Design and Sustainable Development

Reflection from the KASD 2022 Summer Conference

Our lab members had an opportunity to attend Korea’s sustainable development conference last week and present our work in one of the three sessions. I thought it would be a good idea to reflect on what we learned from the conference. 

There are numerous efforts from the government and the academia

Korean government set goals and policies to tackle the issues of sustainable development (SD), especially in smaller cities that are at risk of disappearing. There are also a lot of efforts from universities to work towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Universities' curricula are geared to address SDGs, aiming to educate and prepare students for real-world problems. There is a ranking system that measures real-world impact, called WURI. It is hopeful that universities will be more relevant to address global issues. 

The top-down approach makes it difficult to use funds

Practitioners in local cities are finding it hard to organize sustainable development programs due to the restriction on funding. For example, the fund should be directed to programs related to ‘environment’ only. However, sustainable development is not only about the ‘environment’, but the entire ecosystem of people, society, and the environment. The issue from the practitioner-side needs to be reflected in policy-making. 

We are good at operation, but not cooperation

It was noted during the conference that while each organization is doing well on its own, there is not much going on between organizations. Collaborations are critical in sustainable development since the problem is wicked and can’t be solved easily. This is perhaps the main motive of the conference which is to share current knowledge and work together to find solutions. We also noticed that many conferences and events are held in the same building under the same theme of SDG, but they are segmented. This presents an opportunity for organizations to build connected communities. 

Designers are needed. But not in the way it is understood. 

While most people at the conference specialize in policy-making, there are not many from the design community. During the discussion, the need for other disciplines was mentioned, and that includes psychology due to the need to understand people’s needs. We notice that designs are misrepresented and misunderstood as product design or simply styling. In fact, understanding and empathizing with people is one of the designer’s key strengths. Through design research and design facilitation, design can help reframe wicked problems, bring people together and align them in the same direction. 

It was a great time for us to attend the conference and learned from the practitioners. Among all, I think the greatest learning was that we identified the need for design in the area of sustainable development. It reassures us that what we do can truly benefit academia and practitioners to address sustainable development goals.

However,  before we can collaborate, designers have to first educate people about what design is about.

And the best way to show the SD community the potential of design is through case studies including what we presented at the conference. We hope that by publishing what we do, people in the sustainable development community could understand the potential of design, and different disciplines can work together towards the SDGs.