Sustainable Design- essential for product & service design

Summary: Sustainable design is essential for product and service design. We can no longer ignore the role of sustainability in a product or service’s business and interaction model.

Sustainable Design- essential for product & service design

The call for innovative solutions has never been more urgent in a world grappling with economic, social, and environmental crises. The implications of these challenges are vividly demonstrated through a set of “wicked design problems“: (stats below updated 2023)

The divide between developed and developing nations continues to widen. China and India’s burgeoning middle class emulates Western consumption patterns, potentially exacerbating ecological, social, and economic concerns within these countries and the global ecosystem. Amidst these dynamics, designers, architects, and innovators often focus on creating experiences catering to privileged lifestyles in North America, Europe, and certain parts of Asia.

Design Like You Give a Damn

Examples of sustainable designs are found in “Design Like You Give a Damn,” a compelling book spotlighting architectural responses to global challenges. The book showcases projects spanning from ecologically conscious dry toilets to the innovative hippo water roller, which helps transport water long distances.

hippo roller in action

Consider Gaviotas, an experimental community nestled in Colombia’s remote region. Gaviotas has been a beacon of sustainable design for over four decades, fostering technologies adopted worldwide. With a mere 200 residents, Gaviotas has accomplished astounding feats, from hydroelectric microturbines generating energy from modest waterfalls to solar-powered hospital innovations.

Gaviotas illuminates key insights into sustainable design

  1. Thriving with minimal resources: Complex technologies can flourish in resource-scarce environments with minimal capital investment, leaving a low environmental footprint.
  2. Learning from iteration: Gaviotas’ experience reveals that failures pave the path to success. They experimented with 58 windmill designs before settling on the optimal solution for their arid region.
  3. Innovative interfaces: The community ingeniously integrated children’s suggestions, using a seesaw to power a pump. Interfaces can conceal underlying technology and provide seamless interactions.
  4. Converging poverty reduction and ‘Green’ initiatives: Gaviotas pioneered solar-powered innovations, including a hospital, serving the community and powering key structures, demonstrating the link between poverty alleviation and sustainable technology.
  5. Power-free solutions: Designs can prioritize human effort over electricity, exemplified by Gaviotas’ hand-pumped micro-aqueducts and hand-cranking radios, relevant for the 1.6 billion people lacking electricity.

The challenge of bridging design innovation across Western markets and underprivileged segments poses a significant opportunity. Sustainable design principles can reshape products to suit the needs of the four billion individuals earning less than $2 daily. Social entrepreneurs, like those recognized by Fast Company, are pioneering this shift, fostering innovative solutions that align profit with social impact.

Sustainable design stands at the forefront as our world “greens” economically and embraces social computing potential. Initiatives like the $100 laptop (One Laptop Per Child) extend aid to low-literacy and cognitively developing areas, reflecting the ethos of sustainable design. Overcoming criticisms, this initiative underscores the transformative potential of technology in underserved communities.


Sustainable design must be centered on populations that need climate justice the most. Your design approach must evolve to embrace the diverse needs of global audiences with a sustainability lens. Product and Service Design with sustainability as default has the potential to reshape lives, communities, and the planet.

Also, see Why Sustainability Design?

Why we need a Sustainability role for UX Designers

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