The price to pay for the well-being levels achieved by the wealthy are the local, regional and global ecological disasters that are all too familiar.

But this is an old story. It was 1972 when Massachusetts Institute of Technology experts pointed out that a development model based on continuous growth and utilisation of resources was doomed to crash against the natural limits of our eco-system.

In the late seventies and eighties, academic discussions on this topic were focused on finding solutions against pollution, an end-of-pipe approach. Only in the early nineties was the attention shifted at the forefront of the development process onto the reduction of materials and energy levels in terms of input.

In 1992, the American National Academy of Sciences and the British Royal Society stated that “if present forecasts related to population growth are accurate and if our current activity models remain the same, science and technology will most likely not be able to avoid an irreversible degradation of the environment and the continuation of a lifestyle, for most of the world’s populations, at extreme poverty level”.

According to the Brundtland Report (from the World Commission on Environment and Development), the ideal was “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

That focuses on improving the quality of life for all of the earth’s citizens without increasing the use of natural resources beyond the capacity of the environment to supply them indefinitely.

Sustainable development is a cultural, behavioural pattern that, as Ezio Manzini – one of the world’s leading experts on the subject – points out, should necessarily be systemic in order to function properly.

Manzini is the Director of the Research Design and Innovation for Sustainability Unit at the Politecnico di Milano and coordinator of the PhD program in industrial design and multimedia communication.

While recognising the need for all disciplines to work together in the development of sustainable solutions, for decades Manzini has been lecturing designers about their key role in scenario building and systemic solutions development – two conditions that he considers key in changing our way of developing, producing products, and even consuming them.

According to Manzini, environmental sustainability, in technical terms, is nothing else but a de-materialisation process related to production and consumption: given a certain result, it is important to reduce to the bare minimum the quantity of energy and materials required to get to it.

“This brought about the equation: environmental sustainability equals eco-efficiency related to products and production systems – which is OK, but it is just one element of a more complex situation,” he says.

“Historically, companies have reacted to this by organising their production processes in a more eco-efficient way, and by reducing the amounts of materials and energy linked to both production and use.

"But whilst eco-design focuses on high eco-efficiency in relation to products, design for sustainability focuses on achieving it in relation to systems – thus on the overall clustering of products, services, production and consumption processes.

"Eco-design is very important but, alone, it cannot do enough to move us towards sustainable development.”

Despite the fact that today’s individual products are a lot more eco-efficient, and leave a much lower ecological mark than their predecessors, this does not necessarily mean that we are closer to sustainable development today than we were twenty years ago.

Manzini is concerned that the overall consumption of resources in industrialised countries has kept on growing at an exponential rate, simply because we produce more than we ever did before.

“Re-designing products and production patterns to make them more eco-efficient should not be considered as a real step towards sustainability unless we start consuming differently. And people will not start doing that unless they are offered new types of solutions that do not compromise their life styles.

"This means that, together with people’s attitude towards the subject, also the nature of the offer needs to evolve. We need to move from offering single products and/or services to providing sustainable systems of products and services.”

Manzini believes partnerships are the key to developing eco-efficient systems.

“With a system, you end up with a sort of web... Just consider an advanced car sharing solution as a system, and see how many partners are involved in its development: from the company that manufactures the vehicles, to the logistic agency that organises the rental and sharing of the cars, to the IT experts who realise the digital services related to the system, to the call centre, to the users and so forth.

"All these players interact with each other during the provision of the service, and a relationship of interchange is soon established amongst them. And this is a very basic system example.

“System solutions are complex, due to the fact that they create a deeper, multi-faceted involvement from all parties involved. We should only work on systems that from the social, political and cultural point of view are likely to function smoothly and to be managed easily – thus solutions that are wanted, developed, fostered and sustained by all partners involved.

"Partnering with entities that share the same objectives is the first step towards creating a sustainable system solution. Systems design is necessarily a multi-disciplinary activity, and when we talk about system designers we should keep in mind that they cannot necessarily be experts from one specific discipline.

"Expertise from all disciplines (not only the ones that are traditionally linked to product development but also the social sciences, for instance) is required in system design.

“Eco-efficiency is directly proportional to the number of partners and users involved and to how much we have been able to move from the strictly product-related eco-design issues to life-cycle thinking and life-cycle design. This means designing a product and all its related activities (manufacturing, logistics, storage, disassemble, recycling etc) in a more eco-efficient way.

“Moving onwards, we find the industrial ecology approach, pursued through the so-called zero waste design. According to this thinking, production processes get clustered into systems so that the waste of one process becomes the raw material for the next one.

“The second direction is the one towards a systemic approach on the use/consumption side. Here we find the functional economy approach, pursued by design for sustainability. The starting point for design for sustainability is the result. What do we want to achieve or offer?

"Once that is clarified, design for sustainability considers all the elements (be these products, services or other) that are required to achieve such objectives and clusters them into one overall system. The actual design and development work can thus start – at system, rather than product or service level.

For some companies sustainable development may appear to be an extra cost, but Manzini believes the move towards sustainability is an opportunity. Yet sustainable systems should not be evaluated as normal business.

“Sustainability becomes the innovation driver for those companies that are able to perceive and understand what is emerging and invent new businesses opportunities accordingly; and, of course, for those who do so in the framework of new ideas on business.

“This capacity to think and act ‘out-of-the-box’ is also a very important quality that arises from many very concrete and urgent issues that many of us recognise in the world around us.

“When looking at societal changes, for instance, it clearly emerges that evolutions in lifestyles, demographics, values and economics present us with great opportunities for providing new types of system solutions that people will greatly appreciate, and will use in a sustainable way.

"The new demographic geography in Europe (with an increasing number of elderly and of multi-racial families) calls for new services related to care and social acceptance while territorial degradation calls for new forms of mobility, for initiatives to re-evaluate local realities, for the application of alternative forms of energy.

“The ‘South’ of the world asks for solutions that will allow it to develop in a sustainable way, if we want to avoid the nightmare scenario of a degradation five times worse than what the ‘North’ of the world has been able to achieve so far...

“Many companies have already started thinking about these issues as opportunities rather than problems.”

According to Manzini, companies need to create partnership systems that are not only based on technological innovation, but also on social innovation.

“What we refer to are case studies of social innovation that bring about individual well-being, quality of life and very limited environmental impact: for instance living spaces in which service areas are shared, or production activities organised on a local level, self-managed spaces for child care, mobility solutions other than private car use, initiatives to revitalise cities, direct links between producers and consumers.

"Such types of social innovation cases are all radical innovations of local systems and behavioural patters. For instance, they imply a different way of purchasing goods, organised systems for sharing spaces and equipment, the will to find and consume healthy food, the development of services in which the users become also the providers.

"They all stem from the personal initiative of entrepreneurial individuals who did not wait for the system to change and have been able to combine existing elements to create something new. Something that, in many cases, is socially, ecologically but also economically sustainable.”

The role of experts as leaders is critical and Manzini suggests that in an ideal world, all professionals involved in new solutions development should be ‘sustainability-trained’ – be able to understand and share the sustainable vision and manage the processes and the tools that can help create systems scenarios.

“The main requirement for a professional who wants to give a sustainable angle to his or her work is to break with the old fashioned idea that designers create objects.

"Design for sustainability experts should be able to think in terms of systems and operate in a socially and technically complex scenario, allowing the various partners to interact in the creative process and find system solutions.

"In other words: they should be able to participate in a proactive way in the complex social learning process that, hopefully, will take us towards more sustainable ways of living.”   

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