Changing Practices: The Role of Design in Supporting the Sustainability of Everyday Life
MetadataShow full item record
- Institutt for design 
The interaction between humans, things and physical environments contributes to the environmental impact of ordinary everyday life activities. Resources are consumed and consumables used as people try to stay comfortable, keep up with cleanliness standards or unwind after a day at work, by turning up the heat, rinsing their dinner dishes, or surfing the internet while watching the news. This thesis contributes with new insights and knowledge on the opportunities for product, service and systems design to support more sustainable household consumption, and on the prospects and preconditions for designers and firms to do so. Based on that, it provides recommendations targeting future research as well as policymakers, firms and designers. For many actively used, resource-consuming products and services, the size of the environmental impacts attributable to their lifecycle is largest for the phase of use. While products and services bear with them potentials for use and resource consumption, the diverse ways in which they actually are used create variation in the resulting impact levels. In the traditionally technology-oriented design for sustainability field, the dominance of the use phase has for long been acknowledged, but the role of the interplay between humans and technology has largely been neglected. At the same time, sustainability issues have not received much attention in design fields concerned with understanding use and users, and with the design of the interfaces between humans, things and environments. In line with an emerging branch of design research departing from this gap and investigating issues of sustainability and use, this thesis starts out from an interest in exploring the potential role of design in supporting less environmentally impacting ways of doing. Given the characteristics of the challenge and how the framing and setting of problems matter to the opportunities that are identified, it argues that for the advancement of the field, good ways of understanding dynamics of consumption and change are needed. Moreover, there has so far been little attention to systems of provision, to the extent to which supporting sustainable consumption is a design challenge, and what at all would enable design contribution. This thesis therefore combines a focus on household activities and opportunities for supporting a more sustainable development there, with a focus on design activity in industry and the prospects and preconditions for firms and the designers working for them to make use of such opportunities. To address this multi-faceted topic, the thesis draws on a combination of theoretical perspectives. To understand the dynamics of consumption and the potential for change to come about, it draws on practice theory (Schatzki, 2001; Reckwitz, 2002b), system innovation theory and the multi-level perspective on sociotechnical change (Rip and Kemp, 1998; Geels, 2004). To understand why and how designers and firms do what they do and what is taken to help and hinder them in creating change through design it draws on (sustainable) design, innovation and business literature. The thesis further reports on a multiple case study covering three cases. The cases are informed by literature and document studies as well as interviews with representatives from original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and other actor groups considered relevant to the development of household practices and to commercial design activity. Each case is centred on an ordinary household practice, on heating management, dishwashing and audiovisual media use, and is explored from the two above mentioned perspectives. First, potential intervention points for design are identified, by exploring the characteristics and development, the changeability and environmental impacts of the practice. Secondly, and against that background, a specific product and the story behind it are studied. What enables and constrains designers and firms in making change through design activity is explored, as is their willingness and ability to address practice-level environmental impacts and make use of the theoretical space for action. The similarities and differences within the set of cases are explored in a cross-case analysis. In response to the first research question, which asks how the design of products, services and systems may contribute to making everyday household consumption more sustainable, the thesis argues that the social practice may be an appropriate unit of analysis for theoretically capturing the dynamics of consumption, and, that it forms a relevant starting point for those interested in supporting change through design. Further, through explorations of the three practices, their current characteristics and how they have developed over time, possible intervention points for design are identified, along with issues creating inertia and resistance against change, and possible windows of opportunity. Against that background, the thesis suggests that turning an unsustainable development might be more difficult in some respects and for some practices than for others, and that some (design) strategies may be more likely than others to succeed in supporting a less resource-intensive development. The second research question asks what the prospects and possible preconditions are for design and development activity in industry to facilitate more sustainable household consumption, given the dynamics of production and consumption. In the three design projects studied, the firms make limited use of the theoretical space for action, and largely limit what they create to regime-compliant interventions, catering to efficiency goals, relative to service expectations. Between the three cases however, differences can be seen in the incentives that designers and firms experience, their capabilities for creating change and their momentum for doing so, as well as in how change comes about and in what direction it is geared. Still, in conclusion, the room for designers and others to create change through design activity in the direction of providing support for practices to develop in more sustainable directions is seemingly limited. This is for example a question about how issues of sustainability and interaction are not formally integrated, and how sustainability issues commonly are framed as technical and diffusion-related challenges, and the interface and interaction between humans and technology as about product identity, usability, and catering to identified ‘needs’. This is not the least a question about the current lack of attention to the relation between resource consumption and the practical value of products, services and systems in reigning regimes. To make designers and OEMs stretch, actors such as policy-makers and independent third-parties could in the instruments they deploy explicitly target the role of the interfaces and interaction between humans and technology in creating variation in the environmental impact of consumption.