Radical innovation for sustainable life-styles: scenario-building, visualisation and co-design…

Notes for open conference at Victoria Eco Innovation Lab in Melbourne, Nov 2007

Transitions toward sustainability implies to address systems that are more and more large, fast moving, complex and with numerous inter-related actors… Scenario thinking in such context is a way to overcome the on-going evolution, to envision discontinuities, to stimulate strategic conversation between stakeholders and bring them along to implement radically new solutions…

The talk will focus on 3 areas of Solutioning scenario building activities:

To explore opportunities…

Investigation of social innovation is a way to focus new and more sustainable lifestyles. VideoSketching technique and the use of other visualisation tools allow to show alternative ways of daily living, simulate new visions and describe possible reconfigurations of complex systems.

To facilitate convergence…

Co-design and participative techniques allow to involve users and stakeholders in the construction of their own futures. Sustainable Everyday Project events around the world blow this process at a large scale involving visitors of exhibitions in building their own sustainable lifestyle and showing how the use of scenario could foster the social conversation on sustainability…

To focalize solutions…

The development of new product-service systems requires new instruments for the designer. SystemMap, OfferingDiagrams, InteractionTable, StakeholderMatrix… an entire “solution notation toolbox” has been developed and experimented during the HiCS European research project to progressively share and specify a solution between different players.

Back on some European reseach projects for sustainability…

Why do we need this methodological approach? Who is interested to it? What kind of results did it bring to? And also, what kind of changes can we envision for the design activity?

I will try to give some elements of answers to these questions starting from the different research activities funded by the European Commission we took part in since about ten years now and from the related projects with commercial clients developed asides. I will here be able to browse some key project that to my mind are characteristic from significant evolutions in the approach to sustainability.

From 1998 till 2001 a first research project called Sustainable Household leaded by TU Delft in the Netherlands and involving mostly academic partners, research bodies and consultants consists in building alternative sustainable scenarios in a domestic context, assessing their potentials in terms of improving sustainability and testing their acceptance against different groups of population in five European countries.

It was mostly characteristic of the transition from eco-design to eco-behaviours: the improvement of mainstream ways of living in lifting existing products to reduce our impact on the environment was already reaching its limits and a more paradigmatic change in people behavior was needed to go beyond.

What mostly strikes in the range of results achieved by that research is the somewhat unexpected potential of the sustainable scenarios developed across multiple adopter groups (i.e. clothes leasing hypothesis were meeting fashion addict expectations as much as eco-friendly users) and in terms of transition strategies (i.e. slowing down impact of exagerated hygienism in clothing care leads to envision potential new business areas to refresh clothes).

The shift from fostering eco-design to promote sustainable behaviours shows the necessity to operate in complex products and services systems. A methodological research project called MePSS (Methodologies for Product Service Systems) was leaded between 2000 and 2003 by PricewaterhouseCooper netherlands and another large academic and research oriented consortium. It consists in gathering useful existing methodologies for pss developments in environmental assessment, user research, strategic design and management to integrate them into a large articulated toolbox.

What is probably mostly significant of this research project is the raising awareness that switching from product to services was not a winning principle in itself in terms of sustainability but ability to drive clever radical innovation in complex and moving contexts may lead to interesting results with industry.

A methodology assessment stream of research with EDF, the national French electricity provider shows for example how synergies between business and environmental concerns may be articulated: the opening of the electricity market requires to develop competitive advantages beyond selling kilowatt. Energy saving services for the final domestic clients emerge as win-win synergy between the capital of trust of EDF as the historical operator, the promotion of new instant metering technologies for the home and the EU regulation toward the promotion of energy saving.

Parallel to the integration of existing methodologies, the necessity to bring together new and multiple players to restructure an existing industrial system leads this research community to propose another project called HiCS (High Custo-me-rized Solutions) leaded from 2001 to 2004 by the Politecnico di Milano a research consortium of universities and consultancies and also companies implementing the research in Italy, Spain and Belgium. The core idea of the research was to build partnership of multiple and sometimes very different entities (companies, public authorities, NGOs…) to enable the delivery of very flexible and adaptable solutions to serve heterogeneous user groups.

The implementation stream of this research project shows in particular that the ability to develop complex industrial systems was not only a top-down activity of building an efficient and flexible platform but also a bottom-up activity starting form observing different context of use to suggest aggregations and the development of new services.

The belgian industrial partner DUNI, world leader of airplane catering tableware develops a food delivery system serving both hospital and elderly at home. In Spain, The municipality of Barcelona and the Eurest international catering company build and experience a partnership to serve lunch starting from the requirements of both office workers and municipal social services for dependent elderly and disable people.

Finally this shift from top-down to bottom-up approach to imagine and implement new scenarios of living reveals to be an entire new and promising track of research for design for sustainability. The EMUDE (Emerging User Demand for Sustainable Solutions) research project launched between 2003 and 2006 and leaded also by Politecnico di Milano involves a consortium of research entities and different design schools al over Europe. The intention was to explore and document cases of spontaneous grassroots initiative promising in terms of sustainability to inspire and shape new sustainable solutions in urban domestic environments.

What really matter in this research was the complete change of mindset from trying to shift lifestyles to build upon social innovation and involve design skills in fostering its diffusion.

The end purpose of the European Commission in funding this research project was to understand which technologies may support the development of the good sustainable practices and take it into account in the orientation of the EU politic of research. New and more sustainable lifestyles reveals a demand for many potential new businesses such as for instance the need for active groups of users to coordinate, synchronize and localize each other in order to enable collaborative services leads to many business opportunities for mobile phone companies (and especially for more flexible virtual mobile network).

It leads also to a considerable shift in the vision of the role of the designer. In the contemporary society people have constantly to invent and adapt their life to the rapidly changing environment. They are more and more connected between each others and what EMUDE shows (as well as a follow-up project Creative Communities for Sustainable Lifestyles in Brazil, China and India promoted by United Nation Environmental Program) is the emerging trend of people developing their solutions alone motivated by a mix of cultural, economical and sustainable concerns. Supporting this diffused creativity means for the designer to take part in these already “designing networks” and develop what we called “enabling solution” which is to say, services that enable the users to develop their own local specific solutions.