Bold as brass

The RCA is making the running in the much-needed move towards sustainability in design with the appointment of Clare Brass to head the fight, says Aidan Walker

In a more or less direct follow-on from last month’s review of the traditional graduate degree shows, this month we visit the Royal College of Art’s new sustainability department – or ‘cross-departmental centre for sustainability’.

Three years ago I was aghast at the apparent lack of overall awareness of sustainability and its inclusion at the heart of many RCA graduates’ work. Two years ago it was better, but not much; last year it was way better; this year it was better, but not by much.

From here on in, if the work across all courses at the RCA doesn’t show an increasingly mature and insightful engagement with what I regard as the key issue of our time – and design’s – then it won’t be the fault of Clare Brass, the new leader of SustainRCA, the aforesaid cross-departmental centre for sustainability.

We’ve met her before. She’s an old mate of mine (yes, it’s OK to write about old mates when they are doing seriously important work like Clare), and made an appearance in my column of June 2008, when I quoted a research paper she had written the previous year, in which she proposed the redesign of design itself.

The other place you might have met her was in the columns of DesignWeek (paper version RIP) in the autumn of 2007, reporting on her redundancy as sustainability leader at the Design Council. Yep… Apparently the Design Council decided that a dedicated thinker and epartmental leader for sustainability in the nation’s chief institution for design advocacy wasn’t really necessary.

And here Clare is, popping up again four years later, as the key sustainability figure in the nation’s chief institution for design education. Something must have gone right at last.

Clare is typically very nice about what must have been a bitter blow at the Design Council. She won’t be drawn into speculation, but allow me to exercise a little of the time-honoured freedom supposedly accorded to a columnist and I’ll speculate for her.

For a couple of years up to that time, the ‘much-reduced’ Design Council, first shaved to the bone in 1995, was planning and launching a new assault on the business community, the Designing Demand programme for the wider SME audience. This was an integrated programme of support aimed at boosting the economy by transferring designmanagement skills to SME managers and offered to businesses through the Regional Development Agencies.

As Clare says, her work in sustainability was all pointing towards design devoting itself to the general behaviour change without which the whole idea is a non-starter. And a very large part of that behaviour change is that we stop buying stuff that we don’t need, stuff that design has found itself in the service of creating and promoting since 1945 and arguably earlier.

Create competitive advantage with design – get them to buy another steam iron, because this is one they’ll junk their old one for. It shows red when it’s hot and blue when it’s not hot enough.

Good design in one sense of the idea, but not in the overriding crucial sense for the 21st century: ‘Yes, but do we really need it?’

But the Design Council’s programme was pointing the other way, trying to get the manufacturers of steam irons to work with designers to come up with yet more ideas (about how to sell more irons THINK PIECE for instance). Not exactly convenient to have a vocal and eloquent advocate for the ‘non-consumer society’ trumpeting the new non-consumer message from your own rooftop.

Clare is not only nice about it but maintains that it was a Good Thing. What it did do was give her enough cash to set up her own consultancy, the SEED Foundation, (Social & Environmental Enterprise + Design), and get stuck in to the kind of, well, social and environmental projects that she passionately believes design is for.

‘Designers haven’t yet recognized their responsibility,’ says Clare, singing a tune that you may have picked up in these pages before. ‘We ought to be using our skill set to address the issues that matter most. If designers have been successful in helping companies make and sell stuff that people don’t need, then they can turn their skills to change behaviour.’

In my view this is arguable. It would take more than a couple of simple, logical sequiturs to convince me that a designer’s skill in making a product desirable is any use at all in creating behaviour change. Or even creating the environment in which behavior change is possible. I do cautiously accept that the very best designers have an instinctive feel for what people like and respond to – the very best designers are psychologists, in a way – but getting people to change their behaviour is a daunting task indeed.

My personal position is that though design is crucial to this project – more important to society than it has ever been during its time in the servitude of Mammon – it can’t wreak the ultimate miracle of effective behaviour change by using external pressure because there is no one else responsible for our behaviour but ourselves.

What design can do is put the new colour for the steam iron on the back burner and address the mountainous task of reconsidering and re-proposing infrastructural and systemic change in such a way that people’s behavior is encouraged in one direction and discouraged in another. Government is also supposed to do this, but don’t hold your breath. (There are one or two encouraging signs, like ‘Boris’ bikes.)

So it seems that Clare’s departure from the Design Council in 2007 was ultimately all for the good. Because it’s the new generation of designers that have to be educated in design’s new image, and the Design Council would have had a much harder time achieving that than the Royal College of Art.

SustainRCA, which has been running for a bit more than a year now in a sort of preparatory mode, is either already working or planning operations in four distinct areas. The Sustain Talks series, which has put thinkers such as Ezio Manzini and Jonathan Porritt in front of student audiences and has some very good people indeed lined up for this autumn; The Sustain Awards, which takes the best of the best of the RCA degree show in sustainability and gives it its own exhibition and awards; Sustain Works, in which partnerships with companies that want sustainability advice and innovation are formed and solutions developed with students of the both RCA and Imperial College; and Sustain Support, which is due to bring sustainability in thought, word and deed to the other courses at the college.

To which end the Sustain Nomadic Office will be seen here and there in the college, ‘a mobile pop-up unit that will contain all Sustain’s office needs and be able to move around any available space around the college. The front side of the unit will have a fold-down table and chairs, with shelving behind, while the reverse side will be the support structure for a “surgery”, a tent-like structure where students will be able to meet with sustainability experts to discuss their projects.’ Naturally, this little concept has full sustainability credentials; it is being designed and made in collaboration with Greenworks, a social enterprise which recycles office furniture.

When I started writing this I was all set up to race through Clare’s extraordinary CV as a designer in environmental sustainability terms. Suffice it to say that she is the earliest of early adopters. She was one of the founders in 1988 of the 02 Network in Milan – a cooperative group of designers who all thought even then that it was time design got out from under the wheels of the capitalist juggernaut and started working for the general good.

Projects in Italy through the Nineties met with varying degrees of success, largely because there the norm is nothing is achieved unless you are connected or unless somebody important owes you something.

Clare came back to the UK in 2004 to work with the Design Council for the specific reason that she thought the best way to achieve her single-minded aims was work in a public sector that was less corrupt. As it turned out, corruption wasn’t the problem.

But as it turns out right now – and we are just seeing the beginning – the political will is there, the institution is the right one, and circumstances are set fair to create that new ‘lead generation’ of designers that think and act differently, for an different world.

I have complete confidence that Clare Brass is exactly the right person to catalyse that process. No pressure, Clare.

This article was first published in fx Magazine.

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