Notes from Central Debates of Sustainable Design, January 15, 2008

Ann Thorpe, author of The Designer’s Atlas of Sustainability, gave a talk entitled “Central Debates of Sustainable Design” as part of the UW’s Luce lecture series. My notes from this are below.

  • Wanted to cover in the book where people come from when approaching sustainability and how to “do” sustainability
  • Book systematically and visually presents the concept
    • “The making of” – the book started in 2001
    • Based on the principle of “If worth doing, it’s worth doing badly” – had to start somewhere for the idea
  • Central debates: responsibility, pace (of adoption), scale, operation, and appearance. The talk focused on the first three central debates.
  • Designers rarely have time to get up to speed if they don’t know about sustainability
  • The market is not the same as the overall economy
  • Natural resources have different prices
  • “Let the market decide”
  • The operational spheres of nonprofits, private, and public organizations all overlap with the economy
  • It appears cheaper to destroy natural or societal resources than it is to preserve them according to the market
  • What responsibilities do designers take across a market economy?
  • Nonprofits will be seen as having a potential for a proactive stance in promoting issues
  • Part of the problem is how we take things from the ecosystem and then redistribute it
  • We don’t see the costs for the global distribution of produced materials
  • Different things work at a different pace – art/fashion, communication, infrastructure, culture, nature (this list is actually sorted fastest to slowest in terms of rate of change)
  • Commerce is starting to control the pace of change
  • Much as we want to push change, we need stability in the (economic) system
  • Change takes three forms: physical, economic, and cultural
  • Audience question: sustainable costs more – can we make it cost less? Do cases of this happening exist?
  • Answer: marketplace tools are a solution here. There are some cases where this has happened.
  • Things are cheap in monetary terms that aren’t in sustainable terms – this is a systemic problem
  • “Be an active citizen” to make sustainability viable – knowledge is power
  • Sustainability is complex and depends on context of values
  • How might open source play into sustainable design?
  • Audience: We do sustainable buildings, but it “doesn’t look good”