Sustainability is not about designing less, but designing better

Moderator Pei-Ru Keh, Daan Roosegaarde, Jane Withers, and Beatrix Ong speak at the Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore
Moderator Pei-Ru Keh, Daan Roosegaarde, Jane Withers, and Beatrix Ong speak at the Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore on Mar. 8, 2018.
(Image credit: Stefen Chow / Fortune)

Good design, we all agree, should be sustainable. But how exactly are designers creating products, environments and services that are ecologically sound while economically viable? And how, in an industry often characterised by the embrace of the new, do we eliminate waste?

These were the questions tackled by three speakers at the Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore on Thursday 8 March – designer Beatrix Ong, artist Daan Roosegaarde, and design consultant and curator Jane Withers. They were joined by the conference’s co-chair, Wallpaper* New York editor Pei-Ru Keh.

Ong, a former creative director at Jimmy Choo, left her career in luxury goods to start an eponymous label that produces shoes from upcycled rubber, leather offcuts, charcoal and bamboo. ‘Sustainability is a big topic, which can put people off,’ she said, but she believes that we can start small. Whether in footwear decisions, choosing cups and saucers over disposable beverage containers, or eliminating single-use plastic, ‘we need to individually do our part.’

In contrast to Ong’s product-based approach, Roosegaarde’s work has mainly taken the form of large-scale installations, among them a fluorescent bike path that glows like Van Gogh’s night skies, giant kites that can supply up to 200 households with green energy, and ‘the world’s largest vacuum cleaner’ to suck up air pollution in public spaces. ‘My designs use principles from nature,’ he said. ‘The wind and the sun have all been there for a long time, so why don’t we leverage them to create something new?’ Designers helped engineer present environmental problems, Roosegaarde added. ‘Let’s engineer our way out of it.’

Withers, a passionate advocate for the sustainable use of Earth’s most critical resource, water, has collaborated with the likes of London department store Selfridges, Danish textiles giant Kvadrat, and Brooklyn design hub A/D/O on experiments and educational initiatives. ‘I imagine alternative futures,’ she told delegates, ‘ways to use water more responsibly and imaginatively.’

The speakers agree that sustainability doesn’t have to be about doing less. ‘That’s the wrong way of thinking,’ said Roosegaarde. ‘We should do more. Instead of flying less, design a better airplane; instead of drinking less bottled water, switch to sustainably produced bottles.’

Withers noted that the plastic PET bottle arrived in 1973 and has been ‘cheap, functional, though massively dangerous. Changing that takes something equally strong, with the power of marketing behind it.’ She pointed to a recently developed, red algae alternative by designer Ari Jóns, which keeps its form when full decomposes as soon as the water is gone.

Sustainable technology already exists, added Ong, ‘but you have to make a conscientious decision to jump over’ ostensible hurdles of cost and convenience.

The Brainstorm Design conference is jointly organised by Fortune, TIME and Wallpaper*, bringing together more than 300 top speakers and delegates from 33 countries. See more here


For more information, visit the Brainstorm Design website


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TF Chan is a former editor of Wallpaper* (2020-23), where he was responsible for the monthly print magazine, planning, commissioning, editing and writing long-lead content across all pillars. He also played a leading role in multi-channel editorial franchises, such as Wallpaper’s annual Design Awards, Guest Editor takeovers and Next Generation series. He aims to create world-class, visually-driven content while championing diversity, international representation and social impact. TF joined Wallpaper* as an intern in January 2013, and served as its commissioning editor from 2017-20, winning a 30 under 30 New Talent Award from the Professional Publishers’ Association. Born and raised in Hong Kong, he holds an undergraduate degree in history from Princeton University.