• Chris Sherwin

Using Design Visions to Advance Sustainability

This article argues that designers should create more imaginative visions of sustainability that excite rather than depress or scare people, written in a past role at Seymourpowell.

Malcolm Gladwell said "the visionary starts with a blank sheet of paper and re-imagines the world." So imagine this: you could travel internationally, without the hassle and stress of the airport or the carbon emissions and climate impacts currently associated with flying. Imagine a more serene transport experience for people looking for a more reflective journey, where the experience of travel itself is more important than getting from A to B quickly. Imagine a world cruise not on the ocean, but in a giant, zeppelin-like hotel in the sky, from which you have time to marvel at natural or manmade wonders. Your trip to New York or Dubai would take a couple of days during which you're enjoying the absolute freedom of flight, with family or friends. Imagine all this being powered, in elevation and direction, only by hydrogen, topped up by solar panels covering the vast structure.

Imagine no more as the Aircruise concept has already been created by a visionary team of designers. You may even be able to try it soon, as Korean conglomerate Samsung are investigating the feasibility of the concept.

This vision is not a have-your-consumerist-cake-and-eat-it scenario, or even a prediction of the future. This is a re-imagining of how things could be – an alternative take on future leisure and travel, in which slow is the new fast. It perfectly illustrates the final point in our sustainability and design series – how designers can create inspiring visions of the future that help advance sustainability.

The use of visions in sustainability is not new, but design-driven visions might be. While sustainability theoretically fits neatly with concepts such as futurity, legacy or long-term thinking, one problem that Forum for the Future's Peter Madden notes is that: "Our main narrative is fundamentally overwhelmingly negative – apocalyptic, doom and gloom. It's anti-growth. But it stops us being listened to, and acts as a barrier to the majority of people." We have not painted particularly inspiring pictures of how sustainable living can be better for people.

"Designers don't just see the world as it is, they see how it could be", says sustainable design Professor Cameron Tonkinwise. Talk to a designer and they don't focus on what's wrong or what's broken, invariably they'll want to fix it or make it better. Designers are ideas people, able to imagine new ways of doing things, but critically they can bring these ideas to life by visualising them in inspiring ways, and also by presenting ideas and visions from the end-user/citizen/consumer backwards – meaning they are about people not technology.

Look around and you'll find more than the odd designer working on visions for a sustainable world. The Siemens Future Life film at the crystal installation in London recently caught my eye through its explanation of how tomorrow's sustainable city dwelling can be healthy, communal, beneficial and fun. Picking fruit and veg from your New York city skyscraper's urban vertical farms, or bathing in the outdoor communal pools of Copenhagen's harbour look particularly appealing.

Some of the best visions of this kind come from Philips Design, via their Design Futures program. The company even has a formal methodology for this process titled Design Probes, which looks at far-future lifestyle scenarios, which culminate in a design provocation.

One of my personal favourites is their Home Farming concept to grow some of your food inside your home. An indoor mini-ecosystem, containing fish, crustaceans, algae and edible plants, all interdependent and in balance with each other, provides your very own indoor vertical farm. Cynics may see this as just whimsy or creative indulgence, yet the original Aircruise concept film has more than 650,000 YouTube views to date, and though impact shouldn't be measured by clicks alone, part of this is clearly about some much-needed sustainability inspiration.

One of our own philosophies is that innovation is best delivered if you "step into the future and drag the present towards you", so we use these kinds of visions in our everyday work. This refill concept – called Boomerang – was created for personal care products such as shampoo or bodywash, and has helped us talk to our consumer brand clients about design beyond single-use, disposable products. The resulting designs may not be an exact extrapolation of the vision, but it does show another role for visions in being catalytic.

A while back, Philips Design published some of its former visionary concepts, presented next to similar products they may have catalysed, which had been introduced to the market since. Ironically, many of these were not developed or launched by Philips, so vision projects can be a wider stimulus for innovation too. The visionary starts with a blank sheet and re-imagines the world, but designers can help with that extra step of making these visions a reality.

Our series has covered many aspects of sustainability and design, presented a complete roadmap in which designers must: add sustainability to everything designed, help cleantech to scale up and win, redesign people's behaviour, even take on some of the worlds big challenges – through design. Yet this final blog presents the ultimate role, and challenge, to designers – bringing inspiring visions of sustainability to life.


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