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How a Design-led Approach Can Influence Sustainability Efforts

In recent times, the issue of sustainable consumption has gained renewed attention and relevance. A number of studies have highlighted the magnitude of the problem: the ecological, the economic, environmental and equity footprint of the challenge and its associated disparities are ever increasing, and as such, progressing to increase at a pace that warrants severe sustainability challenges.

At the same time, the traditional methodologies that have been employed to address these challenges are being found to be increasingly inconclusive, and non-actionable. A rethinking of the approach taken for understanding impact and the methods undertaken to drive change both warrant a redesign. At a fundamental level, in a consumption based economy, the pivot is the consumer, and the solution lies in employing this pivot as the focal point of attention for both understanding the problem and for affecting change. What is required is a human centered approach to sustainability.

Innovation that creates both the objects and systems we consume today, and the associated challenges, is increasingly derivative, often collaborative, and has a strong sense of history. Thus, every entity we produce or consume has an inherent interconnectedness to it, giving rise to a complex eco-system where localized impact is almost impossible without considering its interaction with the whole. This is a particularly opportune moment to “objectify” this eco-system and study it through a design lens. Nowhere is this lens more needed than in studying problems of sustainability, where the multitude and sheer volume of interacting entities – consumers, their various choices, urban waste management, environmental impact of consumer goods, food security and sustainability — and the present deadlock in solving these challenges necessitate the need for an innovative paradigm shift in problem solving approach.

A design-led approach to manage innovations that can influence our efforts in sustainability ensures chances for maximum success. Design thinking essentially dictates an approach to problem solving that seeks to understand the impacted entity – the individual, consumer, city or society – as a subject, and develop a holistic map of its needs, problems, contexts and constraints. Understanding thus drawn helps create a complexity map, that once navigated, can yield the maximum chances for successful intervention by creating solutions that are simultaneously desirable, feasible and viable.

Design-led problem solving thus holds the key to effective solutions for some of our most complex and hairy challenges – and that of sustainability is one prime candidate for such a paradigm shift.

Craft-based design

Design is a very old human activity that evolved gradually and reached a very high degree of refinement and resolution in our villages and living spaces of our traditional societies in the pre-industrial age. This craft based evolution was permitted by the interplay of time and the ingenuity of the local craftsman and local leadership, which created a vast body of traditional wisdom, that is today still embedded in the rural and village life in places such as India.

Today this kind of design, at a fundamental level of form giving and structure mapping, has all but been forgotten by the mainstream. It is replaced by a form of professional activity that is seen as dealing more with aesthetics rather than with the fundamental structure and meaning of production systems of our society.

This needs to change in an era where science and technology are being placed at the hub of our decision making pathways, while they can only provide information and knowledge about the world and not about what is desirable to be done to the world. So while technology tells us what is possible we do need to look at design with its participative and integrating methods to find out what is desirable and valuable for a sustainable future.

Power of Design in the Indian Perspective

A design-led approach to manage innovations that can influence our efforts in sustainability ensures chances for maximum success. Design thinking essentially dictates an approach to problem solving that seeks to understand the impacted entity – the individual, consumer, city or society – as a subject, and develop a holistic map of its needs, problems, contexts and constraints. Understanding thus drawn helps create a complexity map that once navigated, can yield the maximum chances for successful intervention by creating solutions that are simultaneously desirable, feasible and viable.

Design-led problem solving thus holds the key to effective solutions for some of our most complex and hairy challenges – and that of sustainability is one prime candidate for such a paradigm shift.

With the clever motto “Designing change, stitch by stitch,” a remarkable project, called Anchal, uniquely combines design, business, and education to empower marginalized and exploited women living in India. Through design, craft, community-building and education, Aanchal helps provide new economic realities for commercial sex workers in India and aims to create the infrastructure for creative, income-generating initiatives to run sustainably with local leadership.

The Daily Dump in Bangalore (www.dailydump.org) has shown that design and design thinking can indeed transform the way we do things in our society. By creatively managing  household waste and converting it to useful high-quality compost, It proves that such actions do not always need huge investments and infrastructure, but above all a set of deep commitments that are born from design explorations and prototyping, and indeed bring hope and participation from society. There is a real possibility of initiating huge change that is scalable, which can transform the world by the message that it carries in each success and even in its failures, of which there will be many.

No international design solutions are available that are ready and off the shelf to address the pressing problems of the Indian people. These include affordable healthcare, rural and urban sanitation, dispersed quality education at the primary and secondary levels, agricultural and rural tools, rural housing and mobility and a host of other design opportunities across 230 sectors of our economy that are in crying need of design attention. These will have to be addressed locally and innovation and design will be the way forward. Urgent investments are needed to spur research and development initiatives across many sectors of our economy that stimulate the use of design to find interesting and appropriate answers to the pressing issues and concerns of our society.

Design for inclusive development is a multi-disciplinary activity that needs to draw a variety of knowledge and skills in an innovative and future oriented setting that is well informed about the legal and the ethical parameters. In this form design becomes a powerful political activity, since it is propositional in the manner in which it visualizes realizable alternatives for the stakeholders from which the process of selection and decision can begin. It is a democratic activity at the very heart and gives power to the people who are at the location and to those who would be most impacted by its implementation.

Design is like a potent seed that can grow if it is nurtured by society and through these collaborative processes produce huge change in the world. If we look at some of the projects done by the National Institute of Design in the early years, from the Electronic Voting Machine to the Jawaja project, through the Chennapatna toy project to numerous textile design projects such as the Dhamadka Block Print project, a number of path breaking design strategies come to mind. We need to ponder deeply on many of these real world design experiences to cull out lessons that can take us forward to a socially and culturally appropriate application of design action that could bring great value to our population.

Fashion Design

Today every industry has an ecological connotation to it and the fashion industry is no exception to that.  In the past several years, the fashion industry has faced intensifying criticism about its environmental footprint and has once again reacted both on a brand level, with many brands establishing their own sustainability commitments and strategies.

India’s design identity lies in the value of its patterns, styles, colors, forms that have emerged from the rich Indian heritage, craftsmanship and culture. The ‘Made in India’ tag has inherent strengths which can be tapped to sell ethnic and indigenous luxury brands across the globe. One of India’s greatest strengths comes from the vast numbers of highly skilled traditional craftspeople. Taking pride in our roots, honing and recognizing our crafts as our biggest strength and amalgamating the same to suit our more relevant lifestyles of today, is what is making us so unique on a global platform.

Traditional craftsmanship and contemporary aesthetics are pushing Indian brands into the international spotlight. Fashion designers in India have taken inspiration from the country’s rich heritage and created global brands using a wide range of cuts and layers of international standards. They have been successful in tweaking the latest trends in the most innovative ways and give them an indo-western touch.

As the Indian fashion industry gains attention from international brands and labels, Indian fashion designers are also becoming more cognizant of the need to preserve the environment. Prominent Indian fashion designers are using organic fibers and fabrics like those made from bamboo, hemp, organic wool, or wild silk that significantly trims the otherwise large carbon footprint. There is vast usage of organic cotton such as the malkha cotton, the Eri silk and natural dyes.

Eco or sustainable fashion is a growing design trend in the fashion and textile industry wherein the goal is to create environmentally friendly and responsible clothing. With increased awareness amongst consumers on where the clothing comes from, how is it made and what is the social and environmental impact of the production, many Indian today are willing to spend more on being attached with the eco friendly tag.

Namita Vikas is president and chief sustainability officer of Yes Bank Ltd.

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