Thursday, March 19, 2009

Design, sustainability and spirals

Over the last few weeks I've been reading about sustainable human-centered design. One of the most interesting papers I read was by Daniel Christian Wahl and Seaton Baxter, published by Design Issues journal here. The paper focuses on the role designers play in developing sustainable solutions. Wahl and Baxter present a unique (and an initially difficult to understand) viewpoint of how to generate sustainable design solutions. However, once I got my head around it (I'm getting better at readying outwith a science context) their argument is certainly compelling.

The paper proposes that true sustainable solutions will only be achieved by designing across disciplines and using cross-collaborative research. In order to do this, groups of design teams should integrate the knowledge from various professions, including designers, anthropologists, scientists, social workers, artists, historians (t
o name a few) and stakeholders (who they are designing for). By doing so, the view-points and "meta-design" (beliefs, knowledge, values) ideals held by different disciplines will create a dialogue which delivers a more "holistic" understanding of the problem.

How will designers make sure that dialogues (and potential solutions) do not miss their target. Wahl and Baxter propose that the theory of Spiral Dynamics may be used to structure a framework for integrating the perspectives across disciplines. Spiral dynamics is a systems that identifies a number of behavioral systems, based on the biological, psychological and social interactions and relationships that these aspects of humanity result in. Each level of the spiral is characterized by certain world views, value systems, beliefs, modes of living etc, and the higher you are on the spiral the less ego-centric and more world-centric you become. When employed in design, spiral dynamics can allow designers to better understand where participants/people/communities are "coming from" (their "mind-set" "needs and beliefs"). Thus, more effective dialogue and solutions will be generated.

Interestingly, Wahl and Baxter also speculate that by encouraging individuals to move up the
spiral via integrated holistic design, "designers can help change culturally dominant worldviews and value systems", which could "effect changes in lifestyles and resource use that will drive sustainable transition".

I can definitely see the benefit of this way of thinking. When many perspectives are brought together and the direction and target of their approach is properly understood, surely more effective solutions will be generated. This is particularly true to developing effective solutions to sustainability issues. When these integrated collaborations meet participants on their level on the spiral, they will respond positively and be involved in the solution itself. Furthermore, by meeting them on their level, designers can then begin to push society into a more socially and worldly responsible mind set.