Dezeen Magazine

Materials store in Open for Maintenance, the German Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2023

"Our biggest climate challenge is no longer denial, but despair"

Climate fatalism stands in the way of a sustainable future but designers and architects are in an ideal position to overcome it, writes Katie Treggiden.

The mainstream media is finally waking up to the realities of climate change. As wildfires, floods and storms wreak havoc across the world, journalists and activists far braver than me are speaking truth to power to make sure we all know just how serious this thing is. And that is vital and right and proper.

However, fear doesn't motivate action. The biggest obstacle for the environmental movement is no longer climate-change deniers – the evidence is incontrovertible to all but conspiracy theorists. It is those who are fully on board with the fact that humans are the root cause of some very real problems, but just don't believe that we have what it takes to solve them. Our biggest climate challenge is no longer denial, but despair.

Fear doesn't motivate action

To spark meaningful change, we need hope. We need to believe not only that a better world is possible, but that we each have the power to help bring it about.

I'm not talking about blind faith or passive optimism. I'm talking about active hope. I'm talking about waking up every morning and making a choice to believe that we can solve this wicked problem, and then choosing to act accordingly. And in today's climate – political, economic and social as well as environmental – hope is an act of defiance.

So, how can architects and designers inspire defiant hope?

The Berkana Institute's "two loops" model of systems change proposes multiple roles that people and institutions can play in the transition from a declining system to an emerging one. As the dominant system begins its decline, "stabilisers" keep what is required in place until something better is ready, while "hospice workers" support the process of decline, minimising harm to those still within it.

In turn, the emergent system gathers pace as "pioneers" come up with new ideas, products and systems and they are joined together into networks by "connectors". Together, they form supportive "communities of practice" that enable them to grow their influence and, eventually, rise up to replace the old system.

In the transition from the declining linear take-make-waste economy to an emerging regenerative and circular economy, we might cast architects and designers in the role of "pioneers" – problem-solvers who can create pragmatic ways to move society towards a better world.

And that is valid; if architecture and design solve problems, then surely they should contribute genuine, impactful, and replicable solutions to arguably the biggest problem ever to have faced humanity.

In today's climate – political, economic and social as well as environmental – hope is an act of defiance

However, I believe they can also play another part. On the emerging-system loop, there is a role for "illuminators": people who paint a picture of what a better world might look like.

You see, there is no point in the model where the two loops touch, no simple juncture where people can step off one system and onto the next – they must take a leap of faith. Illuminators are the people who can give them the courage to do that.

One of the questions I get asked most often when I speak at conferences about craft and design in the transition to a circular economy is: "Okay, but how does it scale?"

Firstly, I would contend that scalability is what got us into this mess, and what we need instead are locally replicable solutions, but increasingly I am questioning whether everything we propose as an industry even needs to do that. Perhaps part of our role is simply to inspire hope – defiant, stubborn, active hope.

Kyloe Design's kelp chair, showcased recently as part of Green Grads at the London Design Festival, may never make it into production and it's highly unlikely that it will drive the wholesale replacement of leather across the furniture industry. But it does showcase the potential of this incredibly renewable, climate-positive, underutilised material, while provoking the curiosity to learn more.

From responsible material sourcing and advocating for worker welfare to using smartphone components anyone can switch out, Fairphone is offering real-world solutions. But its founder, Bas Van Abel, was realistic about what he could achieve directly, so launched the company with the stated aim of motivating the rest of the industry.

There is little doubt that his efforts have had a hand in both the incoming EU legislation that will require smartphone batteries to be "easily replaceable" and the recent launch of a repairable Nokia phone.

Part of our role is simply to inspire hope – defiant, stubborn, active hope

Zaha Hadid Architects principal Patrik Schumacher might have criticised the "lack of architecture" at last year's Venice Architecture Biennale, but what if contributions such as the German pavilion (pictured), which he described as nothing more than "piles of construction material", are exactly what we need to inspire alternative ways of working? Entitled Open for Maintenance, the exhibition was billed as "an action framework for a new building culture" and collated materials recovered from previous installations to be used for repairing and upgrading buildings and public spaces all over Venice.

One of my favourite quotes about hope is from the author Arundhati Roy, who says: "Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing." The question I would like to pose is: how can we, as an industry, help everyone to hear the sound of her breath?

Katie Treggiden is the founder and director of Making Design Circular, a membership community and online-learning platform for sustainable designers and makers, and the author of Broken: Mending and Repair in a Throwaway World (Ludion, 2023).

Dezeen In Depth
If you enjoy reading Dezeen's interviews, opinions and features, subscribe to Dezeen In Depth. Sent on the last Friday of each month, this newsletter provides a single place to read about the design and architecture stories behind the headlines.