Designing our future

Tonya Sweet, Senior Lecturer, School of Design on how the onus to save the world is a challenging prospect.

The topic of sustainability is complicated. While we each work to make positive changes to our daily behaviour, reports indicate that the health outlook of our planet’s ecosystem is increasingly bleak. As New Zealand’s Government considers declaring climate change a national emergency, the heightened awareness of our collective predicament is palpable.

For students, the sense of purpose they exude reflects the seriousness of climate change as the defining issue of their time, as well as reflecting their capacity to inspire and sustain hope for a prosperous future. Their voice as agents of change is evident around our campuses, where students are harnessing their education in pursuit of careers that will enable them to propel meaningful transformation and contribute, in small and in big ways, to saving the world.

In the School of Design, where I engage students in navigating the complex marriage between design and nature, the onus to save the world is a challenging prospect. Design is, after all, a discipline inherently complicit in feeding the patterns of non-sustainable production, consumption, and mass-industrialisation. Like all millennials, my students carry an unwanted burden that has been passed down from previous generations. As fledging designers, however, they also face an existential conflict in aligning with a profession that hinges on the transformation of natural resources into the ‘stuff’ we enjoy in our everyday lives: games and apps and the devices that support them, products, furniture, and fashion, the packaging that surrounds these items, and the design engineering and marketing that compels us to buy more stuff faster.

Moving towards a sustainable future will require all of us to make changes. In the scope of design, this amounts to a complete reconceptualisation of established practices that dictate how we take, make, and waste natural resources. While manoeuvring the latest technology to lead this transition may seem like an obvious strategy, as Albert Einstein once elegantly noted, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

It goes without saying that innovation will play a significant role in shaping our future, but innovation might be best applied to our mindset. A sustainable mindset is one that is resilient and open to different perspectives and world views, including indigenous knowledge.

As members of the Victoria University of Wellington family, we are fortunate that many of these lessons are embedded in the University’s values: akoranga (to teach and to learn), whanaungatanga (a sense of belonging), whai mātauranga (the pursuit of knowledge), kaitiakitanga (care and guardianship), manaakitanga (generosity, respect, and hospitality), and rangatiratanga (leadership, nobility, and autonomy). It is these values that position New Zealand at the forefront of positive policy change and that will guide us in achieving sustainable development as a nation. With these values in our toolkit, each of us has an opportunity to contribute, in small and in big ways, to saving the world.