Designing for a sustainable future

Carlos Fiorentino is a PhD candidate in the Department of Human Ecology at the University of Alberta. He has been teaching the university’s first course on Design for Sustainability and co-founded Biomimicry Alberta, a network of professionals that promotes sustainability and design. His research investigates nature’s inner workings searching for valuable lessons for today’s designers.

How did you get interested in the intersection between sustainability and design?

In a way, it just happened naturally. Before I started my master’s degree at UAlberta, I was interested in natural design. In my first year of my master’s degree my supervisor suggested I attend this workshop related to design and sustainability. That’s where I realized what I wanted to do and what I was already doing without knowing it.

I was really tired and disappointed with the direction that many design fields seemed to be taking. I was looking for a change. With sustainability and design, I found it. Sustainability and design was design for transformation.

That’s actually my perspective on sustainability: it’s not about sustaining necessarily. We should be thinking about changing and correcting things and finding ways to redirect the way we live. For me, change was the driving force.

Your research focuses on biomimicry. How does that relate to sustainable design?

Biomimicry is the best set of principles for designing sustainably. By definition, biomimicry is design inspired by nature. It’s not just inspiration at a surface-level; it’s more about understanding how something works and trying to mimic behaviours, shapes, forms and designs. If you mimic nature, you’ll get sustainability.

For example, there is a company that makes screens for electronics. Instead of emitting light, these screens reflect light, similar to the way paper works. It’s more sustainable because the screen doesn’t use energy and it uses a structure and colour to manipulate light instead of electricity to light the screen.

Why is it important for others to think about sustainability in design?

I don’t see any other option, actually. We could keep doing business as usual or change the way we consume, but if we don’t take sustainability seriously and do something about it, we’ll be in trouble.

Education is a natural step in changing someone’s mind and it’s at the core of the issue of design and sustainability not always connecting. It’s why I stay here at UAlberta. In 2010 I got an opportunity to teach a spring course on design and sustainability for Human Ecology  and now I’ve been teaching that course for five years in a row. As part of the course, I like to take my students outdoors as much as I can. Many of the activities are about mimicking natural patterns and applying that to Human Ecology topics such as textiles.

This past year, I took my students outside and we explored how nature self-organizes such as bird flocks or fish schools. I had the students organize themselves like a school of fish. In the end, the group started behaving like fish, and this helped them think about why this happens in nature and how nature organizes complex communities with simple rules, and how that applies to design.

What advice do you have for other instructors looking to integrate sustainability into their teaching?

You need to go back to the books and keep studying up on the different aspects of sustainability. It’s not easy because sustainability is a moving target and it’s evolving all the time. You need to stay updated if you want to integrate sustainability into your courses.

Also, don’t be afraid to ask around the university to gather expertise from others. There are a lot of people on campus working on sustainability, and we don’t know each other. Collaboration can bridge that knowledge gap.