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Still wondering whether Design can make sense of sustainable Business

October 27th, 2010


Products with Meaning, Teun Projects

Today I attended a part of the Business House series at Dutch Design Week, where the theme of the day was to be Sustainable Mobility.

Now, I’m not in the automotive sector, but I am interested in sustainable issues and I of course am curious to know a bit more about the breadth of work where design and business meet in this area. The program consisted of a series of presentations, one which was about passenger/airline staff gate experiences at Schipol G7, the second was a case study of a project done by DuvedeC in Abu Dhabi – the Masdar city – in collaboration with Zagato and Norman Foster architects, and the other was Burton cars.

The organiser of the event was Design Cooperation Brainport, a new configuration of an old model, which is focused on providing a platform for design professionals and design related initiatives in the region. Last week they launched their website, which is rather spiffy – visit Its ambition is to grow until it is the information and meeting medium for the design community of Brainport. (Brainport is the the South-East of the Netherlands where technology is the main driver – this includes innovation and design also has a place here).

When you attend a session promising business, design and sustainability, you do come with expectations, like seeing designers speak and show real-life models (perhaps in the exhibition space which was adjacent to the presentation area), perhaps some charismatic businesspeople, and to be shown inspired concepts. It is after all Dutch Design Week! But the first two presentations were by a development manager, followed by a technical designer type who each walked us through rather dry case studies. The third had a passionate salesman/designer at the forefront, but where was the real story under it all? What gave us reason to call this a sustainability programme? Where were the aspirational images and concepts, the deeper relevance to people and the world? The takeaway I got from the Schipol story was that Philips has sold its ambient experience design from beyond healthcare and hospitality, and into passenger terminals. The Abu Dhabi story was never really clear to me, as the presenter didn’t seem confident presenting in English. The last presentation was not given in English, which was a disadvantage for the international guests; it was about the Burton cars story and while it was fun, it was very much focused on the presenter and very commercial. (Göbel has written a book called Ecowinst, which is all about what you can do in your home to make it more sustainable and attract governmental subsidies, but that was off topic, to be honest). All in all, the message of sustainability with mobility was weak because adding ambient light or making an energy efficient car, or even an electric car, shows that you’re still thinking in today’s paradigms of what we know to be ways of designing for the future. I was hoping for truly innovative stuff. What, I don’t know, and maybe I’m not being helpful, but I did have higher expectations.

But then, we were a friendly bunch of people, and that’s what this event was about. Networking, listening, sharing our opinions. I did find out about some local businesses, and initiatives, such as the T+Huis which is a social project in Woensel, which I’m interested in looking further into. This is social design – social workers working with designers to make really engaging activities for the people in a community centre. This is sustainable to me, because it’s about people but it’s not very technologically advanced or commercial. So even if this snippet of information was off topic, I did get something out of the sessions today, after all. And my companion scored a free copy of Iwan’s Ecowinst book, so we were both happy!

However, my question remains, does design make sense of sustainable business, and in this case, the jury is still out. From the lack of coherence and relevance of cases that were presented to me this morning, I still just don’t know. Thanks for putting on these talks, Design Cooperation Brainport – they are needed and just need some tighter steering. Make the themes clearer, ensure that the content really delivers and keep the openness and gezelligheid (cosiness and friendliness) of the round tables. I believe in this region and sometimes a little constructive criticism is needed to push things in a direction that benefits everyone. Am I not right?

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