I keep seeing tweets from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which campaigns for a circular economy, stating in different ways that designers have the potential to make the way we live more environmentally sustainable. For example (from @circulareconomy, February 24th 2020):
Waste and pollution are not accidents, but the consequences of decisions made at the design stage, where around 80% of environmental impacts are determined. That’s why design sits prominently at the heart of the #circulareconomy
I agree, and having worked on sustainability in production and consumption for 10+ years from different angles, I am now working on a PhD at the University of Edinburgh looking at design decision-making for sustainability.
I have worked on social and environmental issues in supply chains or value chains for most of my career to date, including for small non-governmental organisations in Senegal and India, and for the University of Edinburgh itself. I worked with others on questions and issues such as how can smallholder cotton farmers, spinners and weavers be better remunerated through fair trade; how can the value of certified cotton be maintained in production countries through local processing and finished products; what are the impacts of synthetic pesticides on smallholder farming communities and the land; how can waste be re-used and employment conditions be improved in manufacturing; and how can public procurement policy and practice influence companies to improve the social and environmental sustainability of supply chains. After working on policy and procedure related to how things are bought for the last few years, I wanted to return to closer to the beginning of the value chain, and better understand how things are designed, and designers’ roles in sustainability. My PhD is in Psychology, in the social psychology group, and I have a second supervisor in the School of Design in Edinburgh College of Art.
I wrote a research proposal for my PhD application back in Autumn 2018, which proposed a study of how decisions are made in design and engineering with regards to sustainability impacts. In line with Sustainable Development Goal 12 – Sustainable Consumption and Production, I argued that design is key to achieving more environmentally and socially beneficial products, and ultimately a circular economy. Of course, many designers in industry (and design engineers – I’m using the term designer to cover both creative and technical forms of design) feel they are restricted to doing what their clients want, sticking to what is in the brief. But I’m interested in exploring what agency and influence designers may have in particular cases, however small, for example to highlight more sustainable options and materials to clients and managers. I’m also interested in the processes and tools used to help make design decisions, especially those that can help clarify sustainability impacts of different options, and how different values may be brought into these tools.
I’m now five months into the PhD, and I’ve learned a lot about the broad context of my research so far (although it is definitely true that the more you know, the more you realise you don’t know). I’ve been reading a lot of academic literature, of course, on design processes; decision-support tools for (design) engineering; morality and values in design; moral psychology; and ethical decision-making in business. I’m thinking about how qualitative research using naturalistic data can add additional and different insights to those gained from mainstream experimental social psychology. I’ve started to talk to designers and engineers, both working in industry and as academics. I’m starting to better understand the different types of roles in design and engineering, and how they work together.
I’m interested in the nuances, complexities and subjectivity of decision-making, and the power relations between different roles, which I think I can best start to uncover through an in-depth qualitative examination of what people say to each other when discussing and making decisions collectively, or what they say about their decision-making. I intend to use a form of conversation/discourse analysis (to be discussed more later), to examine interactional talk between designers and other stakeholders involved in design decision-making. I hope this can provide insights into how decisions are currently being made regarding sustainability factors in design, and will lead to recommendations as to what be done to lead to more sustainability-focused decision-making.