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Adding Value: Capturing Design’s Social and Environmental Impact

Insights from Design Economy: 2021–2024 Roundtable

Adding Value: Capturing Design’s Social and Environmental Impact

20 April 2021 Written by Bernard Hay

Back in the 1970s the designer Victor Papanek remarked: “there are professions more harmful than industrial design, but very few of them”. His criticism could have been levelled at the design world more widely. The built environment in the UK has been shown to be responsible for 40% of the country’s carbon emissions. Initiatives such as Fashion Revolution have highlighted the severe social and environmental costs wrought by consumer clothing supply chains, outsourced manufacturing, and a dominant take-make-discard model of production and consumption. The long-term planetary impact of product design can be seen from the lithium mines of Bolivia, to the toxic
e-waste mountains in Accra. The biases inherent in the design of our digital surveillance and advertising systems have entered the mainstream through documentaries like Coded Bias on Netflix.

Just as we can see the legacy of design's harmful social and environmental impacts, so too can we see its potential for good. You can see it in many of our projects at Design Council: in 2011 we used service design methods to help reduce incidents of violence and aggression in NHS Accident and Emergency departments. You can see it in the creation of Salford Wetlands, an infrastructure project that turned a brief to create a flood-defence system into a wildlife sanctuary and public park for local communities. You can see it in the many ways in which designers responded to the urgencies of the Covid-19 pandemic: from producing PPE, to graphic communication of public safety measures.

How can we work together to effect positive social and environmental change through design? What role can design play in helping the UK to achieve net zero by 2050, improve our collective well-being, and tackle today’s social inequalities? And what evidence do we need of design’s value to enable that shift?

Delivering the first provocation of this roundtable session was Sadie Morgan, a founding director of dRMM and Chair of the Quality of Life Foundation. She argued that if design is to effect positive change, then a first step is to shift planning policy to ensure social and environmental goals and measures are embedded into all future built environment schemes. Achieving this will be an iterative process, one that requires design commissioners and funders to prioritise social and environmental goals; more design champions at board level; and greater involvement of all communities in determining desirable social and environmental outcomes.

Whilst we still face significant barriers to unlocking design’s full social and environmental potential in the built environment, Morgan highlighted a few positive shifts already happening at national infrastructure level. Homes England are using their power and leverage to consider how future housing stock can not only meet quotas, but also be good
for communities and be sustainable.
In 2020, the National Infrastructure Commission established a new set of design principles that include focuses on climate, people, place and value. Despite this, we still need a greater diversity of voices shaping the conversation of value, and more practical guidance on how to embed socially and environmentally beneficial design. Our hope is that Design Economy: 2021–2024 can add to this growing body of research and guidance, and involve a range of communities in a deliberative process on what counts as valuable.

In the second provocation of the session, Indy Johar,
co-founder of Dark Matter Labs asked: ‘who gets to decide what counts as socially and environmentally valuable, and how do we need to change our understanding of what matters?’

Two of the voices often missing in value-based decision making are future generations and non-human life forms who are deeply affected by the products, buildings and systems we are designing. For Johar, because these perspectives are excluded from the initial work of deciding what matters, design briefs and commissions tend to favour the short-term interests of clients and end-users, ignoring the vast risks and opportunities these can present in the long term. While alternative governance models such as those suggested by The Long Time Project suggest new approaches, we need to go much further to have those perspectives recognised in deciding what matters.

Moreover, our current value measurements are, on the whole, too narrow to accommodate the wider social and environmental ripple effects design can have. At a city-scale, Johar shared the story of Sheffield having 5,400 of its trees cut down in 2018 as an example of where the financial costs of maintenance and insurance were seen to outweigh the many health and ecological benefits that urban planting can bring.

The value of a designed artefact, or even an urban planting scheme, will often far exceed those identified in an initial brief, and by its initial client. A city planting scheme can have positive effects on the mental wellbeing of, and access to clean air for, future generations, just as its maintenance will rely on the city’s water infrastructure and habitable climate conditions. As Johar puts it:

The approach we’re taking with Design Economy: 2021–2024 is to explore what positive social and environmental value design does, and can, bring to the UK. In the roundtable we explored the barriers we face to increasing design’s positive social and environmental impact. Three strong themes came out from discussions.

Financial goals and measures of success continue to dominate decision making

While there has been a growing movement to recognise the importance of social and environmental impact at the level of national policy and impact assessment, financial value is the primary factor in decision-making. This can be seen in the ways social and environmental value continue to be measured in economic terms; and in the kinds of outcomes designers are asked to achieve through client briefs. Those in the discussion felt there was a need for social and environmental value to be framed as goals in their own right, and on a par with economic success at the very least.

Social and environmental impacts are hard to capture and measure

The dominance of financial measures closely relates to the second theme of the discussion. Assessing monetary value and impact is seen as relatively straightforward and has the benefit of allowing easy comparison due to its quantitative nature. In contrast, social and environmental value are harder to identify and assess, in part because they are contested: who, after all, gets to decide what is socially desirable and beneficial? This becomes even trickier for design, when you start to consider that most social and environmental benefit comes from the ‘spill over’ effects of a project – those impacts you perhaps didn’t initially design for.

There needs to be a greater diversity of people involved in deciding what counts as valuable

The biggest barrier participants raised is that too few people get to have a say in what we count as desirable outcomes, when design is commissioned or undertaken. If what we take to be socially and environmentally valuable is something that is subjective - dependent on our own beliefs, cultures, histories and experiences - then for us to pursue these values at a national scale requires us also to consider the many different perspectives on value so we design in an inclusive way. Too many communities and individuals are excluded from that decision-making process at present. At a local level, this might be a lack of community consultation on a new library or bus station. At a national level, this might be lack of involvement in shaping a new design policy.

In the second part of the discussion, we talked about potential ‘enablers’ that could help increase the use of design for positive social and environmental impact. Three clear ideas emerged.

Redesigning the procurement and governance of design, to give equal weight to positive social and environmental value

One way to increase social and environmental value would be to change how we procure and govern design at a national and community level. At the level of procurement, participants asked how longer-term contracts might be developed that embed ambitious social and environmental goals. At a governance level, some design disciplines such as industrial design and fashion face particular challenges, as they are not regulated professions in the way architecture is. Participants asked how we could create new governance structures or assurance standards for design, for instance by creating bodies similar to the B-Corp movement in business. This places a legal requirement on certified businesses
to consider their social and environmental impact.

Supporting our design skills pipeline and ensuring wider access to design professions

Participants agreed that design education should empower current and future designers to create social and environmental benefit through their work. Alongside teaching new tools and methods, such as natural carbon accounting, participants felt that there was a need for design students to be better equipped to assess and understand their own impact. New design curricula was seen to be something that should be pursued at all stages of learning, from early years to higher education. Alongside this, participants discussed the importance of creating more open access to design education. By diversifying the design skills pipeline in this way, we can expect a greater range of experience, knowledge and perspectives to shape the values and goals of design processes.

Harnessing design’s collaborative potential to involve communities in a deliberative process around what counts as valuable at early stages of a project

One of design’s strengths is its collaborative nature, working across disciplines, with and for diverse communities and potential users. Participants noted that involving diverse communities in early-stage decisions in a design project, and and encouraging them to actively define its goals, values and proposed solutions, could ensure that people’s own views on social and environmental value are better reflected in what is designed.

As Design Economy: 2021–2024 will seek to capture the social and environmental value of design. we are mindful of the growing body of research and frameworks emerging in this area, from the toolkits of Julie’s Bicycle that support cultural institutions to assess their environmental impact, to Arup’s Total Value Model, and the RIBA’s Social Value Toolkit for architects. At the same time, economists such as Kate Raworth and Mariana Mazucatto are asking how we can reimagine economic theory and policy to foreground social and environmental justice.
As we look to reach net zero by the year 2050, and ‘level-up’ the nation, Design Economy: 2021–2024 will continue to learn from and share the incredible initiatives already happening across the globe, championing positive social and environmental change through design, architecture and policy-making.

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