Channelling climate positive design

Katja Forbes

Katja Forbes founded syfte, a specialist business in research and experience design in 2014, and is an Australian pioneer in the field of experience design. Katja is an International Director on the Interaction Design Association Board. She is proud to be a co-founding member and Local Leader in Sydney of the global community organisation, Interaction Design Association. Together with Joe Ortenzi, Katja has built a community of over 1700 designers in Sydney, providing them with learning opportunities via lecture based meetups that draw a crowd of 150 people each time, a mentoring program and workshops.

As we enter 2020, the new decade spells infinite possibility in digital and design. Yet ironically, the biggest trend we’re facing has nothing to do to with innovative technology. It is something much more ‘down to earth’: The state of our planet. Or more specifically: Climate change.

Without doubt, the recent bushfires that destroyed Australian lives and habitats left many questioning our impact on the environment, and calling for change to ensure this tragic situation does not happen again. Witnessing such a terrifying event has only elevated consumer desire to live and work in a way that is not only gentle on the climate, but that supports it too. 

A name has been given to this evolution – ‘climate positive design’. In effect, climate positive design goes beyond the idea of reducing carbon emissions from the atmosphere, to tackling carbon in every facet of construction and society.

Climate positive design has led to experimentation in the building industry by landscape architects and constructions such as corporate buildings, apartment blocks and neighbourhood houses that cancel out more carbon than they actually emit. In the past, before humans had the knowledge, money or solutions to address climate change and the effect our city landscape has on the environment, buildings tended to become heavier on emissions the older they became. The idea now is all sources of carbon during the building phase are logged, and during the lifespan of the building itself, its effect on the carbon calculator does not increase.

A unique example of sustainability in property can be seen in megastructures created by researchers at Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC) in Barcelona. On the outer surface of these buildings is a garden that grows mosses, lichens, fungi and other biological organisms. It lowers carbon and in effect, regulates heat at its inner core by absorbing solar radiation, while releasing oxygen with the micro-algae that coats it.  

Named ‘the concrete can’, these buildings are cleverly designed; even though they look beautiful on the outside, the real magnificence is happening invisibly. The concrete has a number of tasks that work in layers. The top layer is the garden; it also absorbs and stores rainwater. Another layer of the concrete repels water to keep the internal structure safe. Naturally, the creators have more plans to better this amazing design, like adding colours to the garden layer on the top.

Now designers of all kinds are asking, how could we create the same effect in other areas of our lives? More so than ever before, we want to live and work in ways that do not affect the climate or environment. It’s triggering a push to find sustainable solutions that eliminate carbon emissions, and possibly even remove carbon from the atmosphere. 

Motor vehicles and transportation, for instance, has had a long and well publicised history in this area, and carbon neutral prototypes do exist. There is an organisation in Canada called Enerkem, which creates renewable ethanol, methanol and chemicals from non-recyclable, non-compostable waste products. This is a process that will no doubt infiltrate through to many other countries, and in fact Enerkem is already branching out internationally.

Another example is a self-contained rear wheel electric bicycle system designed to remove the need for a scooter. Called The Copenhagen Wheel, launched in 2017 by co-creator, Assaf Biderman, this system transforms a traditional bicycle into an e-bike by amplifying ‘pedal power.’ It contains an electric motor, battery and sensors to achieve this result. To use the Copenhagen Wheel, with a reported range of up to 50km, the Wheel must be connected to Superpedestrian's Wheel App. 

But buildings and cars are just part of the story and designers are going to become more aware of a requirement for design that is sustainable and climate positive.

Climate positive design is on everybody’s lips this year, in various shapes and forms. It’s also not just the older generations concerned about climate change either. Bauer (media) has announced the creation of a new magazine aimed at Gen Z specifically searching for a sustainability expert among fashion editors and dermatologist specialists. It’s yet another sign there is a strong interest in our younger generations to understand more about how they can help our planet.

When climate change is also considered in the design process, it can be said we are taking an important step toward supporting our environment.


Tags: design thinking, brand strategy

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