Design Practices and the Micropolitics of Sustainability

Ramia Mazé

Project Period:
Type: Affiliated Research Project
Program Area(s): Critical Projections


Sustainability has been positioned through various global declarations and coalitions to frame alignments across hemispheres, nation-states, political parties, socio-economic and interest groups. Sustainability, as argued by Erik Swyngedouw, is paradigmatic of the contemporary politics of consensus on a global scale. But sustainable development is not simply a matter of narrowing the gap between policy declarations and the design of implementations, between theory and practice. Sustainable development involves multiple discourses and practices, in which there are competing and controversial formulations. While eco-modernists, for example, might focus on reforming traditional industry through clean production and green consumption, environmental justice advocates might oppose the industrial systems that have historically produced not only pollution but social injustice.

Rather than a postpolitical approach, we might identify a multiplicity of ontological formualtions, ideological positions, historical moments, geographic, and socio-economic locations, in which sustainability involves struggles between those maintaining and gaining influence and resources, struggles set within a pluricentric society wherein resources and agency are distributed, and in which interests are often in competition at a time of rapid globalization, conflicts over diminishing resources, and rising risk factors. Sustainable development involves questions about who benefits, who gains, and who loses. Sustainability is inevitably, and essentially, a matter of the political.

The political matter of sustainability is also a matter for design and architecture, which increasingly take on roles in sustainable development. Design for sustainable consumption, for example, is applied to reduce domestic (over)consumption of energy, water, and other resources. For sustainable communities, design represents certain practices and interests in negotiations over civic priorities and futures. In these roles, which are further discussed in this article, design is engaged in mediating how and by whom resources are accessed and controlled, for example, and which or whose interests are made visible. These design roles are thus entangled in the political dimensions of sustainability, in relations among human and non-human entities in which not all are equal. For example, responsibilities have shifted from (trans)national and industrial entities to localities and individuals without equivalent shifts in the power to decide what should be done and by whom. Nor are rights and agency spread evenly, for example, as women and others disproportionately affected by resource scarcity are underrepresented in civic forums. Changing energy consumption and steering sustainable futures are more than matters of technology and policy – profound changes to the social organization of everyday life are at stake. Just as sustainable development is a political matter, so are the forms and solutions of design. In response, I argue for critical studies and practices of (sustainable) design and architecture.

Here, I explore the political dimensions of design roles in sustainable development by asking a series of questions inspired by critical theory and political philosophy. Formulated through a series of questions framed in terms of “we” and “other” relations, I reflect upon how design takes part in the (re)production of social order. These questions are lenses for reflecting upon a series of projects, including examples of practice-based design research in which I have participated. Static! and Switch! were situated as conceptual and critical design practices in the domain of energy consumption. In order to reflect more broadly, I also refer to several examples of sustainability-related critical practices by others, including the New Beauty Council, m7red, Anti-Advertising Agency and atelier d’architecture autogérée, featured within the DESIGN ACT project and book (Ericson and Mazé, eds. Berlin: Sternberg / Iaspis 2010). I conclude with a discussion critical-political roles of design in sustainable development, and the role of critical-political questions developed through and generated by design/architectural practices.

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