What if we started creating non-human personas? Introducing planet-centered design concept at WUD Warsaw 2019
What if we started using our research & design tools to make sure we do not forget to address basic human needs, like shelter, food, or a feeling of security? What if we started creating non-human personas to create more empathy towards non-human actors of our ecological and societal landscapes whom we are dependent upon? To me, this is what planet-centered design entails!
This year I had an honor to deliver a speech during Warsaw edition of World Usability Day (WUD). Although event organisers claim that WUD “is single day of events occurring around the world that brings together communities of professional, industrial, educational, citizen, and government groups for our common objective: to ensure that the services and products important to life are easier to access and simpler to use”, with this year’s main theme DESIGN FOR THE FUTURE WE WANT, together with other speakers we were deliberating on the responsibility and real-life impact of our designs: products, services, public programs. We were asking ourselves: how can we design better for the future, knowing that the future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.
My speech from WUD Warsaw 2019 entitled “Future? Circular digital products! (Przyszłość? Cyrkularne produkty cyfrowe!). The speech is in Polish.
I have largely dedicated my talk to bring circular economy & circular design to Polish design community. Even though I can see that the paradigm of designing for this new, circular economic model, that aims at closing the loop of material flows is well introduced in western countries, it’s still not well known among Polish designers, design researchers or business owners. To be able to well understand planet-centered design paradigm, you first need to understand the basics behind circular economy model.
In short, circular economy model – as opposed to linear economy model we’re living in right now – aims at designing products, services and systems in a way to design out the problem of waste, pollution, and unsustainable mineral extraction. Learn more HERE.
Human-centered design is not enough. We need a wider perspective: planet-centered design!
How designing with the whole planet in mind can look like? Well, you simply think of the whole product lifecycle upfront, how will it affect all the stakeholders, both: human & non-human, starting from materials extraction, through assembly line until the use of product. All of that before you even start making first prototypes of it! Well, if it was that simple, we would be surrounded only by planet-centered, sustainable products & services.
Sadly, as designers, creators and business owners, we do not give too much thought to environmental costs of production & delivery of our products & services. We take the ecosystem services for granted and treat them like regenerative good & business commodity that will always be here. Well, bear in mind that many countries are now struggling with water scarcity & droughts, including South Africa and Poland.
At the same time we use drinking water to flush our toilets and put hectolitres inside the fashion industry or meat production systems. It was all designed like that, because the creators of these systems did not take into account the bigger picture: the whole ecosystem. And water is just one among other ecosystem services that are at risk. Ask yourself: will your “clients” or “users” (I prefer the term “people”) will be eager to use your products and services if they have no access to clean drinking water, or will be unable to take a shower?
Slides from my speech during WUD Warsaw 2019. I was asking the audience: haven’t we forgot that we first need to fulfil basic needs of people whom we design for? If people have no water to drink, or clean air to breathe, how we will we advertise our products and services to them?
I was thinking, how can we make a transition towards ecosystem-centered, or planet-centered design faster, inside design community which is already at peace with another well-known design paradigm, that is HUMAN-CENTERED DESIGN? One day I had a genius though: if human-centered design methodological toolkit helps us better understand people with all their complexity, hesitations, needs and limitations, why not replacing “humans” with various non-human actors from our ecosystems?
Would that create a bigger sense of empathy towards animals, seas, lands or forests among designers, creators and business owners? Would that help us understand the interconnectedness of people, ecosystems, and technology (still) available on this planet? Would that change the way we produce things today and fasten the shift to circular / regenerative designs as well as circular economy that aims at closing the loop of material flow?
My proposition for non-human persona of Baltic Sea. We know for at least a decade that the huge pollution and eutrophication processes happening inside Baltic Sea are caused by human activity (mainly because of “flushing” tons of agricultural fertilisers and human sewage rich in antibiotics or preservatives that are added to our foods, down into the sea). How would you change the design of your products or the way you run your business as the restaurant owner or food production company, knowing all that? Learn more about Baltic Sea pollution at science-led website https://helcom.fi/
Design for a better future, not the worse one. Become a pragmatic optimist!
It may all seem hopeless. Media are bombarding us with terrifying news about climate crisis, floods, hurricanes, extreme droughts and water shortages that are occurring even in so called well developed countries. It may lead us to something that psychologists now call a climate anxiety. This anxiety comes from the realization that it’s time to say “goodbye” to the world we have known for decades. It will be dramatically different in coming years. For each of us.
However, weren’t we – design community – born to solve the very problems that surround us on a daily basis? Don’t we have mindsets and tools to understand these problems and creatively look for the answers that can help solve them? Aren’t we here to make people’s, and other non-human beings’ lives better? What kind of future do you want? The one that is abundant with life for all of us, all the one that is extracting the very last natural resources on this planet making it unliveable?
Think what your next call to action will lead to. What kind of future do your designs vote for?
Luckily there are more and more designers, creators and business owners that are awakening and looking for alternatives to “business as usual”. Mike Monteiro has beautifully explained our social & political responsibility inside his “Ruined by design” book:
we need to see ourselves as gatekeepers of what we are bringing into the world, and what we choose not to bring into the world (…) This book will make you see that design is a political act. What we choose to design is a political act. Who we choose to work for is a political act. Who we choose to work with is a political act. And, most importantly, the people we’ve excluded from these decisions is the biggest (and stupidest) political act we’ve made as a society.
You really have many methodological toolkits and planet-friendly design paradigms to choose from:
- IDEO together with Ellen MacArthur Foundation – the circular economy leader – has created a circular design thinking toolkit for re-designing products & services into circular ones.
- You can dive into online and physical learning path of UNSCHOOL delivered by UNEP Champion of the Earth dr Leyla Acaroglu, to understand wider societal and environmental circles your products and services affect.
- Web & mobile design studio Vincit has created and shared a planet-centric design tools and mindsets to foster designing more socially and environmentally aware products and services
- UX industry has been gathering online since 2016 during SustainableUX conference to skare know-how, knowledge and ideas for how to create digital products with smaller environmental footprint.