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Deepti Maithil

Deepti Maithil

mumbai, India

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DESIGN 21

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  • Sustainability: More Than A Nice Word

    Communication

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    Rebounding back from jetlag and a jam-packed trip to Hong Kong – for InnoAsia 2007, a conference about “innovating for sustainability” – I have happily landed in the pages of The New York Times Magazine, pouring over the words of food guru Michael Pollan. This time, he writes about “Our Decrepit Food Factories” and questions the worked-over word “sustainability” in the contexts of factory pig farming and honeybee migration. He gives these two specific case studies because, according to Confucius (his reference), if we’re going to have any hope of repairing what was wrong in the world, we had best start with the “rectification of names,” i.e. calling things by their proper names and reattaching words to real things and precise concepts.

    I couldn’t agree more. And this is what motivated me, before I spoke at Hong Kong’s Science Park about the social piece of sustainability, to do a bit of definitional work. I focused on sustainability first: an outcome, in effect, of meeting the needs of today without compromising future needs. Then I expanded on design: it’s a verb (a la Bucky Fuller), it’s an open invitation (as in, everyone’s a designer), and it’s about people (per Jane Jacob’s one-liner). Then I shared real-world examples.

    As the day carried on, we heard from people in policy, the sciences, invention, architecture and design. Each with his or her take on sustainability. Dr. Sarah Liao, former Secretary for Environment, Transport & Works (HKSAR) spoke about biomimetics, symbiosis and global warming. In transportation, Peter Hughes, from the Vectrix corporation, talked about his two-wheeled electric scooter and Dan Sturges, of Intrago, shared his views on micro-rental systems, or mobility ecosystems. Material Connexion’s Dr. Andrew Dent gave us an historical review of materials, focusing on the healthiness, or wellness, of our built environment today. And Ted Howes of IDEO and Mike LaVigne of Frog Design individually infused product design convention with refreshing outlooks on design-plus-business, and tips on how to do it for the greater good.

    The audience went on a winding journey through these topics and more, past flashing signposts pointing to hot new trends in technology. But ultimately, happy to say, the conversation boomeranged back to people. We collectively, reflectively, understood that innovation is driven by human choices, across all fields of endeavor. And, despite technological capacity (which the world is swimming in), innovating for sustainability can’t be achieved unless we’re conscious of the choices we make and curious about the consequences in the long run. Sustainability needs to be “more than a nice word” we banter around (or use to hype products). Sustainability needs to mean something tangible that we measure, over time.

    In this regard, it’s an exciting time in human history, with so many changes underway, and so many people proactively coming together to share stories and strategies. As long as we keep remembering to clarify, contextualize, and look back together, so that we may look forward for centuries to come, the future will surely be bright.

    Happy holidays!

  • I read the same article and was equally moved. The need to return to our "root" meanings and clearly define both what we mean to say today as well as what we expect the outcome to be will help enormously. I for one am very tired of being swooned to by marketing-speak that clearly takes liberty with the language that under a truer definition would ultimately help the greater good.

  • It seems to me that the word 'sustainability ' is rapidly being corrupted into meaning "how can we continue rapping and pillaging the earth at the same rate we are now without anyone noticing".

    You see the concept of sustainability (from a developed world perspective in any case) is already several decades to late, as we've passed the point of 1 planet sustainability. What we should really be talking about is controlled contraction to a state of equilibrium.

    In Jared Diamonds book 'Collapse', all of those extinct societies believed that technology was making their civilizations more sustainable, yet the net toll on resources was incrementally negative.

    The news this week that India is now making a car for under $3000 and Detroit intends to keep churning out behemoths until 2020, seems to illustrate this all to well.

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