The Design industry needs to imagine a world where we use less energy, full stop! Skip to content

The Design industry needs to imagine a world where we use less energy, full stop! (Dezeen | Solar Revolution)

“The design industry needs to imagine a world in which we use less energy.”

The transition to green energy is vital, and solar power has a huge part to play, but designers also need to find ways to reduce our energy consumption overall, says founder and director of Making Design Circular Katie Treggiden.

2022 has seen a glut of solar-powered design projects, from watches and headphones to bikes and even the world’s first solar-powered car. And Friday 09 September sees the launch of the inaugural Solar Biennale in the Netherlands – an initiative from self-described ‘solar designers’ Marjan van Aubel and Pauline van Dongen. Has solar power reached a tipping point?

We have been hearing about the moment that solar energy finally goes mainstream for decades. The National Geographic published an article by Daniel M. Kammen in 2011, claiming that “the solar energy industry is at a tipping point,” arguing that “the solar industry worldwide is the fastest growing source of electricity generation,” but cautioning that geopolitics and American protectionism (China is a major producer of solar panels) might dampen its potential. In 2012, Green Age told us, “The solar power tipping-point is coming,” defining that point, also known as grid parity or the golden goal, as “the moment when solar produces power at the same price as electricity from the grid.”

But in 2021 solar became the cheapest source of electricity globally and now the perfect storm of factors, including the long, cold winter of 2021­–22, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and dwindling UK gas reserves, has sent energy prices sky rocketing, making everybody take a long hard look at green – and locally produced – energy. So, are we ready for a solar revolution? And if we are, what role can designers, makers and architects play in realising the true potential of this clean and renewable resource?

Democratising access to solar power is one of the aims of the Solar Biennale. “To facilitate a shift in our perception towards solar, it also needs to be more accessible to a larger group of people,” van Aubel told Dezeen last year. Her solar lamp Sunne is designed to hang in windows and, powered by photovoltaic cells on its reverse, mimics the changing light profile from sunrise until sunset. Central Saint Martins design graduate Mireille Steinhage’s solar-powered heated blanket, which she aims to retail for less than £10, has extra resonance for the UK’s impending cost of living crisis, in which many people are expected to face a choice between ‘eating and heating’ this winter. Design has a role to play in increasing efficacy too – by mimicking the structure of the wings of the rose butterfly, which has evolved over millions of years to absorb heat from the sun, scientists have been able to create thin film solar cells that outperform traditional fixed solar panels at much lower cost due to tiny holes that scatter the light. Researchers in Australia have even developed a solar paint that can absorb water vapour and use the energy from the sun to split it and generate hydrogen – arguably the cleanest source of energy of all. By taking inspiration from nature and collaborating with scientists and engineers, designers can take something that is usually high-tech and expensive and make it more beautiful, more effective and more accessible.

But none of this addresses the elephant in the room – the fact that global electricity demand is growing faster than renewables. An IEA report published in July 2021 found that ‘electricity generation from renewables – including hydropower, wind and solar PV – is on track to grow strongly around the world over the next two years […] But even with this strong growth, renewables will only be able to meet around half the projected increase in global electricity demand over those two years.’ The other half of the increase will be met by fossil fuels, so even as renewables grow, we are still using more fossil fuels, because we are using more energy overall.

It is of course vital that we divest from fossil fuels. The Carbon Majors Report published in 2017 found that half of global industrial emissions since 1988 – the year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established – can be traced to just 25 corporate and state-owned fossil fuel producers. The case for moving to green energy is clear, and architects, designers and makers have a significant role to play in our transition, both in terms of designing the products and buildings that are powered by renewables, and in bringing about the cultural shifts necessary.

But perhaps the design industry has an even bigger, more important part to play. Environmental consultant Mark Shayler says that “creativity is nothing more than imagining a world that hasn’t arrived yet.” The world we need to imagine involves more than a simple switch of energy source. Where we really need the creativity of the design industry is in ushering in a world in which we use less energy full stop.

Town planners can design tree-filled cities that are a pleasure to walk and cycle through, to reduce our reliance on cars – electric, solar-powered or otherwise. And they can go further – the Fab Cities model asks us to reimagine the fundamental systems on which we rely and conceive of cities that make everything they need using circular models of fabrication, with the only thing traveling between cities being data.

Architects can create buildings that are heated and cooled passively without the need for radiators or air conditioning. Projects like Disharee Mathur’s passive cooling tiles made from waste sanitaryware in Jaipur will make a bigger difference than solar-powered air-conditioning units. Buildings that have bicycle storage instead of carparks, community vegetable gardens instead of lawns, and rooftop running tracks instead of basement gyms will all help to reduce our energy usage.

Experiential designers can help us to fall in love with the idea of travelling locally, slowly and paying more attention, instead of simply jetting off to far-flung destinations. Industrial designers can make simple changes to electronic devices so that they switch off when not in use and are more easily repaired. And makers and craftspeople can show us the slow value of the handmade versus the mass-produced on next-day delivery.  

We need a transition to green energy (and we need it fast), but we also need so much more than that, something the organisers of the Solar Biennale recognise, ‘What defines solar design is that it is much more than a way to provide sustainable energy,’ they say. ‘Solar design shapes new relationships between people and their environment.’ It is here that architects, designers and makers have the biggest role to play – in imagining a world that hasn’t arrived yet, a world in which people recognise their interconnected relationships with their environment and build their lives, spaces and systems accordingly.

Katie Treggiden is an author, journalist, podcaster and keynote speaker championing a circular approach to design. She is also the founder and director of Making Design Circular, a membership community in which designer-makers get to feel proud of contributing to a thriving planet with every product they make.

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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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