Designers for Humanity present at the EUSEW 2016 sustainability week in Brussels


As a Shake Your Power guest interviewee for the opening session at the EU Sustainability Week of 2016, I was asked to answer:

How can we begin to build a new story that supports sustainable development, universal access to clean energy and education?

“That’s a very important question. I feel we have been constructing narratives that pivot on values that are not relevant anymore. We are beginning to see what lies ahead: depletion of resources, lack of biodiversity due to massive extinction of species, dramatic changes in weather patterns, which in themselves are bringing huge challenges for communities and agriculture.

It is a well-known estimate that by 2050 75% of population will live in cities. This will bring additional challenges in energy, water management, waste management, transport, health care access, etc.

So, as designers we have a huge responsibility to offer solutions to these issues.

I am going to try to answer the question in three parts: The first one is the importance of local, community innovation.

I feel that a good approach is to begin from the ground up. We start by looking at the context of the problems, we look at the people and the communities around them to understand what a solution would need to include for it to be relevant and meaningful to the local context. So I would offer Local Solutions for Local problems.  When a solution comes from within, it is much more likely to be embraced and sustained.

Another element is to really understand what the needs are. Sometimes it’s easy for a designer to blanket solutions that might’ve worked in one community and try to replicate it elsewhere. While this could work, it needs to be re-evaluated to fit local priorities.

I feel the purpose of businesses should  be  as Nurturing Agents in local communities and they should become an intrinsic part of the development and wellbeing of the localities where they are placed. This brings a new paradigm to how businesses are run. We now require businesses and services that are part of our communities, so their interests are aligned to the local landscapes, their fates aligned to the local people.  EXAMPLES

Another essential element in this tri-part answer is Universal Access to Clean Energy.  I make an emphasis on Clean because it is as important that it is a non-toxic or hazardous energy source as it is to have access to it.

We live in an amazing time in history. We have innovations in all areas of industry coming out every year. Engineers, Designers and Scientists are constantly looking to create better and more cost effective solutions to help us tackle waste, create new energy sources, create better access to information, better distribution systems that are truly making us be more connected virtually and physically. However, the advent of pervasive clean energy has been very slow.

Perhaps this could be accelerated by making the individual more participant in the energy conversation. The more we learn about the generation of energy and the more we take responsibility in that very same process, the quicker we will adopt cleaner technologies that save us energy, save our natural resources and are easily replenished in natural ways.

In this regard I pose a few questions myself, How can we create innovative small scale systems that deliver clean energy solutions?

How can we better transition from coal, gas and oil to renewable energy use in cities?

And from this point, we ask:

How can we add real value to our customer?

How can we eliminate some of the steps in the value chain? Perhaps we deliver straight to our customers by using existing methods that are cheap and reliable.

How can we give our customers more control and customization?

How can we be more flexible and responsive?

How can we open new markets by using emerging technologies?

And then,

Are these solutions easily repairable?

Can it be easily recycled?

Could people rent them?

Could a community share them?

Can people build it themselves with readily available materials?

Can we provide DIY kits?

Can it have other functions? Not only providing energy but perhaps as well as an energy education center.

Can it be deployed cheaply and easily? Perhaps a good approach is to make the delivery of energy more mobile and flexible.

Is our solution sustainable? We need to make sure our solutions won’t hurt future generations by depleting natural, irreplaceable resources.

Does it create waste as a by-product? If it’s toxic waste, let’s go back to the drawing board, as it’s not sustainable. But if it’s not toxic or hazardous, How can we use this waste to feed other processes?

Is it using energy in the most efficient way?

And crucial, on the social side, Will it help the poorest and most disadvantaged?

Is this solution ultimately empowering?

So by further inquiring and asking the right questions we can create innovative products and services that can be quickly manufactured and distributed and that are congruent with local cultures, local traditions and of course the local environment.

So when new businesses have a broad and big picture vision of their industry and the value they are providing to customers; when a business is not only providing a service, but also making people feel more connected and more participant, innovation follows as a direct result as it’s built in the foundation of the business itself. So we could say that the more visionary the business is from start, and the more defined the value they deliver to customers is, the more innovative the company will be. It acts as a forecasting tool.

Of course, innovation at large scale needs all the support it can get. From innovators, from investors, from the government and from industry. So to have more innovation there has to be more investment in R&D and more education. And education specifically in sectors that impact the environmental challenges ahead: Engineering, Design, Technology, Sciences.

Having said that, innovation comes from creative thinking and cross-pollination, so the Arts are crucial to foster lateral thinking and insight. So we use the arts as methodology. The arts become the invisible thread that connects all the disciplines together.

And this bring me to the Third and last element, Education for All.

I feel design thinking is an incredibly useful tool that can be introduced to students at an earlier age. This creative process helps young kids understand the skills necessary to solve problems and encourages them to apply an innovation approach to their daily lives.

For example, at Shake Your Power we created a 13 week pilot program in partnership with UCL Academy. We taught kids of ages 12-14 and what we wanted to do was to help them understand what it takes to innovate. The word innovation has become too abstract so we wanted them to experience the process that leads to innovation first hand.

This meant they needed to learn how to listen and how to observe. They need to learn how to listen because innovation often comes when we truly understand the needs of people. We also wanted them to learn how to look and observe their surroundings. So we wanted them to go home and actively look for a problem at home they could solve. This not only opens their eyes to develop an observational skill but also to the world of potential innovation around them, as they are asked to create alternative approaches to issues in their own surroundings.

But we also, teach them to observe Nature.  Nature is the best teacher and it solves complex problems in a sustainable way already, so learning from how nature does things is a very important tool.

Nature creates self-cleaning water systems

Its trees create oxygen and house animal species

Its materials are biodegradable

Everything is a nutrient of something else- there is no waste

Everything is interconnected. What happens in one system will affect another.

Nature cleats a balance that nurtures thousands and thousands of animal species, all living in harmony.  Nature is the ultimate innovator. Can we not study nature, and find ways to mimic its systems?

As Michael Braungart so eloquently urges us to ask ourselves:  How can we create a positive human footprint, where we not only take care of the natural resources but actually multiply them? Can we create products, systems, services that celebrate nature’s abundance?

The Design process itself can be applied to every problem we face, from waste management, urban systems, agriculture and food distribution, to innovative economical systems, but it requires a creative approach and a new way of looking at old problems.

So the challenges ahead can be faced with new perspectives and they can begin to be solved by establishing sustainable business frameworks that have the nurturing of the local landscapes and the local communities at their core. Businesses that function from a different paradigm, one that has the well-being of nature and society as a fundamental value.”


Diana Simpson Hernandez

Founder of Designers for Humanity

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