Biomimicry and cradle-to-cradle are two leading models for 21st century design, says Chris Sherwin in the penultimate of his series on sustainable design
Working in the field of sustainable design, I'm periodically asked, sometimes challenged, on what a truly sustainable product looks like. I thought I'd share the way I tackle this as a way to unpack the issues.
One example I use is the work of designer Chris Cattle, who 'grows furniture'. His amazing designs (see above), consist of three timber saplings that are planted, grown and trained around a reusable plywood template to produce, in time, a rigid structure for pieces of furniture like tables and stools. Grafting the saplings together when thick enough creates their joints, and then after two years the structure can be cut and used with minimal finishing other than additions like a seat or table top, as with this particular example.
The only energy used to make the structures is that directly from the sun. In addition, the furniture is almost completely renewable and biodegradable, as well as durable and long lasting. It creates little or none of the pollution created in 'normal' furniture making such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from glue or foam, or the toxic effluents from fabric dying.
If sourced from a well-managed forest, the pieces can also be grown carbon neutrally, enhancing biodiversity and supporting the skills and development of local economies. Imagine planting and growing furniture forests of components or even complete structures. It's hard to think of a more sustainable way to produce furniture.
Whether you like the product or not, you have to admit that it's really different. In furniture production terms, it substitutes cutting and hacking timber through old-fashioned and/or wasteful industrial processes, for gentle persuasion. It's more topiary, gardening or horticulture than 20th-century manufacturing or industrial design.
Cattle's method perfectly illustrates the next point in our sustainable design series: how designers need to adopt different methods and models of design, to adapt to and deliver a sustainable future.
The history of design
Our understanding of design today was forged in the early years of the 20th century and has always reflected the social and economic priorities of its time. In the early days, this was a willingness to embrace mass production and emerging forms of consumer capitalism. Looking back, it's easy to wonder how much design practice has really changed, but certainly in the way we teach it.
The seismic, if slow, shift towards sustainability is beginning to change this. Business, technological and economic paradigms are softening, flattening, opening, and becoming more circular, as we transition to ecological and biological models of sustainability. Little surprise then to see this reflected in new design practice. Different times call for different means.
Shifting design paradigms
Two of the most prominent of these new design models are cradle-to-cradle (C2C) and biomimicry design. Cradle-to-cradle design requires that products are seen either as technical or biological nutrients to be designed back into their appropriate cycle. Our sustainable product gallery highlighted Caterpillar's Reman program, which refurbishes used trucks and reuses their components, as C2C design in action.
Biomimicry, the other new model, is where natural processes, honed over 3bn years of biological evolution, are the inspiration for design. If you're facing a design problem, why not ask nature to see how she would do it via examples from this extensive website? Grown furniture probably fits a model called ecological design, which works by integrating itself with living processes.
Much of these new models question currently perceived design wisdoms – particularly in embracing broader ecological systems. So will future sustainability-literate designers come from the art and design school model derived from those early 20th century years? Or do examples such as the Biomimicry for Creative Innovation (BCI) group – who offer design training with Kew Royal Botanical Gardens experts – give a snapshot of a future in which great design education comes from somewhere like a biology department?
Sustainable design gets ugly
In a sustainable future, one thing design will continue to do is beautify the everyday and make new things normal, and it is here where our grown furniture example may fall down today. Though beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder, even I don't expect this to win many traditional design awards or float everyone's boat, just yet.
Do remember though that these are first prototypes, which take time to produce, and which need and allow for further refinement and development. Really new things often also challenge us in quite fundamental ways, in what's known as "the shock of the new". Ironically, it's usually a designers' job to make the new more palatable, taking new technology and dressing it up in familiar shapes, forms and behaviours.
It's not yet clear if the future lies in redesigning products in this way, to make them normal, or in redesigning design itself. More certain is that the need for and use of new models of design like those outlined above will only grow and grow.