The designers have been designing tools, processes, and methods to support and not to change people's behavior. In contrast designing for sustainability would fundamentally require changing people's behavior. The behavior change to achieve the sustainability goals would mean offering different alternatives, encourage reduced consumption, make people conscious of their behavior, and leverage peer pressure and competition. The design that maintains status quo will not help to achieve sustainability goals. The design will have to be provocative and challenge user's assumptions in many ways.
Design Thinking is about how you think and not what you know; it is about the journey and not the destination. For a problem of massive scale such as sustainability where we still know a little and the desired outcome may take years, following are some elements of design thinking that could help make world a better place to live for the generations to come.
Ambidextrous-thinking: Sustainability being fundamentally a sociological, psychological, and economical problem designers not only need to synthesize what they observe but to also design their solutions based on well-analyzed hard facts. It requires the designers to use both sides of their brains, left and right, to feel and to think. Human beings respond to positive and negative incentives e.g. charging people for grocery bags, allow hybrids cars in the carpool lanes etc. Ambidextrous approach allows designing creative incentives such as showing real-time gas consumption in Prius that changes the driver's behavior. It also prevents blindly rolling out initiatives that feel right but are outright wrong such as paper bags instead of plastic. Even though they are easy to down-cycle paper bags consume more energy to manufacture compared to plastic bags. All types of reasoning - inductive, deductive, and abductive - are quintessential to dream, design, and validate the solutions.
Analogous research: This approach allows designers to explore analogous problems with similar characteristics in other domains to gain insights and be inspired. Weight loss programs and alcohol support groups use social levers such as community support, peer pressure, and competition to help change people's behavior. The green social networks such as Carbonrally and Climate Culture are designed to leverage social competition towards green living. Similarly the community support aspect behind the fast growing fitness chain for women, Curve, can be applied to understand the role of community in changing people's behavior. Wiser Earth is an effort in this direction that uses community to connect people with non-profit and businesses to work together towards a sustainable world.
Researching an analogous domain is even more important when the primary domain such as sustainability does not allow to experiment the solution effectively due to its dry, non-tangible, and emerging nature. When given a task to design an emergency room a few people from IDEO went to a NASCAR race to observe the pit crew to better understand what kind of things can go wrong under emergency and how people respond to those events.
Empathy: Put yourself in the shoes of the people you are trying to change. As Thomas Friedman says people are having a green party and not a green revolution. Go to these green parties and follow people around to better understand what it will take to turn these parties into a true green revolution. Is it lack of awareness, motivation, or an incentive? Gain empathy for the people and understand their perspective in their context - what will it take socially and economically for them to change their behavior?
Context is critical for design thinking. Observing and talking to people in their natural environment designers gain empathy for the people and discover behavior patterns that they would have not found had they sat in their offices thinking how they should change people's behavior.
Holistic multidisciplinary approach: The sustainability efforts span across different culture, countries, background, and belief systems. To successfully solve this problem from the tools, behavior, and policies perspective people from the different disciplines such as engineers, scientists, interaction designers, social scientists, policy makers, and business executives need to come together and collaboratively work on it. Naive, curious, and inclusive mindset allows designers to holistically study the problem from the perspective of all the stakeholders - manufacturers, consumers, policy makers etc. The tools, technology, incentives, and policies, if designed in isolation, leave out gaps and often result into confirmation bias.
Be tangible and iterate often: This is a daunting problem and boiling the ocean would lead to an analysis paralysis nightmare. This is not a mature domain and there are no certainties around what will work and what won't. The best approach would be to rapidly prototype a solution to get early feedback from the consumers and iterate it often. There has been an ongoing debate on carbon tax versus carbon cap-and-trade. Instead of getting stuck in the controversy, opinions, and abstract ideas there is an opportunity to build something tangible and let people validate their own assumptions. A tangible object against an abstract concept enables better conversations and feedback channels since it is about the solution and not about the problem.
Focus on journey and emergent experimentation: Design thinking is about thinking in a different way and not about having any specific skills. It focuses on the journey, the method, and not on the outcome. People demand instant gratification but sustainability is not like the biggest looser competition where your weekly weigh-in would tell you where you are. It will take us years before we can actually quantify the impact of sustainability efforts that we are asking people to put in today. It is one of those initiatives that may not see any short term benefits at all. For such initiatives top-down compliance strategy won't work. A good design with emergent experimentation will focus on the journey and not the destination with the iterative results on the way to convince people how a change in their behavior slowly change the world around them. People will believe in the journey and the emergent experimentation.
Update: John R. Ehrenfeld who is currently serving as an Executive Director of the International Society for Industrial Ecology prior to his career as the Director of the MIT Program on Technology, Business, and Environment, an interdisciplinary educational, research, and policy program has picked up this story and posted on his blog Sustainability by Design.