Designers are conventionally understood as supporters of business. They produce the brands, logos and outward-facing ‘look and feel’ of a company. They create products for manufacturer and product packaging. And they create the apps and environments that allow people to interact with the virtual world. Designers promote themselves as being good for the bottom line and for business. This kind of rhetoric has been repeated for years, while all the warning signs of environmental and societal malaise have been ignored.
Some companies are trying to do the right thing, and some designers are attempting to take a different path – but they are few and far between and the overall juggernaut of production, waste and pollution continues unabated. Over the past thirty years many alternative approaches have been proposed, including the Triple Bottom Line of Sustainable Development; Life Cycle Analysis; Cradle to Cradle Design; Product-Service Systems; The Natural Step; The UN Sustainable Development Goals; The Paris Agreement; and the Circular Economy. Yet, emissions continue to grow and habitats and species continue to disappear. At the same time, in the economically developed countries happiness is on the decline and there are alarming rates of anxiety and depression, especially among young people.
It is becoming very clear that we’ve been looking for happiness in all the wrong places.
For too long, we’ve been looking ‘out there’, trying to attain happiness by acquisition. And only when a problem, such as climate change, becomes apparent, we investigate the evidence, measure the changes, and then try to react – but by that time it’s too late, the damage has been done, and the practices and conventions that led to the problem are already embedded and difficult to alter.
An entirely different approach is needed if we are to get to the heart of the problem. We have to start looking ‘in here’. We have to recognize that this is where the problem lies – in us – in our values, beliefs and aspirations. We need to take a good hard look at who we are, where we’ve come to, how we’ve taken such a path, and what we have become. And we need to give serious thought to what is required for deep and lasting positive change – as individuals, as communities, and as a society. Fundamentally, this is a question of spirituality, and how the spiritual sensibility can inform and affect our behaviours towards others and the world.
The term ‘spirituality’ refers to that intuitively apprehended ‘inner’ sensibility that seeks meaning in life and asks the bigger questions about ultimate purpose and why. Like the creative process, and therefore like design, finding answers to these kinds of questions is neither linear nor logical – they lie beyond words and simplistic forms of explanation. Instead, we have to draw on non-intellectual modes of knowing – traditionally, these employ the language of metaphor, analogy and symbolism. And like design, they are spurred by sudden insights, ideas and unexpected connections.
Spiritual teachings have been part of all human cultures for thousands of years. It is a heritage found in texts such as the Bhagavad Gita in India, the Tao Te Ching and the Analects of Confucius in China, the texts of Abrahamic religions stemming out of the Middle East, the philosophies of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in Europe, and the oral traditions of indigenous peoples all over the world. While these teachings differ enormously in terms of language and practice, one thing common to them all is care and concern for others – and by extension the world itself – love of neighbour, the so-called Golden Rule. In practice this means compassion, humility and moderation of wants, to enable others to have sufficient for their needs. For designers, these teachings point to a form of practice that supports:
- sufficiency – self-discipline and the avoidance of excess;
- localization – supporting local businesses and using local resources, thereby reducing transportation, packaging, waste and pollution;
- context-appropriate products and services that build a sense of cultural identity while also providing good work;
- the creation of long-lasting products that can be locally maintained and repaired;
- reimagining town centres so they provide for community practices and social and cultural activities that focus on creative, productive, healthy lifestyles rather than primarily supporting consumption;
- cooperative and employee-owned businesses that contribute to the common good, facilitate economic justice, and take environmental responsibilities seriously;
- creative services that enable local governments to envision and implement inspiring, participatory, co-produced solutions.
The current COVID-19 crisis has heightened our awareness of the roles that matter in society and who makes a real difference to the quality of people’s lives. Very often these are the people who work long hours for little financial reward and who sometimes have to hold down more than one job to make ends meet. They include healthcare workers, hospital cleaners, supermarket employees, delivery drivers, foodbank volunteers, and refuse collectors. Hundreds of thousands of others have lost their jobs entirely.
The fallout from this crisis will inevitably include even greater socio-economic inequities, devastated highstreets, and severe hardship for many people in our own society and around the world. Drawing on our spiritual selves, and informed by long-enduring teachings that show us what is important and how we should live, we have the opportunity to use our creative and design abilities thoughtfully, compassionately and wisely – to create a new, more desirable, fairer and sustainable future for everyone.
Stuart Walker is Professor of Design for Sustainability at Lancaster University. His latest book, Design & Sustainability: a philosophy of material cultures is published by Routledge (2021). stuartwalker.org.uk