Clare Brass’s big idea is that – rather than thinking about design of objects in a limited way – designers should take a holistic view, creating systems.
Brass leads sustainability initiatives at the Royal College of Art (RCA) and runs her own organisation, SEED Foundation – SEED stands for Social Environmental Enterprise + Design. Her work has so far focused on systemic sustainable design, but we believe Brass’s fresh approach to design solutions could be an inspiration to other fields.
Brass describes how she formed her theory: ‘I decided to pick a problem with a social or environmental nature and look at it in a systemic way – looking, maybe, at the connection between the social and environmental issues, looking for new ways of approaching problems, and designing new ways for people to do things,’ she says.
To follow Brass’s principals, designers must take a holistic approach. ‘It requires you to redesign relationships, above all,’ she explains. ‘I know that sounds very far from what designers normally do.’ Designers need to think processes through step by step and ask themselves a fundamental question: ‘what do you want people to do?’ ‘Then you create the tools that enable them to do those things in a new way.’
Brass decided to tackle food waste as an early trial run of her theory. Every year in the UK, 18m tonnes of food waste ends up in landfill, where it generates methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Brass set out to harness the value of household waste food – and create a self-sustaining enterprise at the same time. The result was the FoodLoop project. ‘It took many years,’ she says, ‘but we are now working on a housing estate in King’s Cross where the residents are collecting food waste, taking it to a composting machine that we have installed on the estate, and generating compost. In theory, in the future sales of that compost will pay for those residents to manage and run the whole system.’ The project is not only about managing food waste effectively and sustainably, but also about nurturing community spirit and communication, notes Brass – in other words, creating an entire system that works.
Brass believes it is time for a change in the way that designers are trained. ‘Designers have always been prepared for the service of industry, so we are bringing them through the educational system with the wrong objective,’ she says.
Communication is another issue. It is important, says Brass, that designers explain clearly how and why one way of doing things is better than another. Consumers are very happy to change their ways, she says, provided they feel they are taking positive action – and the transition is made smooth for them. ‘It has to be easy, it has to be fun, it even has to be sexy. It is important that people love the new tool they have for doing something.’
It is also crucial to see the problem in the context of the system within which it works, she emphasises. ‘Otherwise you end up solving a problem only to cause another one somewhere else.’
Top five take-outs
1. Design does not exist in isolation – it is a part of a wider system.
2. Addressing relationships and planning the ways in which design can be used to enable successful, sustainable systems should be a fundamental part of the design process.
3. A system-based approach works for designers and consumers alike.
4. Consumers are happy to adopt sustainable designs as long as they can understand the benefits – it is up to designers to communicate these.
5. Solving one problem without thinking about the system into which it fits is likely to cause another problem elsewhere.