Imagining the unimaginable

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I am not really to write about sustainability issues here as Malene is already doing that brilliantly. But as it is a major concern and an underlying condition for all activities at the design consultancy where I am a partner I really have to stress the importance of designers engaging in envisioning sustainable living before I go on and focus on other design matters.

In an article in Dwell the American sci-fi writer and design and sustainability thinker Bruce Sterling described humanity’s quest for sustainable living as being on the slider bar between the unthinkable future and the unimaginable future. This picture points to the fact that whether we should consider sustainability or not is not the issue. In Denmark we have an average ecological footprint of 6-8 planets. This roughly means that we constantly demand 6-8 times the resources and put back 6-8 times the amount of waste that the Earth is capable of delivering and handling. That is obviously an unsustainable situation and the end is inevitable.

If our current way of living continues undisturbed in 40 years we are facing what some refer to as ‘a global Somalia’; a situation where scarcity of resources including water and food combined with forecasted climate changes will lead to global starvation, massive streams of refugees and constant fighting. That is the unthinkable future.

On the other hand if we succeed in changing our systems into a situation where sustainable one-planet living is possible we still have a chance to save the future generations and ourselves. The issue is just that no one knows what this one-planet life is like and therefore cannot comprehend what it would be like to live it. It is the unimaginable future.

This is where designers come into the picture: Sustainability, one-planet lives, zero-carbon and all this is not related to anybody’s daily life. And though sustainable living can never be anybody’s personal responsibility as it is a systemic issue we need to have people engaging in the matter to start this movement. And because we need people to engage we need to empower them to do so.

Most people know the scenarios of the unthinkable future. And though the urgency is easy understandable these scenarios create fear and anxiety, which is not what we need in order for people to act and not just do something but do the right thing. We need to exchange these pictures of the unthinkable future with the pictures of how great future sustainable living will be: We need to imagine the unimaginable.

Designers are specialists in integrating technology, society and people’s wants and needs into relevant solutions because they excel in making abstract visions and concepts tangible through visualisations, models and prototypes. And we need exactly to create a vision of one-planet lives in a way that makes sense to people in their daily lives. A vision that clearly shows that sustainable one-planet living is not about taking cold showers and never going on holiday, but is even cooler than life today: Clean air, green cities, work and food for everybody, healthy happy children, global prosperity and peace. We might not be as monetary wealthy as today, we might not drive around in cars like crazy and we might not eat red meat all the time. But we will live and enjoy life.

Like most others, designers can do little themselves towards creating a sustainable future. But we can play an important role in envisioning future living and empowering people to engage in this matter that is more important than any other challenge mankind has ever faced (and that we created ourselves).

By Jesper Pagh • September 14, 2009
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Design is all around

Jesper Pagh

I am a designer devoted to sustainability, technology, experiences and human behavior.