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Sustainable Living - Is it time to press the reset button?

Sustainable Living - Is it time to press the reset button?

7 May 2020

It's time for the dialogue around sustainable living to change – so it is clearer who has the power to reduce social and environmental inequalities. This means understanding the responsibility of governments, private corporations and the financial sector in bringing about meaningful change, working alongside citizens and communities. 

Sue Morgan and Gyorgyi Galik explore the role we must all play in enabling sustainable living

The economic costs of any lockdown need to be compared with the costs of alternative policies, rather than the unachievable benchmark of a world in which the virus never existed - Tim Hartford Financial Times (2020) How do we value Statistical life?

What should our designs try to achieve? We must take a critical look at the brief, make it more comprehensive. We must look beyond the narrow object and ask ourselves: What will the ecological consequences be? - Sir Ove Arup. The Philosophy of design

Why is sustainability important to us?

Sustainable living for us is about fairness and equal opportunities measured by the wellbeing of those who are the most vulnerable. 

When talking about the climate crisis, for example, Professor Kevin Anderson explains – referring to a  Chancel & Piketty report [1] from late 2015 – how definitive action is required from the top ~10% of the population, in terms of power, wealth and influence, who contribute to more than 50% of global emissions [2], as well as the 20 or so fossil fuel companies who are responsible for more than one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions globally [3]. Moreover, he points out that:

"If regulations required that 10% to reduce their carbon footprint to the level of the average EU citizen, and the other 90% made no change to their lifestyles, then global emissions would be cut by over 30%."

The most polluted urban areas, for example, also tend to be the areas with the lowest property values. Additionally, marginalised communities are often least involved and have the least power in decision-making processes, making them vulnerable to living in ‘sacrifice zones’, which is when polluting industries or infrastructure are located next to or within low-income communities.

Fran Tonkiss explains in her talk[4], ‘Divided Cities: Urban inequalities in the 21st century’ that “one of the crudest inequities in contemporary cities is between those whose lifestyles produce environmental harms and those whose livelihoods and living situations make them most vulnerable to these harms.” She talks about the deeply uneven and unjust geographies of environmental risk. As she puts it:

Strategies for more environmentally sustainable cities must go beyond issues of design and technology to address toxic environmental inequalities. More sustainable urban futures that don’t simply depend on finding better technical solutions but on a more serious commitment on environmental equity in cities and elsewhere - Fran Tonkiss, LSE (2015)

Despite regulatory action being a useful tool, governments are reserved about using it for a variety of reasons. Tackling social and environmental inequalities and creating more sustainable and resilient communities around the globe will require collective action from governments, private corporations, the financial sector, civil society to universities and science and technology innovation[5]. However, governments are generally reluctant when it comes to regulatory action for reasons including political short-termism, the impacts of lobbying efforts, the fear of a negative public backlash, and the prioritisation of economic growth over social and environmental values. Many private corporations and the financial sector have a very similar mindset. As a result, instead of implementing stringent regulatory action and better understanding systemic bias, there is an increased interest in the latest methods to nudge lifestyles or influence behaviour change to a desired direction and to promote individual, voluntary action[6].

We need to enable bottom-up and top-down action in parallel. Sustained public engagement is still key in enabling political action. People will need to change their behaviour, consume less and also be more informed about what they are asking their governments to do, so they implement the right solutions. The main two parts of a citizen's action are political position and personal habits. Because of the possibility of spreading good behaviours by political power, people’s votes are perhaps even more important than their individual actions[7]. The main barriers to individual action are perceived governmental inaction and the belief that we do not need to act, as other people do not act either. As more people behave in a certain way, the uptake of that specific behaviour (e.g. walking, cycling, moving to plant-based diets, etc.) increases rapidly. Therefore, it is crucial to set new normative expectations about the behaviours we want to encourage in society[8].

However, increasing public awareness – and changing people's attitudes and beliefs about sustainability and climate change – will not be not enough to overcome the infrastructural and structural[9], and the political, economic and social barriers that can delay and limit everyday people's ability to enable meaningful change. Two good examples of the infrastructural barrier would be to ask people to leave their cars at home in the countryside without providing proper public transport, or to ask people to start cycling in the city without safe and dedicated cycle lanes.

The necessary systems changes that govern our behaviour will need to be implemented. The writer Kim Stanley Robinson states that the things that only governments can control in regard to the climate crisis are “tax on carbon use and excessive consumption, the switch of subsidies from fossil-fuel companies to clean energy sources, compliance with the Paris Accord goals” [10]. He goes on to say that the “continuous replacement of the existing infrastructure to reduce carbon emissions, and accommodate more people on less land, along with improved agricultural practices will be the determining feature of the 21st century”. The rapid reduction in food emissions will be also crucial. Regional and local governments, national infrastructure providers, and private corporations have considerable authority over land-use planning, deforestation and waste management. They can play an important role in utilities, construction and cement process emissions, green and blue infrastructure, logistics and transportation issues, and energy consumption; all of which have implications for both sustainability and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

Challenges: The lack of shared responsibility, accountability, joined up thinking and action, and opposing interests. Given the way that many of our institutions are organised, there is often no home for developing sustainability and climate change policy. Political scientist Michele Betsill notes that in many cases there is a “lack of capacity or technical knowledge” not only to develop but to implement and evaluate the success of these local programmes and policies[11]. Moving from political rhetoric to policy action is challenging because of different and often opposing institutional, political and economic interests. These are exacerbated by disjointed or siloed working cultures, the lack of skills, tools, resources and capacity, and the dearth of existing guidance and policies altogether (please see box: In focus 1.).

We believe that sustainable design is an integral part of good design. Sustainable living made possible by sustainable design, practice, policy and legislation. No building, space, place can be considered well designed if it does not contribute to environmental, social and economic sustainability. Conversely, no building, space or place can be considered sustainable if it is not well designed. - CABE (2007) Sustainable design, climate change and the built environment

In focus 1. – Some examples of what is needed:

  • Change at a scale that will require direct government intervention and political leadership. The dialogue needs to change, so governments, private corporations and the financial sector take responsibility, are held accountable and create the environments needed for public change.
  • Structural, infrastructural and institutional change.
  • The implementation of low-and zero-carbon energy supply and necessary efficiency measures.
  • The support of sustainable neighbourhoods and community engagement
  • The creation of better affordable homes and public buildings.
  • The support of place-based partnership to work in non-siloed, transdisciplinary ways for integrated solutions.
  • The diversity of voices working across economics, regeneration, public service improvement and health and wellbeing that is mutually beneficial.
  • New ways of workingnew forms of governancereformed procurement processes and new economic models that are fit for purpose.
  • The right policy implementation and regulations to enable these changes.
  • Sustained public and political engagement to create a dialogue around sustainable practices, and enable political action.
  • Collaboration across design and other disciplines, and the development of meaningful partnerships.

What is the role of design?

The design process and the breadth of design practices have the potential to support the types of changes that are required to enable more sustainable lifestyles, social and environmental action:

  • urban and landscape design, and architecture can help create healthier and more liveable places, more sustainable water management, the necessary green and blue infrastructure that supports sustainable living (please see box: In focus 2.), conserves natural resources
  • service design can ensure that sustainable offerings or products have good services, by making everyday services more sustainable through design, and embedding sustainability in design practice to understand the environmental impact of the services
  • circular design can ensure that products and also places (e.g. through construction of buildings, etc.) re-use materials
  • strategic design[12] applies some of the principles of traditional design to systemic challenges like inequality, education, health care, and climate action – redefining how problems are approached, identifying opportunities for action, and helping deliver more resilient solutions.

In focus 2. – How the built environment supports collective behaviour change: The focus needs to be shifted from individual choice to the extent to which states, local authorities, private corporations and financial institutions configure and design the fabric of daily life. The design of different products, services and environments can encourage or discourage certain behaviours. Sociologist, Elizabeth Shove explains how – in the domains of urban planning and public health, for example – it is argued that obesogenic environments (including people's diet, how active people are, and how much they exercise) are "socially and infrastructurally" configured [13].

The accessibility of amenities in neighbourhoods is also important, reducing the need for the use of the private car and enabling the uptake of more active lifestyles. This means thinking about the design, prototyping, trialling, implementation and long-term impact of services: better connectivity; walkability; cycling infrastructure; proximity to green, blue and play spaces, shops, schools, sports and leisure facilities, restaurants and so on.

Ness Wright from Snook highlights how, for example, service design has a key role to play in turning academic evidence and potential solutions into products and services that people want to use and that work in the real world. She challenges designers to be more ambitious, not just to make unsustainable things a bit better but to use creativity to put alternative services and solutions out into the world:

Research shows that it is not enough for something to just be ‘green’, we need good service design to think through how someone will come across the offering, how they will use it and how they will repair it over time. In the UK, BEIS calculated that our public services account for 3% of total emissions, which might not sound like a lot, but that is 14 million tonnes CO2 a year and we need to reach net zero as soon as possible. Designers need to take responsibility for designing out emissions from everyday services. We design services around people and budgets, so why don’t we design with an understanding of the environmental impact too? - Ness Wright, Senior Designer, Snook

Why Design Council?

Design Council considers the wider context of the role of design and sustainable living in the light of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. The UN describes its goals as “the blueprint to a better and more sustainable future for all”. Reflecting the broad scope of sustainability, the goals are very wide-ranging including healthy living; quality education; affordable and sustainable energy; resilient infrastructure; inclusive, safe and resilient cities and settlements; sustainable consumption and production; and action to combat climate change.

We have a strong track record in helping to design sustainable places, processes and products...


Through our work on healthy placemaking and inclusive environments over the last 20 years, we have encouraged built environment professionals to put people first and create places and neighbourhoods that allow people to live healthier and more sustainable lives.

We co-developed The National Design Guide with Tibbalds Urban Planning and Design on behalf of the Ministry for Homes, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG). The guide was created through a collaborative workshop process facilitated by Design Council involving 45 of the UK’s leading design experts. It sets out the key characteristics of well-designed places including resources, nature, movement, homes and buildings, public spaces and lifespan, to name but a few.

We have provided strategic design support to Network Rail, in their development of Design Principles, which recognises the importance of social and environmental sustainability and will guide all their development including major national and small local stations, bridges, track and viaducts across Britain. We have also used these principles as the basis of an engagement process for the future design of regional stations, in which over 120 organisations participated. The outcomes of the series will inform a forthcoming RIBA competition brief to develop new designs.

We are also part of the Government’s High Streets Task Force, supporting local authorities and community groups to redefine and transform their high streets and town centres, and create more liveable and sustainable places for all.

We are working on a programme called Homes 2030 (with MHCLG, BEISHomes England, BRE, MOBIE and RIBA) to develop the public’s vision for the home of the future. This work – involving a series of public engagement workshops and a poll of more than 2,000 people – confirmed the public's desire for homes that clearly respond to a climate emergency using sustainable design and construction, providing access to green space and encouraging walking and cycling.

This is in addition to our extensive back catalogue of built environment advice and guidance, covering everything from neighbourhood planning to climate change.

Public services

Over the last six years, our Design in the Public Sector programme, in partnership with the Local Government Association, has supported over 90 teams of local public sector staff and their partners to improve resident outcomes. The programme helps participants reframe their challenges and in doing so open up new ideas or ways of solving them. For example, a key challenge in Portsmouth was poor air quality around schools which was threatening public health. The team was inspired by research findings from another project developed by service design students[13] at the Royal College of Art, which found that many unnecessary car journeys were taking place in the morning as children weren’t getting ready for school on time (despite good intentions to walk). This then pivoted the ideas towards ways to get children ready for school quicker. In 2020, the whole cohort of around 15 councils will all be focusing on climate related challenges.  

Social innovation

We ran the Student Water Challenge with Southern Water in 2010-11, who were embarking on the biggest meter installation programme in the country. Fifteen schools were supported by a Design Ambassador and the winning entry demonstrated that their design had reduced the amount of water used in the school’s toilets by a third.


Design Council Spark ran for five years and supported 50+ inventors and entrepreneurs to take their ideas, turn them into products and take them to market. For example Camcup (created by Gareth Roberts and Dr Xiaobin Zha) is a reuseable cup made using the waste produced by our global caffeine addiction – spent coffee grounds, Phytoponics which enables easier hydroponic growing in urban settings and Growth, a plant pot that grows with the plant. 

Policy and research

Our insights are drawn from our extensive back catalogue of built environment advice, guidance and delivery[14], demonstrating our understanding of the complex issues related to sustainable living, covering everything from neighbourhood planning to climate change.

In our Healthy Placemaking report we explored a difficult question: what stops built environment professionals creating healthier places through their work? We worked with Social Change UK to survey over 600 built environment practitioners across the UK to understand their views and experiences across multiple areas on healthy placemaking and possible barriers.

We also contributed to the work of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, an independent body that advised the government on how to promote and increase the use of high-quality design for new build homes and neighbourhoods.

In the future Design Council's pioneering Design Economy research will be seeking to move beyond just measuring the economic value of design to include the social and environmental impact of design. Our commitment to embracing sustainability in all its complexity is clear.

Next steps

We are now looking forward to delivering our new four-year strategy, with sustainable living as a key priority. This blog is aimed at demonstrating the complexity and the scale of this challenge. We know we can’t do this alone. We want to create policy that will help influence local and central government. We are looking to learn about new innovative approaches, share thinking, reach out to people to establish new partnerships, and collaborate with organisations committed to enabling meaningful change.

We will continue working with current and new partners across public and private sectors to ensure that sustainability is fully embedded into what we do, now and well into the future. Whatever we do now, our future will be radically different. It is time to come together to make it right, to lead by example, to break silos and develop strong and lasting partnerships. If you want to work with us, please get in touch. Let’s see how we can make a difference, together.


  1.  Professor Kevin Anderson’s talk on Global Warming. Available at:
  2.  Oswald, Y., Owen, A. & Steinberger, J.K. Large inequality in international and intranational energy footprints between income groups and across consumption categories. Nat Energy 5, 231–239 (2020).
  3.  The Guardian (2019) Revealed: the 20 firms behind a third of all carbon emissions. Published: 9 October 2019. <>
  4.  Tonkiss, F. (2015) Divided Cities: Urban inequalities in the 21st century. Published: 18 May 2015. Available at: <>
  5.  Ørsted: Climate Action Now Podcast Series: Episode 5: Time to take action <>
  6.  Ockwell, D. & Whitmarsh, L. & O’Neill, S. (2009) Reorienting Climate Change Communication for Effective Mitigation: Forcing People to Be Green or Fostering Grass-Roots Engagement?. Science Communication. Vol 30, Issue 3, pp. 305–327. Published: 7 January 2009. Available at: <>
  7.  Ed. Vinitsky, M. (2019) Solar Guerrilla: Constructive Responses to Climate Change Exhibition Catalogue. Tel Aviv Museum of Art & Hirmer Publishers. Available at: <>
  8.  van der Linden, S. (2018). The future of behavioral insights: On the importance of socially situated nudges. Behavioural Public Policy, 2(2), 207–217. Available at: <>
  9.  Ockwell, D. & Whitmarsh, L. & O’Neill, S. (2009) Reorienting Climate Change Communication for Effective Mitigation: Forcing People to Be Green or Fostering Grass-Roots Engagement?. Science Communication. Vol 30, Issue 3, pp. 305–327. Published: 7 January 2009. Available at: <>
  10.  Ed. Vinitsky, M. (2019) Solar Guerrilla: Constructive Responses to Climate Change Exhibition Catalogue. Tel Aviv Museum of Art & Hirmer Publishers. Available at: <>
  11.  Betsill, M. M. (2001) Mitigating Climate Change in U.S. Cities: Opportunities and Obstacles Local Environment, 393-406. Available at: <
  12.  Helsinki Design Lab: What is strategic design? Available at: <>
  13. Guardian: Climate change and you
  14. a. Sustainable Design, climate change and the built environment. CABE. 2007 - <>
    b. Hallmarks of a sustainable city – CABE – 2009 - <>
    c. North West Bicester Eco-Town - <>
    d. Neighbourhood Planning - <>
    e. Waltham Forest Design Review (Little Holland) - <>
    f. National Rail Design Guide Principles (including sustainability) <>
    g. National Water Challenge  <>

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