Design thinking with a sustainable mindset

Tonya Sweet, Senior Lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Design, is bringing a sustainability focus to the popular problem-solving methodology known as design thinking.

Tonya Sweet, Senior Lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Design, is bringing a sustainability focus to the popular problem-solving methodology known as design thinking.

Ms Sweet has created a course that will run during Trimester 3 called Special Topic: Design Thinking for Sustainability, teaching students how to navigate complex problems that pose challenges to sustainable development, with design thinking. The course is taught in a blended learning format—involving both classes and online learning—and is open to all students.

“Design thinking is a strategy to navigate any kind of complex problem and to come up with creative solutions for that problem. This course is using the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as the framework applied to design thinking concepts,” says Ms Sweet.

A bespoke video resource used in the course, called Whakawhitinga kōrero—dialogues on sustainability, focuses on the SDGs with a New Zealand context in mind. The videos are available to all students via the University library, and were developed not only for this course, but for interdisciplinary courses across the University.

“These videos really bring it home and allow for a sense of empathy and identity to be built around sustainability goals. The biggest skill we have to teach students is to have a new mindset. This is where design thinking comes into play. We need to think of how we work through problems differently, how we think about things differently, and then we need to act on them differently,” says Ms Sweet.

The ideas that fostered this curriculum were developed over a period of 14 years: Ms Sweet taught in the United States and the United Arab Emirates before moving to New Zealand seven years ago and taking up a job as a lecturer at the University.

“I think New Zealand is really well suited to address sustainability challenges because we are inherently creative, and we are inherently resilient, and we are very good at devising alternative solutions to things. We are not a helpless community of people. The creative thinking process is a great complement to this mindset, because it takes what we do naturally all of the time and structures it into a system.”

One area in which Ms Sweet’s research has taken her concerns design’s role in mitigating the negative psychological impacts of traumatic events. She says, “That research trajectory began when I moved here and felt the direct impacts of earthquakes.

“It was that whole realisation that the line we are taught about terra firma and the earth being a solid, steady foundation is a lie. The earth is very much alive, and we are just inhabitants on this ever-changing planet. I became interested in looking at design that could function to support people in that psychological context. I’ve gone through this process of thinking how objects can support meaningful interactions between humans and the world through the internet of things, with the thoughtful inclusion of technology.”

She has now taken this idea of how humans interact with objects and started to apply these same concepts to climate change.

“If we see this age as an age of uncertainty where there is tremendous anxiety about a very uncertain future, how can we use design to promote a sense of acceptance, resilience, or some sense of comfort, in an otherwise very tumultuous time?”

As a university lecturer, Ms Sweet is inspired by seeing the students use their skill sets to address sustainability. “Design is less and less about stuff, and more and more about services and systems and the larger consequences of all of the decisions that we make. There is no inherent benefit in being able to make things, or to have a litany of technical skills – we can make great websites and apps, 3D print stuff, model all sorts of things, and produce compelling physical objects – but if we don’t have the thinking skills to actually direct these practical skills in a positive way, then we’re not moving in the right direction.”

As well as the Trimester 3 course, which is open to students from all disciplines, Ms Sweet has designed more specialised 200- and 300- level courses in Sustainable Design, which explore how design relates to sustainability challenges both practically and theoretically. The University’s creative sustainable design curriculum comprising these courses has been recognised as a finalist in the 2019 Green Gown Awards Australasia.

“Sustainability considerations are more or less the same whether we’re talking about fashion design, industrial design, or architecture, but they vary in terms of their overall consequences and mediation strategies. All of these things that we adorn ourselves with, use and otherwise consume, they all have an impact, which is why the circular economy has become such a pivotal point of departure in the field of design.

“What I find more interesting than the question of technology as its applied to design in this context is how we can learn from indigenous knowledge, and the indigenous values inherent in our own practises and behaviours. There is tremendous potential in incorporating mātauranga Māori and using that knowledge to address sustainability challenges. By the very nature of this knowledge, we are offered elegant and non-complex ways to address wicked problems.

“The challenge is to actually devise this new way of seeing design in our future of uncertainty, in our very non-sustainable paradigm,” says Ms Sweet. She says all she can ask for is that her students leave seeing themselves as agents of positive change — “that they are changing their own personal behaviours, that they are spreading the word about sustainability, and that they feel like they have something they can contribute now, and in the future”.