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Where Now With Design?

By: Seaton Baxter OBE
Programme Co-ordinator and Senior Lecturer
MA Ecological Design Thinking
Schumacher College

Thring's Propositions - Then and Now

In 'The Engineer's Conscience' (1980), Thring set out 6 propositions for a future society. In summary, he believed that in order to have a stable, through clearly a dynamic global society in the 21st Century, a fundamental shift was needed from our present worldview (ethos). This meant that global population needed to level off at around 8 billion people by 2025 and by now, (one generation after he wrote these propositions) everyone should have an adequate standard of living and education. Average per capita consumption of resources needed to stabilize around 1980 levels and no form of pollution, which would ultimately adversely affect people, animals or plants, should persist. He believed that the gross differences between the rich and the poor should be eliminated and that this could be achieved by the rich societies divesting themselves of unproductive activities like weapons manufacture etc. and diverting their attention to helping the poorer societies to reach a better standard of living. He must be disappointed now!

The estimated world population is now approaching 7.5 Billion. This is still generally in line with Thring's projections but is continuing to increase at a rate faster than he would have liked, estimated to reach just over 9.5 billion by 2050. The problem however is not just one of numbers but of resource inequity. Many of the 1980's poor do have higher (though only slightly) standards of living and more education (not nearly enough) but the gap between the rich and poor is increasing with the former (<20% of the population) taking a greater (>80%) share of the world's resources. In addition, it has been estimated that the resources of 3 planet Earths would be required to provide the entire World’s population with a standard of living equal to that of the richest societies. Clearly not achievable. Yet it is difficult to deny the poor the means to raise their living standards. How they do so, without repeating the West's mistakes is perhaps the greatest engineering and design challenge we now face. The growing affluence of China and India will present immense problems for resource acquisition, use and disposal. Clearly in one generation we have not achieved Thring's objectives and although we have yet to see a third World war, (some would claim that global terrorism is the latest form of World War) warfare still forms a most distressing element of our current civilization. In 1993 an estimated 50 wars were going on at any one time. 1000 soldiers and 5000 civilians were dying per day, every day resulting in more than 2 million deaths per year. The war in Iraq had cost the USA around $162,000,000,000, enough to combat global hunger for 6 years. Although there are many cases of local pollution abatement, rivers now carrying fish that have been absent for years, cities free of smog etc., global pollution continues to increase with potentially serious consequences for climate change, natural resource destruction and human health problems. New types of pollution are on the increase resulting from scientific and technological creativity e.g. genetically modified crops, electromagnetic radio waves etc. As Homer-Dixon has pointed out, our technological ingenuity continues to add to the complexity of the world thereby giving rise to new, unpredictable emergent situations some of which may be harmful to life. Our ingenuity is unlikely to keep pace with increasing complexity.

Where Now With Design?

It is now obvious that unless design and engineering make their contribution to the world in a way which conserves our eco-systems and the services we receive from them, then in the long-term our very survival is at stake. So all design should be ecological design, where the products and processes of our endeavours are seen as part of mutual co-evolution with the natural systems of the world.

Three different engineering non-linear design strategies emerge from Meredith Thring's papers in the 1970's and 80's. The condition of the developing nations needs its own strategy, much of which has already been suggested by Papanek. In addition however, the strategy should no blindly follow the developed world to its present condition with the almost inevitable consequence of a decline in Quality of Life. What would be preferable would be a strategy which accelerates Quality of Life whilst stabilizing the consumption of resources. This is the imaginative challenge for design to develop creative societies in the developing countries. There is no need for them to follow neither the West's early trajectory nor its present position. For the developed societies a different design strategy is needed. Here more thought in product design needs to be given to less materialism and more happiness through perhaps non-material experiences. Of course new material products will continue to be developed but they should follow the principles of good ecological design. For this, several guiding principles have already been suggested since 1980.

In 1984 for example, Jon & Nancy Todd outlined a set of precepts for ecological design and in 1990, David Wann proposed a list of 'biologic' principles. At around this time, the architect William McDonough also framed the Hannover Principles which were subsequently adopted for the Hannover World Fair in 2000. These principles are not meant to substitute for the designer's imagination and skills in problem solving. They are meant to reframe the boundaries of the larger problem space. Designers and engineers have a reputation for creative and imaginative problem solving which should not be inhibited. Such creativity however should be given some direction. For example it seems unwise to call for unbridled creativity in industry or unqualified technological innovation if this only compounds the type of problems already outlined by Thring. Clearly design principles alone are not enough - they need to be applied from a new ethical perspective and to lead towards a new vision for a sustainable future. A vision, few have had the courage to construct although some have hinted at what might be expected for a future sustainable society.

Professor Seaton Baxter is a leading figure in ecological design and received his OBE for his services to the Scottish environment. Founder of the ‘Centre for the Study of Natural Design’ at the University of Dundee he has successfully supervised a wide range of masters and doctoral students many of whom have gone onto to make significant contributions across the ecological design field. Seaton established his name as a leading thinker and practitioner on the design of agricultural buildings and facilities for animal welfare, waste management and low carbon systems. He has a long standing interest in building conservation and rurality.