Climate Change as a Design Challenge

June 20th, 2012

I recently came across OCAD's Master of Design in Strategic Foresight and Innovation program and just about fell off my seat when I read the description…

Recognizing the increasing importance that design thinking can play in positively impacting society, enhancing business success and managing organizational change, students in the Master of Design in Strategic Foresight & Innovation program address the complex dilemmas of contemporary society. The program focuses on the application of foresight and design innovation methods to develop solutions that are transformative and sustainable—economically and environmentally—and that address human needs. The program interweaves design with social science, technology and business while providing the skills and knowledge to identify critical issues, frame problems and develop innovative solutions and implementation plans. Through holistic thinking in a co-creative environment, the designer, business person, social scientist and engineer will develop together the skills required for true socio-technological innovation.

Buzzwords aside, this looked like a program I'd love to get involved in and it gave me a reason to clarify something I'd been thinking about for well over a year as I had to submit a statement of intent. I'd been thinking about the role design can play in developing solutions to climate change. Here's what I submitted:

The act of taking a problem and deconstructing it, absorbing new knowledge, and using these insights to create tangible or virtual solutions is what I love to do most and where I excel. My passion is and always has been, design.

Since the completion of my Diploma of Arts (Design) in 1999 I have worked in production, graphic design, branding, interaction design, marketing and advertising. In my career I have always felt as though something has been missing and recently I have questioned what else I could contribute, through design, to the critical issues facing the world today. I realised that I needed to change how I apply my passion and skills. Designing logos, marketing collateral, ads and websites for companies has always been the traditional path for a “designer”, but when I found myself in these tasks, I felt a lack of purpose. That has changed. I want my work to have a positive impact, on society and at the level of the individual. Moreover, I believe that design can and should play an extremely important role in achieving these goals. The current issue that I am both petrified and excited about is climate change and I want to direct my focus and skills to fighting this problem. The Master of Design in Strategic Foresight and Innovation program is the ideal place for me to begin this challenge.

For many major issues today, there are groups of people with very detailed knowledge and then there is the general public, who lacks this information and expertise. Regardless of whether this divide is due to ignorance, lack of education or poor communication, there is a vacuum. The pattern I’ve noticed is that attempts to create awareness about a specific issue – usually in the form of underfunded and/or poorly designed communication channels, with poor usability and accessibility – often result in a sense of helplessness or apathy among the public. I believe this is a problem that communication design and design thinking can solve while producing potential new business opportunities at the same time. Awareness and action are important goals, and we cannot always wait for people to care or take the time to act. As a person who feels strongly about many issues facing the world today, I believe we need to fight for the attention of people in these areas in the same way brands fight for the public’s attention to buy their products and services. Awareness and action need to reap the benefits of good design in the same way we market a car, new clothes or any other object of desire.

Climate change is the largest threat we face to all life on this planet and we are not doing enough to fight it. I believe that a combination of design thinking and the strategies and tactics that the advertising industry employ to sell products and actively engage consumers need to be used to tackle this pressing issue. While efforts exist to bring scientists and artists together to combat climate change (such as the Cape Farewell Project), these activities are operating on the fringe, and need to be exposed to a larger audience. I want to bring scientists and commercial artists together in a collaboration to create mass media and action tools. These collaborations would then inform the process and objectives of purpose-driven “design/ad jams”, where solutions to climate change could be developed and shared with key policy-makers and stake-holders. A second type of these “design/ad jams” would develop ways to communicate the proposed solutions to the public and empower them to participate. The issue of climate change is obviously complex but by bringing together scientists and commercial artists we can simplify how we communicate and enable people to take meaningful action.

I see the way that awareness about climate change is being handled and I believe that many of these efforts fall short. There is a void here for good design to fill and I want to be a part of leading that effort. Business-as-usual is not a sustainable path; this program would help me to disrupt stale methods and breathe new life into an issue that is begging for greater, smarter attention.

In order for me to fulfill this vision, I need to develop my skills and network in the areas of research, design thinking, human behaviour and business. When I found the MDes SFI program, I instantly knew that this innovative and multidisciplinary environment would be the ideal place to achieve my goals. Your unique program offers me the opportunity to work with like-minded individuals and experts who share my desire to find new potential in the career of design. I believe that I am an excellent candidate to join this dynamic group.

Yehhhh… I didn't get in. I never applied because I thought I needed to have a Masters to achieve what I wanted to but it would no doubt help. I have no idea how I'm going to achieve this goal but I still have every intention on pursuing it. I've seen what happens when you put people who have a product that needs to be sold together with experts in communication/marketing for a long time now. I've also seen what happens when you put people who have a problem that needs to solved together with experts in problem solving (designers). I'm convinced that putting experts on the topic of climate change (or any other important issue) together with experts in communication design, marketing/advertising and psychology (human behaviour), given the right structure, could yield incredible solutions. Opinions on the merits or what ever else you want to pick at aside, The Kony2012 campaign was a great example of employing the tactics I'm talking about for a purpose rather than a product and initiatives like Living Climate Change and OpenIDEO are good examples of design thinking for these kinds of issues, but still not quite what I'm getting at.

I'll be writing another post soon that will expand on this further.