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Concrete Theory Dreams of Sustainability November 22, 2009

Posted by mgodoublems in Design.
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[Editor’s Note: This is copied nearly directly from my course blog.  However, it is fairly standalone without outside explanation.  I have taken out some course-specific notes and added other things to help it make more sense.  Even as such, it is still a little choppy, but it gets the point across.]

To me, sustainability is key to any design. I don’t want to design something that won’t last, and not just in the sense of physical robustness. I attended the annual SME international conference in Denver, CO earlier this year, and listened to the collection of talks on sustainability. This entire argument is grounded in a presentation given at the meeting by Rod Eggert, head of Mineral Economics at the Colorado School of Mines, though it is modified to fit the context of design instead of Mining.

Sustainability is one-dimensional. It is either environmental/physical, economic, or social and cultural. Sustainable development, also seen as sustainable design, is multidimensional, and must address all of these sustainabilities in tandem.  Lacking any one of these three sustainabilities is a recipe for design disaster and lack of implementation.  It’s like a three-legged stool.  You really need all three legs in order to sit on it.

In terms of environmental/physical sustainability, any object must be designed to last. It can’t be a design that will be useless in a short period of time, or that it will break down quickly. It also must be environmentally friendly, but that is a given because of the theme of the course. The environmental sustainability also means that it must be easily recycled, and therefore the design should be modular and easily disassembled for disposal, if applicable.

In terms of economic sustainability, an object must be economically viable. It can’t be a design that is so far out there that nobody would invest in it. As an engineer, this is especially important, because my job will in all likelihood be to solve complex problems in economically viable ways.  The key, as always, is the bottom line.  Design is a for-profit venture, at least for those who invest in it.

Social and cultural sustainability is where things get tricky. It depends on context. What is ‘sustainable’ to a small community or area may not be sustainable when you scale it up to a global level. Community-to-community sustainability may differ, as well. If I design something extremely expensive and awesome that would be sustainable to put in Ann Arbor, I wouldn’t necessarily want to put it downtown in Detroit, because the chances of it being vandalized or stolen are much, much higher. If I design something that would be culturally sustainable in the United States, I couldn’t just take the exact same idea and put it in Sub-Saharan Africa, as they do not have the same culture or capability to utilize such a design. I’d have to take into consideration that change. I don’t want to design something based on a ‘what if’ world, because I am fundamentally opposed to thinking in terms of the ‘what if’. Society is the way it is, and we must design around that. Design should not be an inconvenience, but instead should make the inconvenient convenient or in some way more pleasant than the currently convenient.

Let me create an example. Say I am a CEO of a company, and I have this great idea to pay my employees a wage for the time it takes to walk or bike to work, or give them a stipend and a bonus to use public transportation, and then I want to charge a bunch of money for parking. Environmentally, this is a great idea. More people would leave their cars home, especially if they are getting paid to do so. This means less parking spaces required as well, so more land can be used for green space. Socially, this is inconvenient, and the cost/benefit would have to be weighed. Economically, this is a tossup. The less parking could also mean that there is no need for all of that extra land, and it could be sold off, reducing overall costs. It also could be painful in the sense that I would be paying more money for less work. The stipends would have to be adjusted to make the idea viable economically to the company as well as to the employee. Some employees would still drive, as well, because of the distance of their commute.  In many cases, convenience is trumped by profit, but there is a line.

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