Challenging designers to tackle climate change

How can designers tackle a problem as complex as climate change? That’s the question we’ve been trying to answer this year as the research partner for What Design Can Do’s Climate Action Challenge.

In collaboration with What Design Can Do (WDCD) and the other partners, the IKEA Foundation and the Autodesk Foundation, our task was to develop the briefs and background information for the Climate Action Challenge, a competition open to students, start-ups and professionals who can win funding and an acceleration programme to realise their ideas.

Adapting to climate change, not mitigating it

Together with the project partners we decided to focus on adaptation to climate change rather than mitigation (limiting the cause of climate change). That’s because reducing greenhouse gas emissions, at this point, should be a given, whereas there is still not enough attention on how humans can adapt to (and survive) a hotter planet and the increasingly severe disaster and weather events that come with it. Our focus was to make sense of climate adaptation, and to help designers understand the problem so that they could design solutions for it.

The central question for our research was: What can design do to ease the consequences of climate change? We wanted to cover the areas most urgently threatened by climate change while making the challenge appealing to all kinds of designers working on all kinds of levels, from the personal to the systemic. Finally, we also wanted to encourage designers to root their solutions in their local area, rather designing for unfamiliar places.

A briefing generator

To fit in all these layers of complexity, we came up with a unique solution: a briefing generator. Entrants first choose a design strategy (from storytelling to service design or system transformation), then a topic (food, water, housing, energy, health) and finally their region. A customised brief is then generated, with a challenge and an opportunity.

The four design strategies were designed so that they would speak to certain kinds of designers, without restricting them to their discipline or day job. Filmmakers could opt for ‘system transformation’; service designers could, if they wish, choose to tell a story instead of designing a service.

Allowing the entrants to adjust the briefs to fit to their area is also better because they know a lot more than we do about the problems there, and a lot more about the socio-cultural factors that need to be considered to solve them. The phrase ‘Think global, act local’ is very apt for climate change, as its consequences are so varied from location to location. This is why we designed the briefs so that designers and experts can do their own research and find out for themselves where local problems are, rather than us determining it for them.

Putting people at the centre

The key to this entire process was putting people at the centre. Whether interviewing designers, reading hundred-page-long official reports, or iterating on the brief matrix, we were always asking ourselves: What is the impact on people? What difference can people make? In every iteration we got a little closer to answering these questions, and we tried to write the briefs and challenge guide to encourage entrants to answer them too.

The challenge process

The challenge will be open until August 21st and you can apply here.

After the initial submissions are in, an expert panel will pick a list of nominees, and give them feedback so that they can refine their ideas before a final deadline.

An international jury will then choose five winners, who will share an award package worth €900,000 which includes a production budget and an acceleration program aimed at making their ideas, prototypes or start-ups market- and investment ready. STBY is one of the partners who will be mentoring these five winners.

This is the second global design challenge launched by What Design Can Do, following last year’s Refugee Challenge. All five winners of that challenge are still working with their idea, with one already up and running as a social enterprise and others working with local governments and other partners to realise their idea.