‘Sustainability Trends’ is a tutorial where design students develop an empirical research looking at the incorporation of sustainable principles across different contexts of everyday life. The tutorial is part of Design Ecologies, a course offered by RMIT’s Bachelor of Industrial Design that explores ‘various theories and practices of design for sustainability’ by ‘critically questioning tacit and presumed notions of use, utility, production and consumption’. Following this premise, in this tutorial students develop a critical approach to sustainability by identifying ‘sustainability trends’ – change processes by which principles related to the notion of sustainability are integrated into mainstream culture. As part of this process, students analyse how sustainability is theoretically conceived and how it is experienced in everyday life through products, services, experiences and other design initiatives. The tutorial works as a platform where students gain research skills by developing critical and reflexive thinking, implementing deductive and inductive analysis and learning argumentative abilities.
In 2015, ‘Sustainability Trends’ was based on ‘Designing Re-connectedness’, a framework for teaching sustainability that resulted from RMIT’s Learning and Teaching for Sustainability Fellowship, ‘Designing Future Designers’, led by Yoko Akama (Akama et al. 2015). This framework proposes to develop and implement a holistic approach to sustainability in design education. It aims to expand dominant approaches based on the ‘Three Bottom Line’ of the environment, society and the economy, by adding three more spheres related to political, technological and spiritual sustainability. The implementation of ‘Designing Re-connectedness’ in ‘Sustainability Trends’ involved the translation of this framework into a series of strategies for teaching and learning. This translation involved the operationalization of theories and methodologies in which the framework is based on, into a series of series of teaching resources and learning activities by which the students apprehended and experienced the concepts and methods proposed by the framework.
As part of this operationalization, the tutorial proposed to understand sustainability not as a form of development – as it is usually understood from the perspective of the Three Bottom Line – but as a concept – as a way of using the language to explain the world we live in, and to make sense of the things that surround us. Seen from this perspective and taking into account the six spheres of sustainability proposed in ‘Designing Re-connectedness’ framework, we developed an understanding of sustainability as a concept that defines an ideal state of ‘connection’ between entangled elements that constitute our world: the environment, society, the economy, technology, spirituality and politics. Since Sustainability Trends aims to investigate social change process related to the incorporation of sustainable principles in everyday life, a starting point for this tutorial was to assume that we are currently living in a state of un-sustainability in which these constitutive spheres are disconnected. From there, we decided that the objective of the research conducted during the semester was to explore specific ways in which design (in a broad sense of the term) is being utilised as a tool for reconnecting the spheres in different contexts of everyday life. The results of this research will be the identification of trends driving this process.
The research strategy for achieving this objective involved four stages: conceptualization; data collection; analysis and interpretation; and report of findings. The stage of conceptualization was focused on constructing an operational definition of each of the six spheres of sustainability that will be investigated: environmental, social, economic, technological, spiritual and political sustainability. During five weeks students collected information about manifestation of these six spheres in different contexts of everyday life. All the group looked up for these manifestations in primary sources (i.e. newspapers, magazines, social media, advertisements, television) and registered them in the form of ‘tweets’ making use of a general format. At the end of this process the group elaborated 480 tweets showing the incorporation of sustainable principles in everyday life.
The analysis and interpretation of data collected took three weeks and was done through three workshops. As part of this process students learnt how to develop and support hypothesis using methods for inductive reasoning, and applied these skills to identify patterns in the data collected and to conceptualize these patterns as sustainability trends (as change processes revolving around sustainability). In the last part of the course, each student develop a report presenting a trend and explaining its manifestations across the six spheres of sustainability.