Sustainability centered design to designing impact: A shift from human-centered design

October 10, 2017 Design, Featured news 0 Comments


As the world embraces new challenges of inequality and sustainability, we need a paradigm shift, from human centered to sustainability centered design that is measured by impact. Our work in Collaborative Community through projects made us realise the role of design as a “facilitator” for impact which got coined in 2012 in our approach to social sector as “designing impact”. Laying out our journey and story below…


Moving beyond human centered design

human centred design india

While we worked on many impact projects, we placed the user / human as the central player in designing a relevant solution for the community, popularly known as human centered design approach. However, the solutions didn’t really work as the approach had to consider the environment, social context & behaviour as some of the factors that drove the adoption of a solution by the community and not just the user. We were organically ideating and setting the brief in context to our overall impact criteria (social, economic, ecological, cultural) which became a dichotomy for our team members. It was then a conscious effort for our team to move beyond the human centered design approach. We were not even aware that there were already conversations like this in 2010 talking about an approach beyond human centered design, a sustainability approach. The premise that humans or user are central to how we design and consume products or services, or the way we design our lives is clearly unsustainable. Understanding that humans are only one part of a larger ecosystem as a design thinking process is the way forward for us.


Bridging the gap of inequality through design 

A decisive shift for our design approach also happened when we fundamentally understood the biggest challenge facing humanity, was inequality. We were clear that it was not poverty but inequality amongst people, inequality in access to resources and opportunities that are leading to micro and macro challenges across regions. We were also conscious that we didn’t want to make bold yet unrealistic statements such as design solving global challenges or designing a path out of poverty. We realised while working on projects in India, that there is enough grass root innovation and design that already exists and we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We also consciously distanced ourselves to use terms such as empowering or giving dignity or helping the poor out of poverty which seems like a top-down, saveiour approach.

“We saw design’s role as a facilitator or enabler of ideas or solutions to solve social challenges.”

We humbly view designers and innovators as a community that can help bridge the gap of inequality through innovative singular or systemic design solutions.


Sustainability centered design

As we all are aware about the inequality that stems from the unequal distribution of wealth in the world, sustainability can’t be viewed purely only from an ecological lens but also inclusion of social, economic and cultural sustainability. We need to build in sustainability that allows a more equitable distribution of resources and opportunities for communities across regions than need more than a higher income for quality life with rights. Sustainability centered design addresses this as not just a design thinking process for solving challenges but also looking at systemic challenges. We have sustainability frameworks that establish this context of sustainability in a systemic and global context.

Sustainability centered pedagogy has its relevance not just in design sector but also in delivery of quality education and equipping children with relevant skills for future. Sustainability is NOT an alternative, sustainability is central to how we design our lives and sustain the future of humanity and earth. Sustainability as a way of life was prevalent historically and can be still witnessed within communities and regions that demonstrate our ability to live in a sustainable manner. Human adaptation is astounding as we study our history, and we can be willing to adopt sustainability centered design at a global scale not just as an approach but as a choice. Sustainability centered design needs to be introduced across all design, humanities, business and technology focused schools and universities. Our approach to learning needs a paradigm shift from primary school to university education to professionals/ businesses.


Impact & sustainability


Sustainability centered design is a framework that is relevant to not only non-profits or social sector but also to commercial or business sector. Sustainability centered design as a process can help us design products, services or systems but to evaluate its impact and relevance, we need to measure sustainability through impact metrics. It is a tool for evaluation of an idea or solution that can be improved or innovated further when we are able to measure the impact.

We view designing impact as an evaluation tool for a sustainability centered design process.

A comparative analysis of the two would help:

Sustainability centered Design                 |              Designing impact

A process                                                      |           Evaluation tool

Designing a product, service or system        |          Measuring impact in production of product, service or system

An approach to design                                  |          A feedback mechanism to improve the design/ solution further

Context to start designing a solution             |          Criteria of assessing the solution