The 'Living Principles' for Designing Our World

Two Steps Forward

The 'Living Principles' for Designing Our World

We've come to learn over the years that the most potent opportunities and solutions in the world of sustainable business involve design, in its broadest sense: design of products, processes, organizations, business models, systems of commerce, and more. That's a vast and noble goal, the execution of which is fraught with challenges. Not the least of those challenges is a common way to understand what sustainable design looks like.

Consider: Each of the above design opportunities are the domain of different individuals inside, and sometimes outside, of companies: industrial designers (product design), engineers (process design), human resource departments (organizational design), C-suite execs (business model design), and a company's entire value-chain (new systems of commerce). Suffice to say, these individuals and disciplines typically don't share much in the way of language, culture, operating principles, and time horizons, among other things. (That's one of the topics of our upcoming GreenBiz Innovation Forum.) Indeed, they may never even meet.

How can all of these disparate players find common cause under the banner of sustainability? What are the design principles that can accommodate all?

My friend Gaby Brink, along with a small group of collaborators, has just given us the means for doing so.

Brink, who brings a long history in communication and branding, is founder and executive creative director of the strategic creative agency Tomorrow Partners. Over the past six months or so, she collaborated with colleagues Nathalie Destandau and their team at Tomorrow to create the Living Principles community site, a Web-based portal for designers of all types that is being launched today. (Full disclosure: I am listed as one of the group's "ambassadors.")

The Living Principles were originally conceived through AIGA, the largest and oldest professional design association, on whose board Brink sits. It is intended primarily for the "creative community," but it is applicable and useful well beyond traditional designers.

At the heart of the the Living Principles is a framework that "aims to clarify the multiple, interrelated dimensions of sustainability and guide purposeful action in everyday design and business practice," according to a document Brink shared with me. It draws from "decades of collective wisdom, theory and results," weaving environmental, social, economic and cultural sustainability "into an actionable, integrated approach that can be consistently communicated to designers, business leaders, educators and the public."

As its mission states:

Drawing from decades of collective wisdom, theory and results, the Living Principles framework weaves environmental, social, economic, and cultural sustainability into an actionable, integrated approach that can be consistently communicated to designers, business leaders, educators and the public.

The framework draws from a broad spectrum of sustainability manifestos, visions, frameworks, and tools — more than 30, including The Natural Step, life-cycle analysis, Cradle to Cradle, the precautionary principle, the World Economic Forum, LEED, and biomimicry. The result is a four-legged stool of sustainability "streams." Yes, that's four legs, one appendage more than the three-legged, triple-bottom-line version common to sustainability frameworks, which typically consider economics, environment, and social impacts. The Living Principles adds a fourth: culture — "actions and issues that affect how communities manifest identity, preserve and cultivate traditions, and develop belief systems and commonly accepted values."

"Design professions are going through a paradigm shift towards more human-centered design and sustainable development," Brink told me recently. "When looking at the broad creative community, we recognized that designers need a roadmap for assuming these new roles. The Living Principles aim to clarify the multiple and interrelated dimensions of sustainability and make them actionable in everyday practice, considering both the intended and unintended consequences design decisions have on the environment, on society, the economy and on culture."

To help make that happen, the new website includes articles, blogs, and a vast assortment of tools: the context for sustainable design, a glossary, books, films, websites, and educational resources. Whether or not you are directly involved with design, I encourage you to explore its many offerings.

I asked Brink about that fourth stream — culture — and why it was included. "At its core, sustainability is about people," she said. "It's about human rights, human behavior, most importantly, about human aspirations. What will happen if the billion people coming into the middle class in emerging economies adopt our western lifestyle of excess? We need to redefine the very definition of prosperity for them so they can improve their livelihoods and enjoy themselves on this planet without putting more pressure on already stressed resources. And we need to look to cultures that don't define success by growth to realign our own aspirations."

She concluded: "Design is a powerful agent in shaping culture everywhere. It enables impact at the largest scale, which is what we need."

I'm pretty certain that the Living Principles can help.

Joel Makower is Executive Editor of