13 November 2006
Tony Fry

Tony Fry

Part two of two

Sustainable Development
The rise of interest in sustainable development stems from the 1987 World Commission on Environment, Brundtland Report, Our Common Future.

Brundtland defined sustainable development as "...those paths of social, economic and political progress that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." In this context, sustainability was directly linked to economic growth to be managed in such a way that natural resources were to be used to ensure the "quality of life of future generations".

This definition is constantly deployed as a key point of reference. Notwithstanding this, it is just not satisfactory. It is based on a number of very questionable assumptions and a degree of bad faith in relation to environmental debates that pre-dated it.

First of all, 'sustainable development's' anthropocentric bias towards future generations means that the interconnected interdependency of all biological life is not sufficiently registered. Moreover, to appeal to the "quality of life of future generations" fails to recognise the unevenness of the human condition as a key factor at the core of the question of development. If the socio-economic inequity of current generations is faced, then the issue of establishing a basic quality of life for several billion people now has to be confronted, as does the excess of 'quality' and 'quantity' of resources that a small percentage of the world's population currently command. Both poverty and wealth drive unsustainability - the former by depleting resources without the ability to renew them; the latter by their disproportionate over-consumption. The kind of inequity confronted here is structural. It is inscribed into the banking system, the global labour market, commodity exchange and frameworks of international political power. Brundtland's idea of inter-generational equity needs to be subordinated to inter-species plus trans and inter socio-cultural equity at a global level.

Second, and just as fundamental, is the need to challenge the assumption that the future can be secured via economic growth. In large part, this viewpoint was underpinned by an unstated proposition that the development of capitalism had to be accommodated for any appeal to environmental protection to be taken seriously.

Bruntland's assumptions were partly shaped by the context of 1980s environmental thinking. The recoil resulting from the Limits to Growth Club of Rome report authored by Donnella Meadows et al in the late 1970s perhaps best registers this mindset. With the failure to take seriously the message of restraint, with capitalism ever rampant, with a conceptually limited understanding of the interface between the human and the unsustainable, plus leadership from an establishment position, the conservatism of Bruntland's report was inevitable. Certainly, the wish to curb unsustainability, reduce the squandering of 'natural capital' and protect the environment was genuine, but the problem lay with the means proposed to realise these desired ends, i.e., Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD). Effectively, this idea left the existing notion of development intact and simply gave it an extra task. ESD neither put the cause of the problem the disposition and actions of human beings - on the spot, nor did it recognise the need for the objective of development to be redefined. Put succinctly, the real path forward should have been presented as the 'development of sustainment'.

The proposition carried by the notion of 'sustainment' is not an idealistic or naive call to overthrow capitalism (to be replaced by what?). Rather, it is the naming of a project, a culture, an age within which capitalism is to be led to a paradigmatic recognition of the vital need to confront: (i) a shift in the how human beings are constituted and positioned as social and environmental subjects who act in, and on, the world and each other; and, (ii) the imperative to create an economy, a social fabric, political institutions and modes of design able to generate and deliver wealth, equity/redistributive justice and a civil society based on moving from quantity to quality as the basis of normative measure. This compressed paragraph stands for the work of many extending over decades. While what it proposes may well be regarded as impossible, one should remember that the impossible is as much a matter of perspective as of fact. Moreover, a good deal of human history demonstrates the realisation of the impossible. Likewise, developing sustainment (the process which is the condition) needs understanding as a matter necessity rather than choice.[6]

The idea of sustainment tells us it is time to leave Brundtland behind and rewrite the development task.

On considering design
One cannot reach the essence of design (the designed and designing) via deductive reason. Geo-culturally, it continually moves and morphs. Moreover, such thinking cannot accommodate design's non-neutrality and cultural non-universality. While motivated by the 'quest for knowledge' of design, the reification of design by much design research activity obstructs design's potential by its scientistic preoccupation with practice. Such research fixes design as a restrictive practice within the restrictive economy. The prefigurative capability of human beings, and its articulation to the directionality/propensity of the things that are brought into being via design, transcends the descriptive capability of design discourse. For instance, this discourse posits design exclusively with direct human agency, or indirectly as this agency has become embodied in technology. What it does not recognise is that 'we' are as much the designed as we are designers. In this setting, and the setting of the mono-cultural trend of globalisation to homogenise world cultures into the singularity of culturally pluralist products, 'we' planetary beings of difference are either being diminished by the commodified objects of our 'cultural enrichment', or rendered into the culture of the invisible (the 'inoperative community' of peoples of the global informal economy).

Unquestionably, the ethnocentric bulldozer creeps on, flattening difference in its path. Yet pockets of difference remain and force us to ask 'whose design'?[7] To be unaware of the significance of this question is not to know what design is and does.

Dominantly, design has acted in the service of the culture and economy of modernity and its metropolitan and global extension. It has been deeply implicated in the development and universalisation of modernisation and unsustainability, modernisation having been viewed as a means of national advancement and improved standards of living. The reality, however, has so often been the development of a new, internationally integrated middle class 'in the periphery' and a widening gap between these wealth owners and the nation's poor plus the importation of problems and practices that continually extended the depth of material unsustainability.

What design/designing/the designed actually needs to do is to lay down a foundation of futuring. This is not to be a mono-form or an instrumental exercise. It has to be circumstantially responsive and be as much to do with the mind, dreams, feelings and dispositions of people in the world they inhabit (as they are constituted from structures, products, systems and biophysical ecologies).

The economic growth rate of newly industrialised nations and their consumer classes, means that the ecological impact of the global population is growing rapidly. This is a far more significant factor than raw numbers. In fact with current developmental trends, the global population could fall (which it will not do) while impacts could go on rising (which they will do). Obviously suggesting the standard of living of half the world's population should remain low in order to preserve the high standard of the advantaged is neither ethical nor political. Another way has to be found - as will be seen in a moment. Against this backdrop three kinds of relationships between design and development can be contemplated.

Relationship 1: this is a continuation of the status quo (enfolding 'sustainable development' as it strives to 'sustain the unsustainable'). Clearly, this is going to continue to be the option the majority of designers working on the design and development nexus will opt for. In spite of good intentions with an often substantial dose of humanitarianism, the consequence of this choice is, in the end, the development of unsustainability via the creation of things, systems and practices that defuture. Obviously, this option spans an enormous gradation of levels of involvement and scales of impact from 'high end' governmental and corporate projects to modest NGO supported village design activity, and even aid projects, which while often having immediate practical benefits, not least in improving public health, are still nonetheless 'system inductive' and often impositional.

Relationship 2: this can be seen as supporting currently available development against the dominant direction of development. It includes the selective recovery of the futuring potential of traditional knowledge, skills and practices and their valorisation. The developmental objective is the revitalisation of rural and village level industry and culture as a culture and economy of sustainment. While the ambition can only be modest, there is also important conservational dimension associated with it. With the prospect of increasing dysfunction as climate change and rapid urbanisation converge to make conditions unbearable in many cities, some kind of large retreat to the rural can be expected. Design/development action here is not a matter of bringing imported design knowledge and skill to the project, but rather mobilising the cultural capital that institutional design qualifications carry to give recognition to local capability both within the context of community self-image and regimes of authority.

Relationship 3: this ambitiously could offer an opening into an 'other development' the development of the moment of a culture of sustainment. This culture, and its epoch, created to counter the developmental trajectory of humanity turning against itself by destroying so much of what it, and much else, depends upon through what it creates (mostly by design). In design terms the gigantic challenge goes well beyond the agenda of sustainable design. Foundationally, it requires establishing a basis of 'being-in-the-world' able to take responsibility for our being anthropocentric. Pragmatically, it means starting to find ways to move from an economy based on the growth of quantity to one centring on expanding the domain of quality in almost every aspect of human endeavour. The metaphors of such change: small, light, slow, long-lived, beautiful. The range of its actions: art, literature, music, education, architecture, products, services, lifestyles, industries. In contrast to accepting the validity of the aspirations of those nations currently captured by the dream of being developed, this option goes to development beyond the currently developed. It has the ability to give agency to much within the cultural and economic history of a nation that can be used to build a very different developmental base. Looking for such starting points is what prevents the exercise being utopian. Certainly, the gigantic difficulty of the ambition is not to be underestimated, but neither is the gigantic opportunity, not least for design(ers). For the courageous, this move adds up to vastly expanded sphere of creative potential, action and reward.

Of course, making a division between these three relationships is a heuristic construct - de facto, they bleed into each other.

A closing observation
Reference has been made to the under-recognised relation between creation and destruction. This observation now needs to be directly brought to the relation between design and development.

Development, when it actually occurs, creates the material and cultural infrastructure of modern life, but it also destroys much of futuring value in the undeveloped: tradition, knowledge, memory, craft, taste, slow-time. In this respect, development first reframes the human condition and then redirects it. For all the history of its Marxist critique and for all the countless courses in development studies, development is dominantly regarded as 'the good or the desired' (depending on whether it is the experienced or hoped for). And, not withstanding the ambiguity with which development is viewed by some intellectuals, its underside mostly resides in cultural spaces of silence. Abject poverty so often is that silence coming from a lack knowledge abject poverty is a multi-dimensional lack. Understanding, for example, the degree to which planetary cultures are under stress; recognising the imperative to cease human-created atmospheric damage, learning how to adapt to a dramatically changing climate; dealing with the technologies human ingenuity has let loose; making sense of the despatialisation of war that the omnipresent spectre of terrorism has now produced; and, grasping the politics of these factors - this all presumes a position of privilege. At its most basic, it means freedom from the immediate quest of daily survival and a degree of education. Equity, like poverty, is never merely an economic condition.

One thing can be concluded with some certainty. Although the complexity of the issues is daunting, and one can easily get lost within it, this complexity is unavoidable if ones wishes to act responsibly/ethically. To refuse this complexity is to drive blind, and so be a danger to oneself and others. It is chilling to realise just how many designers believe they are making a contribution to human development while what they serve undermines the world of both human and non-human dependence.

Author's note
Notwithstanding the impression of distance from 'the real world' that any overview article gives, the comments made are not merely the product of research. They are equally informed experientially, including by critical self reflection on work undertaken for the ITDG and UNESCO during the early 1970s.


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[1] The rise development studies as an academic discipline embracing economic, cultural, environmental, demographic, political and social change mirrored the pluralistic character of development practice and the moderation of its politics. Its concerns have effectively been repositioned by the demise of the authority of Marxist theory, the degeneration of many nation states in Africa into complete dysfunction, the arrival of conflict over environmental resources and the globalisation of contemporary modes of terrorism.

[2] It should be remembered that one cannot conflate Marx's analysis and theory with the manner of its appropriation in the creation of communist states. This is not to suggest there are no problems with his thinking, it is to say that the political systems these states created were not necessarily an accurate representation of the strengths or weaknesses of Marx's theories.

[3] Georges Bataille The Accursed Share Vol 1 (trans Robert Hurley) New York, 1988.

[4] Amaryta Sen succinctly outlines his view on globalisation and communication in the Asia Society on-line journal, Asia Source October 26, 2005:

[5] Both of these forces have received considerable attention for many decades, not least by the pioneering work of Immanuel Wallerstein, which was established by his three volume seminal work The Modern World-System 1974.

[6] Quality posed in this setting is not reduced to a matter of values, appearance or aesthetic taste. Rather it begs to be defined by rethinking and spelling out measurable elements like: durability, performance, craft construction (manual or industrial), economy of materials, user fulfilment plus levels of attachment to things. Every one of these elements can be taken as a design challenge open to all design disciplines.

[7] 'Design Betwixt Design's Other' Design Philosophy Papers No 6, 2003/2004

About this article

This article is the second part of a paper that was originally published by Design Philosophy Papers in Issue 4, 2005.

About the author
Tony Fry is the main contributing editor of Design Philosophy Papers. He is a designer and design theorist, co-founder of the EcoDesign Foundation, formerly Associate Director National Key Centre of Design Quality, University of Sydney. He has had five major books published and has held academic positions at universities in the UK, USA, Asia and Australia.