maps to connect with the mindset of their clientbase. With the average consumer now more eco-conscious than ever before, companies are facing-up to their customers’ environmental concerns. It’s become increasingly difficult to create a product that satisfies emotionally without eliminating the environmental guilt that comes with consuming it.  

Driven by the environmental awareness of their customers (as well as their own ethics), many businesses now apply sustainability checks throughout a product’s development phase. This process is referred to as eco-design

Eco-design carefully measures and reduces the negative environmental effects of a product, lessening its footprint throughout the life-cycle. This includes reducing:

  • Raw materials used during production 
  • Pollution created during production
  • Energy used during production
  • Emissions generated using the product

And simultaneously increasing: 

  • The product’s durability and expected lifespan
  • The product’s recyclability 

The same level of scrutiny applies to product packaging, which is as much a problem as the product itself (in the case of food and other perishable consumables, even more so).     

While companies the world over are applying eco-design principles, in the European Union elements of the eco-design methodology are now enforced by legislation. Laws are set to become stricter, with the EU Commission acknowledging that 80% of a product’s environmental impact is determined during the design phase. 

As well as protecting the environment, businesses using eco-design enjoy a healthier bottom line, with efficient uses of energy and raw materials reducing production costs and increasing profit margins.  With ethical and financial motivations joining forces, and Design Thinking and eco-design combining, there’s every reason to believe that industries can move toward more sustainable product development processes.

Can Design Thinking Solve Bigger Problems?

In recent years the application of Design Thinking has broadened in scope and scale, helping organisations of all shapes and sizes solve problems that extend far beyond delivering product and services. 

Ideo is a multinational design and consultancy firm founded in California in 1991 that has become synonymous with the uptake of Design Thinking among: 

  • corporates 
  • nonprofits 
  • public organisations 

Ideo cites Papanek as one of the biggest influences over their own Design Thinking ethos, which comes with a strong sense of social and environmental purpose.    

Using a Design Thinking Model that unifies what is humanly desirable, technologically feasible and economically viable, Ideo’s method is known for its simplicity, allowing “people who aren’t trained as designers to use creative tools to address a vast range of challenges”. With an emphasis on accessibility, Ideo claims Design Thinking has “grown beyond the confines of any individual person or organisation”. 

Ideo sets the tone for a global community of Design Thinkers, in which the most inspired ideas emanate from and belong to large groups of people. From an environmental perspective, this sense of shared responsibility and collective ingenuity is exactly what sustainability calls for. What does this look like in practice?

Design Thinking & Sustainability

The Stanford Social Innovation Review suggests the Design Thinking model is perfectly suited to large-scale environmental projects, exploring its many uses in Third World countries. These include solving clean water shortages, as “high-impact solutions bubble up from below”, rather than being imposed from the top down. 

The people who depend on the outcomes of these projects are given complete say in how solutions take shape. This isn’t a charitable gesture of empowerment, but acknowledgement that nobody better understands a problem and the best way to solve it than those who live with it each day. In so many words, this is the essence of Design Thinking.   

Stanford’s examples provide powerful demonstrations of just how much the Design Thinking ethos is capable of, effective even on a community-wide scale. From reducing the environmental impact of individual products, to placing water in a thirsty child’s hand, Design Thinking has the potential to accelerate the sustainability agenda at every level. 

Implementing sustainable industrial practices on a large scale will be no small feat, but many are prioritising what’s right over what’s easy. With Design Thinking aiding the process, what’s difficult is being simplified. 

All this means there’s good reason to feel optimistic. Do you want to be part of the change?

Design Thinking & Product Management Courses

Our Design Thinking for Innovation courses will help you move beyond obstacles and prioritise tangible outcomes, using innovative design approaches to create and implement improvements in any business or organisation. 

If you want to oversee the development of functional, satisfying products that meet more customer needs and have a longer lifespan, our Product Management courses will develop your managerial, analytical and creative skills, enabling you to effectively take a new product or service from idea to market  

Academy Xi courses are built, taught and approved by industry experts, offering the practical skills and hands-on experience recruiters are searching for. If you’re unsure which course to pick for your ambitions, chat to a course advisor.

Whether you’re looking to increase the responsibilities of your current role or transform your career completely, you’ll walk away with a delicately balanced skill set that enables you to develop products, services and strategies that provide lasting solutions for more sustainable businesses (and hopefully a more sustainable planet!). 

The greatest threat to the environment is the idea that someone else will fix it. Maybe now’s the time for you to take action? With Design Thinking for Innovation or Product Management powering your problem-solving capabilities, you’ll have all the skills needed to transition from being just another source of pollution, to being part of the solution.