I think this description by Kris is a good starting point: “In this presentation, we consider innovative design and research as part of the SUTD-MIT International Design Centre (IDC) organized to address specific elements of the challenge of a sustainable urban future. This Grand Challenge is referred to as the Sustainable Built Environment and focuses on a multi-scale and multi-disciplinary approach, incorporating elements of computer science, anthropology, materials science, engineering, systems modeling and analysis, resource flow accounting and various aspects of the technology of design and construction. ”
Our “Blue Planet” is such an amazing place… humans have been around only for a fraction of its lifecycle. Since the appearance of early hominids, we have been discovering new regions of the planet, have encountered valuable resources, have worshipped, admired, studied and substantially modified Nature. We have also learned to live with others, both similar and different. Unfortunately, in this relatively short period, we have and continue to wage wars, destroy ecosystems and living species, and deplete available resources. This was not an issue until very, very recent years. In only 100 years, the Earth population has grown a staggering ___% from _ to _ billion people. In addition, the economic growth has risen in an estimated ____%, which translates into billions of people living longer, consuming more. More products, more energy, more clean water, and more food: crops, livestock, fish, etc. In one respect, it is kind of fascinating that we as humans manage to conduct “business as usual” under these conditions: we have designed and managed products, services and systems at a rather amazing growth rate –and we are slowly realising our true impact on Earth.
Since all scenarios project a substantial population increase in the next 100 years (in some cases it is predicted that after this, humanity may decrease substantially, which similarly is going to be huge challenge for those learning to live in the post-sustainability crisis), we ought to learn to live together in this world in more sustainable and friendly ways. We need to fully realise that what the next two generations do, matter. The challenge is, essentially, that we need to learn to do things and to live differently than how our grandparents and great-grandparents once expected. We are living, to some extent, in a bifurcation point in human existence. This calls for a new role of design: the fundamental, strategic and complex ability to forecast possible futures and formulate plans to make them a reality. In previous times, it was assumed that designers could be given the responsibility to do this work: design professions were neatly organised according to domains, philosophies and applications: architects would be the experts to design new buildings, engineers new machines and systems, industrial designers new products, graphic designers new communication media, etc. Today we are realising that the traditional disciplines that reduce problems to their particular domain of knowledge and their conventional tools and methods, cannot cope with the scale and complexity of problems. Let’s see the case of the “city”, a concept that groups a very large and diverse set of problems at all scales and across all traditional disciplines. For example, the invention and diffusion of the car and its mass production (as dreamed by Henry Ford, that every household should have one) shaped urban and suburban life (which already shows interesting cross-level interactions that are hard to predict), which has had a profound impact on what we eat, how we relate to others, even how we generate ideas and conceive the world. Today, the “city” is of special importance, not only because half of the population lives and works in these high-density places, but also because it brings every single challenge and opportunity related to our future into one shared place.
By 2050, Asian cities alone will account for more than 3 billion residents and 60% of the global urban population. A significant proportion of city inhabitants will be living in conditions of poverty and supporting well-being for all is increasingly difficult. Cities, like every complex problem, have multiple scales, support infinite ways of understanding, and call for the active engagement of all experts (as well as all novices, since every expert in one area is, in reality, an ignorant in all other areas). The main point until now is: design is way too important to be left only to (traditional) design experts: we need to re-think the role of design across disciplines and across scales. In this talk we show cutting-edge design research as part of the SUTD-MIT International Design Centre (IDC), and we also show innovative design ideas produced by our students at SUTD. We hope that these important (yet humble) contributions will inspire young minds. The goal of this talk is to nurture your interest and curiosity about design, and hopefully inspire you to pursue design-oriented professional careers, whatever your personal aspirations and preferences, you can integrate design into your field in innovative ways.
Asia is especially relevant in the task of re-thinking design because of its leverage based on five key points: a) its cultural diversity and rich history; b) it is densely populated so any effect is considerable; c) its economic growth; d) its political and social stability; and e) it can learn from the last one-hundred years of ‘development’ to lead by example. Not that it will be easy, because the inertia is to simply scale solutions or fragment systems so that true costs and effects are hidden or at least disconnected, and there are many interests and power structures that see radical change as a threat to “business as usual”, but in some sense, if humans are able to re-think how they design and manage their built environment, arguably the best place to do this in the early 21st century is Asia.
Both in affluent and not-so affluent markets, the role of design needs to change: of course, some companies win and other lose because some products sell more than others at a given time, but there is no doubt that the trend is clear: as we continue to design, manufacture and sell the type of products in the ways we do today, we will just keep buying more of everything and the negative impacts will simply continue to escalate out of control.
Now, as we said before, the easiest and more convenient thing to do is to pretend that we can just continue to live the way we have been living until now: get an education, get a job, get money, spend it, die. Asia is indeed the fastest growing market, and in particular places like Singapore have a strong culture of income as a way to define success and consumption as a way to define well-being. This has to change if we consider the resources to sustain the next billion people. What we need to remember is that this way of seeing the world is not accidental: it is designed every day and in every aspect around us.
Indeed, design has been highly successful: we design, manufacture and promote beautiful products that appeal to our senses, bring our comfort levels to the maximum, and represent our personalities, our sense of accomplishment, in some cases our self-esteem. These products may seem highly efficient, yet the truth is that the end-consumer of the luxury car (or a much less engaging water bottle or can of soda for that matter), only pays a fraction of the true cost of these products. Many direct and indirect costs are subsidised, absorbed or postponed: new roads, pollution effects, healthcare provision due to accidents, post-consumption waste management, energy and water footprint of all of its components and systems… the list is endless: we have only started to realise the true consequences of our designs, and although hard to admit, design teams continue to make most of their decisions without realising or acknowledging the long-term impacts of their decisions.
By the way, we DO need to do something here in SG, where an entirely NEW and unsustainable lifestyle is a very RECENT phenomenon
At the International Design Center, we have three grand design challenges that address the future needs of Singapore, Asia, and the world. These are the Sustainable Built Environment, design with the developing world, and information and communication technology applications to better living. All of these challenges are very interconnected and relevant to sustainability. The Sustainable Built Environment deals with sustainability where we live. It is projected that 90% of the population will live in cities before 2050, and a significant fraction of those people will be living in poverty. We need to find a way to make urban living comfortable, economically prosperous and environmentally-friendly, and we are working on technical solutions for that. The IDC also sees design with the developing world, in emerging markets, right outside Singapore’s door, which do not yet have the infrastructure and sustainability mistakes that we have. Sustainability is a key part of the growth of emerging markets to leap frog developed countries in progress towards a higher quality of life. Finally, the use of information and communication systems for better living is also a central component of sustainability. With better information gathering, hardware, and communication of data on how people are living and what people need, we can respond with smarter more sustainable designs.Each grand challenge is connected by technical components or research thrusts that are necessary to realize our vision for a sustainable future. We need better experimental design, specifically to understand people and social aspects beyond simple technical requirements. We need more computational methods to make sense of new knowledge about behavior, society, and model those interactions in a highly complex socio-economic-and environmental system. We need smarter and more sustainable ways to visualize and prototype our design and technologies. We need ways to overcome our inhibitions and foster creativity, because sustainability is a hard problem and requires us to think outside the box. Given highly complex, or wicked problems, we need to be able to make decisions and strategize between sometimes conflicting needs. And, finally, these grand challenges are inherently global in nature. Our lives are global, and SUTD is not the only university attacking these problems. So, we need to collaborate with other leaders around the world to learn from each other’s failures and success, because the path of innovation is driven by learning from experiences and building upon the knowledge blocks created by others. We can’t achieve these goals in isolation.
Dr. Ricardo Sosa
Assistant Professor, SUTD