Jeremy Faludi is a driven and busy man, having written six books on sustainable design, currently working as a Professor at Dartmouth University. With a Master of Engineering from Stanford University and a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California Berkeley, he tries to solve problems from the concept down. To solve a problem before the problem arises, if you will.

We were able to have a long chat on sustainability, how to embed this notion in design and his already long career achievements. Get your mind ready to roam the invisible yet ubiquitous world of design, we’re going on a two-part adventure (season special) through pins, glue, concrete and coffee beans. Take a good look at your favourite objects, because you’ll never look at anything the same after this interview.

What is sustainable design? Who is a sustainable designer?

Alright, let’s hit it off! My first question is what is a sustainable design strategist? What are we exactly strategizing when we talk about sustainable design?

To explain the reason that I say sustainable design strategist is that strategy is at an earlier stage in the design process and is at a higher level than the nuts and bolts. Those being how many parts do we have in this product and where are we sourcing things.

Lotus effect

Humans, powered and inspired by nature since -200,000 BC (Credit: Wikimedia commons)

A lot of the time, the most important decisions sustainability-wise happen in the front end and once the product is well defined, it’s too late to change the important stuff. If you get into the strategy side of things in the early stages of design, where it’s a fuzzy transition between the business plan side and design implementation side, you can have the most leverage, sustainability-wise. It’s where you can make the important decisions depending on what your product is.

Maybe the most important thing is to choose some electronics to make it more energy efficient or to choose the right materials or to make it very light so that is doesn’t use much fuel during its life, for example, if you’re designing a car or aeroplane.

This way you can try to nail down the things that are important sustainability-wise and those can help to define the rest of the product and then all the detailed design work such as CAD (Computer Aided Design) and choosing the number of fasteners is done with the already important decisions set.

You think the case should be that the mortar of sustainability is design, a kind of quality control of sustainability when you build a product or a service, as it works for services as well?

Well and I wouldn’t say quality control because generally quality control is saying no to things and that is the kind of stereotype people have about sustainability in general. But I think the power of Green Design is that you can be generating new ideas and be creative in saying, “here’s the problem that we’re trying to solve, now let’s go have a hundred ideas on what might solve that”.

Does sustainable design already exist in the real world?

Planning is the key to efficiencey

We’re taking planning to the next level (Credit: Silodrome)

My next question is a bit more general. Where are we right now? What is the current state of progress of sustainable design today in the industry? I suppose it depends but is there some more advanced than others?

Yeah, I mean the state of progress is frustratingly slow, but it’s getting better all the time. It is an exponential growth curve, we just haven’t hit the hockey-stick part where things are going fast.

But there’s a lot of progress, companies around the world are making their products greener whether it’s interface carpet or recycling all their products. Clear examples like Nike making other products out of the ground-up recycled shoe rubber and leather, Apple making their products more energy-efficient, and even Unilever going towards more organics or Phillips making more efficient LED light bulbs. There are all kinds of stuff happening all around the world.

And would you think that these sort of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) ideals is going to take us to the next sustainable world? Or do we need something else?

That’s a good point. The traditional model of where sustainability lives in an organization doesn’t work very well. The traditional model is for it to be CSR which is generally part of the marketing department.

Sustainability needs to be more deeply integrated with the design and manufacturing of companies. It’s certainly valuable to get input from marketing but the initiatives can’t just be things trying to do a little bit here and there to get some good press or to get some good branding. We need to deeply and fundamentally change the way that we manufacture and design everything.

Sustainability really means to be built into the design and it needs to be built into the design stage. Even before then when managers and executives are deciding what business models they’re going to use and what products and services they’re even going to offer. This is an inherently multidisciplinary approach where we need the business people to work with the design people and marketing people and environmental scientists to figure out number one how to make the biggest impact environmentally and socially.

Number Two is to figure out new business models to do that. New business models such as a service like Zipcar or Airbnb or what not. The thing is if you have an existing product that’s already been designed, and you try to retrofit it with some sustainability stuff after-the-fact, it’s just never going to be as effective.

It’s going to be more expensive while creating fewer benefits environmentally and socially than if you did it upfront when deciding what the business model will be for your product. We need to get designers and sustainability people in the early stages with business executives when they’re doing strategy.

Follow the second part of this interview next week, on the future of 3D printing and global collaboration. Only on the Plan A Academy.

Jeremy Faludi is currently working as a Professor at Dartmouth University. With a Master of Engineering from Stanford University and a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California Berkeley. He’s contributed to various books on sustainable design, including Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century. He co-authored the Autodesk Sustainability Workshop, created the Whole System Mapping sustainable design method, designed the prototype of AskNature.org for the Biomimicry Institute, and a bicycle he helped design appeared in the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum’s 2007 exhibit “Design for the Other 90%.”. He loves nature, sustainability and design. He’s a sustainable design strategist. He’s got it.