Fighting climate change. Isn’t that about solar panels, dumping meat, flying less and driving electrically? Absolutely, but that’s only half the story.
For many product designers, sustainability becomes the main focus of their creative process. They are on a mission to find new ways to replace some of the most common (and most carbon-intensive) materials and components with new, green alternatives. And that’s good news for the planet, because radical breakthroughs in zero-waste, bio-based and energy-neutral – or positive – products are increasingly needed.
The good news: Breakthroughs are already being made every day! Last week I attended the first ‘Future Talks’ meeting, organized by electric car manufacturer Polestar with their regular partner Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. ‘Future Talks’ is a series of meetings in which a wide range of experts, together with the public, debate the biggest challenges for the future of sustainability.
Future talks: sustainable materials
This first meeting focused on product design and alternative materials. In a panel discussion hosted by former Dutch Channel 1 news anchor Sacha de Boer, architects, artists, professors, entrepreneurs and consultants debated how we can restore our connection to nature and the role of sustainable design and eco-positive materials. in this process.
As designer Hakim El Amrani of Studio NousNous puts it:
If ‘nature’ is not around us, we lose the connection and we no longer appreciate nature as a ‘must’.
El Amrani’s work is about ‘Biophilic design’, a concept used within the construction industry to increase connectivity with the natural environment. He uses it both in the design of individual buildings and on a city scale.
The most obvious example of this is having plants in the house. But more often ‘nature’ can also be found in custom-made furniture based on environmentally friendly materials. It is claimed that this approach has a variety of health, environmental and economic benefits for residents.
“Interacting with nature is key,” says El Amrani.
Knowing who we are as human beings, knowing what our position is in relation to our environment, it all starts with knowledge, love and respect for nature. In addition, we believe that with biophilic design, we can encourage more sustainable behavior in our customers in the long term.
Other sessions include a lecture on how we can use raw materials in sustainable design and how we can move towards fully carbon neutral design.
While most of the speakers worked in the design industry, one speaker, Bart Nollen, who worked for the impact assessment tool dayrize, brought up the importance of data in the process. Without data and continuous measurements, we will not be able to see progress in sustainability and hold companies accountable for it.
Although design and data are not usually associated, a key feature of the future of sustainable design is likely to be the incorporation of data.
Our damn backyard
The collaboration with Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam is obvious. Together with Future Talks, the museum is currently organizing an exhibition on sustainable design and materials, called It’s Our F***cking Backyard. Designing material futures.
The exhibition showcases impressive ideas and solutions to produce materials with less impact, or better yet, produce them with an eco-positive footprint. Take, for example, the work of artist Eric Klarenbeek, who makes glass from microalgae. The algae extract CO2 from the water (and the water adsorbs it from the air). With this CO2, the algae can create a ‘plate armor’ of glass. Klarenbeek harvests the algae, dries them and turns them into strong, solid glass.
“If we grow and use it on a large scale, we can really take a big step in ‘climate positive’ construction,” says Klarenbeek.
The entire exhibition is full of products made from recycled waste or new natural products. Ceramic waste in furniture, textiles made from pine needles, crockery made from cow’s blood (!), but also the reintroduction of an age-old painting technique for dyeing clothes.
What all products, ideas and production processes have in common is that they challenge the way we build and manufacture materials today. Their aim is to show us how thinking outside the box can help us develop much-needed alternatives to today’s consumption-driven and unsustainable society.
2030 is the year
And Polestar? What does this newbie on the EV block have to do with this? Well, maybe everything.
Polestar aims to build a carbon neutral car by 2030 with a carbon footprint of 0 over its lifetime. This is a big task as we realize that electrification is perhaps the easiest part of the process. At the start of the so-called ‘Polestar 0 project’, Fredrika Klarén, head of Polestar’s sustainability division, explained:
We are an electric car manufacturer, so we don’t have to worry about emissions-generating combustion engines. But that doesn’t mean the job is done. The real challenge is to ban all emissions throughout the entire manufacturing process, from the materials we use to circular batteries and everything in between.
Just compensating for CO2 emissions by planting trees is not enough for Polestar. Experts warn that planting trees for CO2 compensation is not so sustainable in the long term after all. Forests can be cut or burned, blowing the stored carbon back into the atmosphere and neutralizing the positive impact it once had.
“How are we going to do it?” asked director of Polestar Netherlands Willem Baudewijns on the stage of Future Talks.
Many questions remain unanswered, many problems remain to be solved. Producing and recycling a battery involves an average of 9 tons of CO2 equivalent. Frankly, we don’t know how to lower this number yet, but by setting the bar high, we force ourselves to eventually design toward zero.
Designing for positive impact
At that moment, someone from the audience spoke up… “Designing for a positive impact, that’s the goal you have to pursue,” she said.
Fighting climate change, unleashing a revolution, it all starts with a positive story. Designing towards zero conveys a message of stagnation, while the story can and should be: we need to change things for the better. It may sound marginal, but in my opinion it makes a big difference.
I understood the point the speaker was trying to make, but somehow I was concerned that such an approach would go a little too far out of the comfort zone of the other participants. To my surprise, all of the speakers on stage were in full agreement with this alternative narrative. Big changes start with a good story, I thought. And designing for positive impact could be the subject of future conversations about sustainability.