From Climate Urgency to Design Agency

We’ve worked with What Design Can Do as their global research partner since 2015, when we did the research on their first design challenge – the Refugee Challenge. Over the past years, much of the focus has been on the climate, from the Climate Action challenge in 2017, to the Clean Energy challenge in 2018, to the No Waste challenge in 2021, and to the Make it Circular challenge in 2022. The goal this time, for the new design challenge in 2024, was to build on the previous challenges by investigating how conversations around the climate crisis have changed over time and to tap into the urgent narratives of today.

Our role, as the global research partner, is to conduct local research in the Netherlands and engage our global research partners in the Reach Network to do the same in their localities. We then bring all of the local research together to conduct a global analysis of how design can make a difference in addressing current environmental and social urgencies. This is what helps shape WDCD’s design challenges.

What came through in our recent research, more than ever, is that we are now in a state of irreversible climate damage. Globally, we suffer from climate urgencies such as biodiversity loss, stress on our land and water, mis-information and climate change denial, extreme weather events, pollution and excessive waste, lack of regulatory policies and more. This may sound dismal, but there is still a lot we can do to shape adapted futures where we can thrive. We can design new ways to live – and we must. Designers, with their creative problem-solving, their ability to connect unlikely actors and their way of imagining better realities and sharing those with the world, are well positioned to help build these futures, and redesign everything around us.

Only some of the many books and other sources we looked at during this research.

Understanding local climate urgencies around the globe

This project consisted of local research in Brazil, India, Japan, Kenya, Mexico and the Netherlands. Each country partner investigated local climate urgencies impacting their neighbourhoods, cities and even the entire country. What we were looking for here were the climate urgencies where design can or has already made a difference. Each country also collected case studies of local projects showing where designers are already responding to local climate urgencies. Our analysis of the 60+ case studies across six countries has shown that an overwhelming number of designers are facing local climate urgencies head-on by designing for the well-being of their local living environments, and taking into account the interconnectedness of social and environmental health of all living species.

For example: The Netherlands is, understandably, worried about rising sea levels, as a country sitting below sea level. Designers near the North Sea have collaborated with reef-forming Pacific oysters to build reefs that help dissipate wave energy to prevent erosion. In Kenya, every year thousands of people die due to cooking with charcoal and firewood. Designers have responded to this urgency by creating efficient and reliable ethanol cookstoves from local repurposed metal waste and partnering with local women-led businesses to distribute the stoves.

By investigating what is urgently needed on a local level, we can begin to identify where design can help improve local living environments and people’s lives, leading to widespread change. This is possible when we become more integrated with the environments that we live in and collaborate with their natural cycles.

When research becomes a global design challenge

The goal of all of this research, of course, is to then develop a design challenge brief for designers all over the world. On January 17, 2024, the Redesign Everything Challenge was launched by What Design Can Do.

This global design competition seeks creative solutions to address the climate crisis and kickstart the transition to a fair and circular future. Changemakers everywhere are invited to submit ideas to radically redesign the world we live in — our products, materials, stories, systems, services and spaces — through a circular and regenerative lens.

The research for this challenge showed us that we need creative ideas to build new, unforeseen realities and connections that strengthen our relationships with our environments and each other. We know “redesigning everything” is a big ask, but it’s what needs to happen – at least one step at a time, until we are living in a world that respects and is integrated with the natural cycles of our living ecosystem.