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Academic Special Session: The design approach within a degrowth perspective

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Benjamin Tyl (1), Iban Lizarralde (2), Andrea Vetter(3)

(1) APESA, France, (2) ESTIA, France, (3) Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie, Germany

The degrowth narrative has often been considered through an economic, political, or educational point of view. The core idea is to propose new pathways to restrict global warming, overcome social injustice, and reduce resource consumption globally. Nevertheless, the design perspective is surprisingly still under-estimated in the degrowth debate as if designers and design research could not offer any solutions.

It is widely accepted that designers are deeply involved in mass production, generating negative social and environmental impacts and participate in a “junk production” process, i.e., a trivialization of innovation dealing with technological artifice, fashion, and denial of needs (Ariès, 2007).

On the contrary, design can also propose a relevant contribution to the degrowth community. As underlined Spangenberg et al. (2010), “without the contribution of design, the full potential of sustainable production and consumption, and thus sustainability, cannot be realized”. But the role of design might be revisited to better cope with the various crises we are confronted with: the environmental crisis (through the depletion of natural resources, the uncontrolled generation of waste, the pollution of soil, water, etc….), the social crisis (poverty, malnutrition, unemployment, violence, ..) but also the democratic crisis. Therefore, an innovative perspective for designers, in line with the degrowth narrative, is to develop new or to improve and re-invent old or forgotten productive models to overcome capitalist models (Kostakis et al., 2015). Illich’s alternative to current design is focused on social solidarity, based on friendship and mutual giving, but is also “creatively accepting” its limits (Mitcham, 2003, p29). Moreover, designers must encourage users to become active participants in the design process, “embracing ideas of conviviality and exchange to foster social accountability and enhance communities” (Strauss and Fuad-Luke, 2008, p6).

What can we do?

Many tools and methodologies have been developed to integrate some of these issues. The eco-design approach is now well-known in the design community. The objective is to significantly reduce the environmental impact of products and services. However, this kind of approach has too often led designers to adopt over-industrialized high-tech solutions.
Other approaches, such as eco-innovation or sustainable business models, can have a more global vision. But they often fail to reach a systemic vision of the way products and services are produced and consumed, and do not really consider the externalities to reduce environmental and social impacts.

Neverthless, more promising approaches are emerging. Melles et al. (2011) proposed a “socially responsible design” to integrate local issue in design, including more “radical” criteria such as “relative affordability” (is the outcome locally and regionally affordable?), advancement (does it create local or regional jobs and develop new skills?), local control (can the solution be understood, controlled, and maintained locally?), and empowerment (does it empower the community to develop and own the solution?). Some design approaches integrate the notion of distributed production as a new strategy against mass production, proposing new decentralized production and consumption patterns (Kohtala, 2015).

Gaziulusoy et al. (2013) underlined the need to develop methods integrating institutional, organizational and technological changes, based on a systemic vision. Therefore, design must be systemic and must focus on structural problems, such as power distribution, uncontrolled industrialization and the balance between industrial and non-industrial activities.

Who is designer?

Design has often be reduced to the practice of what we call “official designers” or “engineers”, who have been “recognized” because of their diplomas or their achievements in a business environment. But new design practices regularly emerge from grassroots communities, makers, hackers, and other “non-official” designers. These practices integrate other design criteria such as local communities’ empowerment, proportionality, low intensity, conviviality within small-scale and low-tech solution. These communities rarely explicit their process and are often focused on the “making” stage. They don’t generally use specific methods but translate technologies suitable for degrowth societies into goods and services designed for the well-being of communities, through a common approach, and far from profit.

Where is design within the degrowth debate?

In the recent special volume of the Journal of Cleaner Production, “technology and degrowth” (2017), we wrote two papers directly engaging designers in the development of new products and services within the degrowth narrative: “The Matrix of Convivial Technology: Assessing technologies for degrowth” (Vetter, 2017) and “A framework for the integration of the conviviality concept in the design process” (Lizarralde and Tyl, 2017). These approaches question the western model of development and suggest original criteria that could be integrated into the product design process.
These works are in line with research previously mentioned: the socially responsible design” proposed by Melles et al. (2011) or the distributed production (Kohtala, 2015). Lucca (2010) promotes a design integrating local skills, environmental humanization, suitable technologies, participation, and inclusion of local resources. Manzini (2006) introduced the notion of sustainable systems characterized by low material-energy intensity and a high degree of context quality, i.e., “it has to be tailored to fit the specific characteristics of the local context”. Some design approaches have developed new strategies against mass production, proposing new decentralized production and consumption patterns.

These methods, tools and practices have elaborated recommendations that allow designers and engineers to better approach the complexity of the design process and co-create a degrowth society with stakeholders. Indeed, they deal not only with the designed artefact, but also with user experience and behavior as well as the usage context and infrastructure.
In particular, Cucuzzella and De Coninck (2008) considered the design process as a holistic practice where designers create life styles rather than products, and therefore can convince users to re-consider current unsustainable ways of living and propose alternative sustainable solutions incorporating different stakeholder visions. Another practice, “slow design”, reveals the experiences in everyday life in an collaborative and open-source environment, by relying on transparency of information (Strauss and Fuad-Luke, 2008).

Aim of this special session

The design research community is not involved enough in the degrowth debate yet. Through this special session, the objective is to facilitate discussion on the role of design within the degrowth perspective. We also want to discuss approaches and methodologies to support the design of new system or the improvement and adaption of old or forgotten one (products, services, …) within the degrowth perspective.

Some of the issues we would like to discuss include:

• Design theory and design framework within a degrowth perspective
• Practical design methods and tools
• Design criteria for degrowth
• Design tools for grassroots communities
• Tools for decision-taking
• Development of design criteria that can be democratically developed and evaluated
• Industrial design and degrowth
• Revisiting design approaches: eco-design, systemic design, eco-innovation, user-centred design, etc.
• Innovation and degrowth
• Convivial design


Day: 2018-08-23
Start time: 16:00
Duration: 02:00
Room: Nöjesteatern (Piano bar)
Track: Technology in a Degrowth Society




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