Research Log: IT’S OUR F***ING BACKYARD
The interplay of Industrial Design, Functionality and Resource Consumption
by Ab Stevels
by Ab Stevels
On the occasion of the exhibition It’s our F***ing Backyard. Designing Material Futures the Stedelijk commissioned emeritus professor Ab Stevels of TU Delft to write a set of Research Logs about the use of sustainable materials and the history of its design and application. Drawing from decades of experience in both design, industry, and academic fields, in this set of logs he addresses what designers and companies can do to become more sustainable. but also how as consumers, we can all become more vigilant of companies that might be greenwashing their activities.
A designer makes a rough sketch of how a ‘thing’ (an ‘artifact’) is to look, followed by detailed drawings. On the basis of the latter, this thing (a product, service or combinations thereof) is produced by others. Detailed drawings demand an in-depth understanding of the functional qualities of the artifact to be produced. These qualities manifest themselves in four dimensions:
Contrary to popular belief, sustainability is not a separate dimension of functionality, and aspects of it play a clear role in the dimensions described. These include:
Thus, being ‘green’ is not always considered unequivocally good! Lots of people are simply more selfish in their buying behavior than they claim to be in general surveys. Designers should therefore be very careful about taking the reported attitudes of their target group at face value when analyzing the results of qualitative research.
Installation view of It’s my F***ing Backyard Designing Material Futures: Less and More section with revolutionary designs using industrial techniques and processes. Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij.
Living conditions in the western world have improved tremendously since the end of the 19th century. And this improvement has been matched by an increased demand for all manner of goods and services, a development that picked up even more pace in the 20th century. Increasingly advanced technology and further industrialization have delivered us a world of mass production and consumption, a consequence of which is the mass consumption of materials.
Along with industrialization came a new area of specialization within the discipline of design: Industrial Design. This is the design of artifacts suitable for manufacture in large quantities. Its success demands a keen understanding of mass production techniques.
It also demands functionalities be designed to appeal to the largest possible group of consumers. ‘Highest common factor, lowest common denominator!’ With respect to sustainability, this means that products tend to come with too much functionality, with attendant material consequences. For instance, computers that offer all kinds of graphic design functionalities when a lot of buyers only need them for word processing and e-mails.
Conversely, mass production and consumption represent an opportunity. If products can be designed to be much more environmentally friendly, the overall impact will be both immediate and significant, precisely because it will be happening on such a large scale.
Another widespread phenomenon in industrial design is the ‘pollution’ of new generations of products by features offered by previous generations of said products. This happens because limited lead times between design and sale—i.e., time to market—do not allow sufficient time to ‘clean up’ the design of each new generation of products. New features are added without the elimination of all redundancies. This, too, represents an opportunity for ‘sustainable’ industrial design.
Technological developments over the last few decades have expanded the possibilities of what we can do with design. Information technology, chip technology, miniaturization and, more recently, ‘artificial intelligence’ have resulted in the design of hardware/software combinations with tremendous levels of functionality. The most ubiquitous example of this is the smartphone.
For the designer, the production of such artifacts demands that he operates in an interdisciplinary manner. Specialist knowledge must be called upon for all sorts of things, not only concerning the product itself, but also to provide an overview of the opportunities available across the entire supply chain. The latter, too, has evolved from being a collection of rather passive implementing cogs in the chain of production to an industry with the knowledge and expertise required to offer all manner of creative input across the length of the design chain.
These developments have major implications for designers and manufacturers with respect to materials. Individual parts can now be designed to be intelligent components that enhance functionality in ever more complicated ways. All of which has expanded the role of designer into something akin to that of a ‘design manager’. This is partly necessary for maintaining an overview and understanding of the process. But at the same time, all sorts of actions are required in the preliminary stages to ensure that this evolved role serves the final design to the greatest possible extent.
Meanwhile, these developments have also inspired a countermovement: a back-to-basics approach to design defined by a list of specific standards: simplicity, transparency, and close proximity to the end user. Also local, well-organized networks, and natural materials; more consumer empowerment, less technocracy! And improved ‘sustainability’ through better use (and less consumption) of materials.
This has posed a challenge for established high-tech industrial organizations, to put it mildly: can things really be done differently? Could we combine central and local functions to enable things like head office-controlled IT in support of local production? Or should we launch small-scale side projects and allow these to expand slowly until … what?
People with revolutionary ideas are often initially treated with ridicule by established players. As a result of many of their suggestions—rightly or wrongly—suffer a premature death. But there are always people that refuse to let this happen, and they’re the ones who eventually will change the world!
Albert (“Ab”) Stevels studied Chemical Engineering at the Technical University of Eindhoven and took a PhD degree in Physics and Chemistry at Groningen University. He has worked for Royal Philips Electronics in manifold capacities in materials research, glass production technology, as a business manager in electro-optics, and as a project manager for joint ventures and licensing in Asia. These experiences helped him develop the concept of Applied EcoDesign and integrate it into day-to-day business operations. He has also conducted a great deal of in-depth research on the treatment of discarded electronics, the findings of which helped lay the groundwork for setting up take-back and recycling systems at Philips NL. In 1995 Ab was appointed professor in Environmental Design at Delft University of Technology. He has had visiting professorships at several universities including Stanford University, TU Berlin, Georgia Institute of Technology, NTN University in Trondheim, and Tsinghua University in Beijing. He also worked with the University of Sao Paulo to develop an MBA program and Sustainability course.
Stevels is the author of some 200 journal articles and conference contributions. For more on his experiences with green design and in-house management of ‘eco’ and e-waste, see his book Adventures in EcoDesign of Electronic Products.