Just because it doesn't affect you doesn’t mean it's theoretical (STIR World) | Katie Treggiden Skip to content

Just because it doesn’t affect you doesn’t mean it’s theoretical (STIR World)

As the Design Council shares its Design for Planet Festival ’23 talks online, STIR reflects on the temptation to opt for quick wins and neglect the big picture.

“That was amazing,” she gushed, bouncing up to the tall Dutch man. “It’s so refreshing to finally hear a talk that wasn’t all theory.” She was a white woman in her 40s; he was Bas van Abel, the founder of Fairphone, and he had just delivered a keynote on the morning of the second day of the Design Council’s Design for Planet Festival in Norwich. Now, there’s no doubt his talk was brilliant—the story of Fairphone is inspiring and van Abel is a dynamic and engaging speaker—but the second part of her sentence puzzled me.

Design for Planet talk /// Image: Courtesy of The Enterprise Centre UEA

The day before, Rosie Murphy from Architects Climate Action Network had shared the importance of power-sharing in collaboration; we had heard from Kwajo Tweneboa and David Mikhail on the ways in which tackling housing inequality can also lead to climate justice, and a panel led by Almira Lardizabal Hussain had explored how to design with communities. All of them spoke from lived experience, and shared tangible real-world examples, alongside expertise and research, just like van Abel did.

The Enterprise Centre main lecture theatre /// Image: Courtesy of The Enterprise Centre UEA

None of it was theoretical, but the woman had a smartphone in her hand as she spoke, and I wondered if van Abel’s talk felt less theoretical because it applied to her directly. She could do something very simple—trade in her existing smartphone for a Fairphone—and feel like she was making a difference. But sharing power? Getting her head around the root causes of the housing crisis? Learning how to listen to, and design with instead of for, communities? It’s not theoretical in the slightest, but a lot harder to achieve than a smartphone upgrade.

One of the reasons I was so keen to attend the Design for Planet Festival is because the Design Council understands that the climate crisis is urgent, but that it’s also intersectional. Design for Planet is not just the name of their annual conference, it’s their mission statement. “The climate crisis is the biggest challenge of our lifetime and design has a critical role to play,” says a statement on their website. “We need to re-design nearly every aspect of how we live our lives. Design shapes the world. So, designers have huge power, and with power comes responsibility.’ And that responsibility extends beyond a new smartphone. Of course, we need some easy wins, but we also need to urgently understand that the climate crisis didn’t come about in a vacuum.

The Enterprise Centre Cat Drew, CDO at DC on the left /// Image: Courtesy of The Enterprise Centre UEA

After van Abel’s talk, we heard from Dr Dori Tunstall, Dean of Design at Ontario College of Art & Design University and the author of Decolonising Design. Her book calls for putting indigenous people and practices first; dismantling both the tech bias and the racist bias in the European Modernist project; making amends through more than diversity, inclusion, and equity; and reprioritising existing resources as part of the decolonisation effort—in her talk, she spoke specifically about dismantling the tech bias and the myth of ‘better living through technology’—an interesting counterpoint to the idea of the Fairphone as an easy win.

Discussions at the Design for Planet Festival 2023 /// Image: Courtesy of The Enterprise Centre UEA

World leaders have been kicking the environmental crisis down the road for generations, on the promise of some future technological innovation that will save us, but we have run out of road. And the same value systems that enable extraction from, and domination over, people (patriarchy, white supremacy, and class exploitation) also enable the extraction from, and domination over, land and water to the point of depletion and crisis. “Technology will not work our way out of the climate crisis unless we change the underlying consciousness of the technology,” said Tunstall. “The way for technology to achieve its decolonial promise is [by asking] does it create a context for liberation? And is it done with the consciousness of indigenous peoples who practise “all my relations”? because it is the limitation of our understanding of who is ‘the masses’ that has led to these exploitative and oppressive structures.”

Panel led by Almira Lardizabal Hussain /// Image: Courtesy of The Enterprise Centre UEA

In other words, if we are really going to make a difference, yes, we should probably all trade in our existing smartphones for a Fairphone, but we also need to do so much more. We need to learn how to listen to, and design with, communities. We need to understand the root causes of the housing crisis and how it relates to climate justice. And perhaps most importantly, we need to learn how to share power.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)

Contact Katie


Katie Treggiden is also the founder and director of Making Design Circular — an international membership community and online learning platform for environmentally conscious designers, makers, artists and craftspeople.
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