Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

2012 Sustainability Crash Course at Pratt Institute

Posted 25 Mar 2012 / 1

For the second year in a row I participated in Pratt Institute’s Crash Course in sustainability, sponsored by the Center for Sustainable Design Studies. I once again gave my talk entitled “Ecosystems: Where they came from, how they work, and why they stick around“.

Beyond speaking, I also got to attend a variety of interesting talks.

Sahar Ghaheri and Ashley Thorfinnson of dh studio teamed up with Kristina Drury of TYTHEdesign to present a talk entitled “Design opportunities in the social sector”. They discussed the potential and challenges of offering design work to non-profit and community service organizations. Although a lot of the work they discussed (such as design-based education programs aimed at providing life skills to inner city kids) did not have an explicit connection to sustainability, I was actually excited to hear a talk aimed at the question of bringing design equity to communities in need. And while the projects discussed did not address the ‘triple bottom line’ by explicitly considering environmental or ecological issues, I was excited to see design conceived as being in service of service as opposed to being in service of making products. More sustainable design at Pratt needs to be aimed at designing an economy based on providing services that improve the quality of people’s lives rather than the quality of people’s stuff.

Laura Senkevitch presented an interesting talk entitled “Decoding environmental science” in which she sought to present contemporary environmental issues in clear, visual, non-technical terms. Her talk brought up a lot of interesting issues for me because I spend a lot of time thinking about how to communicate science. The infographic approach is obviously one I agree on, and Senkevitch presented some nice visual depictions of the terrestrial and marine drivers of environmental impacts. But a challenge for me in this talk was distinguishing how far we should simplify science: there is a risk in making science too easy to digest via simplification that we lose the fine-grained resolution often needed to make prudent environmental decisions. Senkevitch also suggested that scientists are generally poor communicators, and while this is something that I agree with I also think that the public does not exert enough effort to become educated about scientific topics; to bridge the gap between scientists and the public, both sides are going to have to lean towards each other a bit.

Perhaps the most lively session I attended was run by Frank Millero (who teaches in Pratt’s Industrial Design Department) and Carolyn Schaeberle (the organizer of the Crash Course and Assistant Director of the Center for Sustainable Design Studies). Their session, “Life Cycle Workshop: Strategies and tools to identify environmental impacts”, allowed those in attendance to get a taste of what life cycle analysis (LCA) is and how it works. As I have discussed before, LCA is a critical process for understanding the full impacts of the products we design, produce, and consume. LCA is critical because it allows the designer to consider all of the externalities that are not factored into the strictly-economic calculations that generally go into product design. Schaeberle and Millero did a great job of engaging participants by asking us to assess and compare the impacts of two types of pencils: a mechanical pencil versus a wooden #2 pencil.

Actually performing such an analysis would require more than the ninety minutes of this workshop, so we were asked as participants to briefly dive into components of the analysis before being led further along by information provided by the presenters. As participants we never moved beyond the qualitative process of analyzing what was involved in making our pencils, but Schaeberle concluded the pencil analysis by showing her own assessment using Quantis Suite 2.0. Quantis is a database and synthesis tool containing information on the impacts of thousands of materials and processes used in the manufacture and distribution of modern products. Using this tool, we could see that ecological impact of the #2 pencil is greater due to the extraction of cedar trees required to make the body of the pencil. Not surprisingly, in other categories such as effects on human health, the plastic-based mechanical pencil had a higher impact.

As I have discussed before, this is the part of the analysis where we have to transition from science to policy and ultimately values, because there is no way to objectively decide how to weigh human health effects versus impacts on ecosystems. This problem, plus the overall complicated nature of LCA, makes me a little skeptical about its application: it seems as though there is little incentive for designers or the companies that hire them to perform LCA, because mostly it delivers ‘bad news’ about the impact of products and there is very little ‘valued added’ in changing production methods to decrease impact. An exception to this general rule may exist for those companies that make very expensive products: at high price points, affluent consumers may be willing to pay for the lowered impacts produced by designing under the influence of LCA. At the end of the session Schaeberle presented a recent project spearheaded by the Center for Sustainable Design Studies for TUMI, a high-end luggage manufacturer, which was a good example of when LCA can be valuable to a company. But for those of us who cannot or will not shell out $1000 for a piece of luggage, the problem remains that public policy is still far too lenient on polluters: we would not even need LCA if we had adequate public policy, policies that forced polluters to pay and limited impacts of industrial production. Under sufficient environmental policy, the market would simply price out unsustainable products and processes.

The final event of the day was a panel discussion featuring Industrial Design professor Allan Chochinov, Design Management Program chairperson Mary McBride, and architect Neil Chambers. Loosely entitled “Re-Envisioning the Future”, the panel discussion was a bit scattered. Chochinov’s main points were that design is mostly about so-called “First World Problems”, usually resulting in some unnecessary product. He suggested that designers need to think of themselves as “not being in the artifact business, but in the consequence business”. Chambers followed with an interesting approach to architecture, one based on the idea that we cannot conserve nature at the scale of single buildings. He just released a book called “Urban Green: Architecture for the Future” dedicated to this approach, and in his talk he provided several interesting examples of how design can be used to restore large-scale natural biomes while providing the design client with noticeable improvements on conventional design. His philosophy reminded me a lot of Michael Rosenzwieg’s “Win-Win Ecology“, and is to be commended, although I do see one flaw in this approach: once we are done picking the low-hanging fruit of design projects in which there is no trade-off between architectural and ecological outcomes, how do we deal with the remaining design problems in which there is a trade-off? Mary McBride finished off the session by talking about sustainability fatigue and the role that impending doom and fear play in our psychological interpretation of what it means to strive for sustainability. To combat this potentially-paralyzing fear, she suggested that we go outside of institutions to advocate for a more “resilient” version of sustainability. From the audience we also heard the platitude that “we need more education”, and while I agree that a massive cultural conversion is in the end the only thing that will lead us to sustainability, what was not entirely clear from this session or the day as a whole was what kind of education do we need to offer, and to whom?

This year’s Crash Course was remarkably dominated by design talks. Whereas the 2011 program featured a diversity of presenters, including a number of talks in the social and natural sciences, this year’s talks were far less diverse. My talk and the talk given by Laura Senkevitch were the only sessions dedicated to scientific topics, and missing were experts in the social, political, cultural, historical, and philosophical facets of sustainability. This might have just been a fluke of who was available to speak, but my fear is this ‘design dominance’ reflects a larger split on Pratt’s campus and within the larger sustainability movement. Based on the talks I heard at this year’s Crash Course, it is clear that the way that designers conceive of “sustainability” is often pretty narrow, mostly asking “what objects can we make that are more sustainable?”. The idea of not making — or at least not making objects — is rarely discussed. I do not doubt this is in large part due to the lack of non-design voices in the conversation.

Art & Design, Biomes, Center for Sustainable Design Studies, Conferences, Conservation Biology, Ecology, Ecosystem Services, Environmental Justice, Green Design, Greenwashing, Life Cycle Analysis, Population Growth, Pratt Institute, Public Policy, Quantitative Analysis, Sustainability, Sustainable Pratt

1 Comment to "2012 Sustainability Crash Course at Pratt Institute"

Ben Knight 26th March 2012 at 11:46 am

Funny, I talked to Deb Johnson at last years Sustainability Crash Course at Pratt Institute about the event’s design centric mindset, and its many problems. Sad they didn’t change that evolve or change that this year.

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