What is Sustainist Design?

One way to define sustainist design is to categorise it as design that connects social and ecological sustainability. To address an often asked important question: sustainist design goes well beyond “green.” Although it may include eco-design, sustainist design is as much concerned with connectivity, local values, and community as drivers of social innovation. The central idea is that the values and qualities of sustainism as a (cultural) mindset will inform the design briefs of the future.

Hence, sustainist design really is a shorthand for saying that, in the era of sustainism, we have to focus on an altogether new set of values and qualities in our designs. These are values and qualities such as inclusiveness, community, openness, as well as ecological sustainability. And sustainist design often involves some kind of co-design: design with people, with communities, with nature.

Sustainism represents a cultural perspective that brings into view how things are changing in the way we live, consume, and produce. Looking at social design through the “lens” of sustainism highlights a number of attributes for design and designers. We have focused on four design qualities that we see as key: connectednesssharinglocalism and proportionality.
But it’s really up to all of us to define sustainist attributes and to determine the ones we wish to design into our products, services, experiences, and social situations. In the sustainist era, how and what we design for social innovation and sustainability is itself an open question.

Sustainism implies new criteria for design, involving locality, connectedness, time, proportionality and sharing, as well environmental sustainability.

— Michiel Schwarz & Joost Elffers, authors of "Sustainism Is the New Modernism."

As befits the sustainist age, we are sharing and borrowing: there is more than a decade of research and development turning the design agenda towards social goals and ecological sustainability. Hence, in exploring the question “What is sustainist design,” we gladly refer to the many pioneers that have focused their thinking on “design for social innovation” and “design for sustainability." Sustainist design is building on the ideas of Ezio Manzini (Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability, Sustainable Everyday Project), John Thackara (Dott’07, In The Bubble: Designing In a Complex World, Doors of Perception), Charles Leadbeater (We-Think, Mass Collaboration), and many others.

As the name of this project reveals, our perspective on social design builds on some of the ideas in Michiel Schwarz’s and Joost Elffers’ Sustainist Manifesto. It is the starting point for formulating the defining values that are transforming social design into sustainist design—starting with four that we have used to kick off this project: connectedness, localism, sharing, and proportionality. Nonetheless, surely more may follow.

By Michiel Schwarz