• Chris Sherwin

Design and Cleantech: a winning combination

Written in a past role as Head of Sustainability at Seymourpowell, this third article in the Guardian series on sustainability and design makes the case for using design to help clean and green technologies succeed.

A few years ago, green start-up Intelligent Energy (IE), the proud owners and developers of a world-class hydrogen fuel cell, faced a real challenge. The world was proving slow to grasp the potential of their technology, so they turned to an unusual source for help. Instead of asking an adman or management consultant about the best way to sell their cell, IE looked to a team of designers.

Over the following years, IE worked with their design partners to produce a compelling product application for their clean technology that would engage mass customers and business partners. The resulting ENV bike was the world's first hydrogen fuel cell powered motorcycle – sleek, elegant and emitting nothing but pure water vapour. More importantly, this helped IE licence the technology to Suzuki, then later to others soon to launch fuel-cell scooters.

IEs example highlights a key way that design can help build a sustainable future – by helping cleantech succeed and scale-up. Great design helped the company turn raw technology into a useful and familiar product concept. It created something really new, imaginative and exciting that catches the eye. It helped make a new clean technology attractive to funders and investors, as well as for users and consumers: the two main audiences we need to win over in future.

Humanising clean technology

The International Council of Societies for Industrial Design describes design as the "innovative humanisation of technologies", suggesting an important role in making new technology understandable and usable. Cleantech itself has a reputation of being too "techie" and impenetrable, which led green guru John Elkington to write in his book, the Zeronauts: "One of the missing links in this area, is the connection to consumers".

This growth-threatening gap in the cleantech story, around humanising the technology, is what design can help fill. This is about more than just consumers but about connecting cleantech to people, which investors and B2B customers are too. Operating as a bridge between technology and people, between production and consumption, designers are especially good at turning basic kit into winning products and meaningful solutions. They may not invent the technology, but designers can make sense and mainstream it.

Compact fluorescent lamps, the most everyday of clean technologies, illustrates this well. Consumers initially rejected these energy efficient alternatives, not just due to additional expense but also because the new curly-bulb shape stuck out of their lamps. Today, the lamp's design largely mirrors the incandescent bulbs they aim to replace.

Objects of desire for cleantech investment

One wonders how much design could help high-potential companies in the Guardian's own Cleantech 100. All these inspiring, early-stage tech companies are jostling for position in the race for scarce funding and resources and they will need to compete within and across sectors.

One cleantech investor once told me: "If you are an investor you see maybe 200 to 300 companies a year and invest in only three or four. It is about getting across immediately why them, why the technology, why the management team, etc." Being incredibly clear on the commercial proposition at those early stages is life critical. Yes there's the business plan, a great management team and a proven technology, but great design could give a cleantech company the edge.

The economic case for design in business is well proven. High growth start-ups are more likely to embrace design, while shares in design-led business have outperformed the FTSE 100 by 200% over the last few years.

Green technology, great design

When cleantech by design works properly, the results can be amazing. One current favourite, spotlighted in the Cleantech 100 and our sustainable design gallery, is Nest, the learning thermostat. It's smart, beautiful and cool to use. You program it to meet your daily energy needs, then it learns and adapts to your behaviour, even switching off when you're away.

The automotive sector uses design well to mainstream its clean and green technologies. The success of the breakthrough second generation Toyota Prius was attributed as much to design, which simply made the hybrid vehicle 'normal', as much to any technological factor. Tesla gets this intuitively too, via the sleek design of the soon-to-be-launched Tesla Model S electric-powered family sedan. Even renewable micro-generation can benefit from great design. How much of Quiet Revolution's success is down to the effectiveness of their turbines in comparison to their great design and branding? While Solar Century's C21integrated solar tile design means you avoid lengthy planning applications for roof installation.

Designing for cleantech success

I'm not saying design is a substitute for other ingredients essential for scaling up cleantech, such as the right financing structures; an injection of investment; favourable policy signals; and better green public procurement, etc. But design can help cleantech in the same ways it did with the digital technology revolution at the turn of the millennium. Don't forget that an iPod is little more than a wearable hard-drive with great branding, product design and user interface.

From a broader view, cleantech is perhaps the most exciting tech revolution of the 21st century and our future survival – economically and environmentally – may rest heavily on these new green and clean technologies – which is exactly the sort of challenge and opportunity the design community should get behind.

At the moment though, I don't see the cleantech sector turning to designers en masse; or see the design industry getting behind cleantech in anything like the way they should. It's a missed opportunity either way.


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