Why designers are on the front lines of climate change

Why designers are on the front lines of climate change

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Now more than ever, society is accepting that climate change is upon us. From President Obama to GE's Jeff Immelt, leaders are confronting the reality we face: The global population will hit 9 billion by 2050, and we need our resources to scale and stay within our finite and dwindling carbon budget.

With scientists estimating budget exhaustion by 2032 if we continue on our current path, there is only one possible solution to avoid climatic bankruptcy: Stop spending and start bringing our systems to net-zero today. We must shift from discussions and debates to a real vision for our future — a vision of a net-zero carbon world, where net-zero solutions comprise our energy systems, cities, infrastructure and product design.

While government action and leadership are essential to reaching a net-zero carbon world, we already have seen how innovation driven by design — from solar- and wind-harnessing power solutions to radically efficient buildings — can be more the carrot to regulation's stick. It shows us what is possible and inspires confidence that we can do this.

When it comes to addressing climate change, we should be as impatient about the world being made and built around us as we are about government action. Cities can set energy-performance targets such as San Francisco's goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2020. Businesses can commit to higher-performing operations, such as Microsoft's companywide carbon neutrality initiative. When city and business leaders demand climate-conscious solutions, designers hear the clear call to action.

Designers embrace constructive constraints; constraints inspire innovation in design. Acknowledging our limited resources and global social issues as constraints, designers across the world are now playing a major role in solving our world's epic challenges. This design-led revolution reimagines products, structures and systems from those that deplete to those better aligned with our population and planetary needs. When it comes to tackling climate change, designers can bring to life the net-zero carbon world we envision by designing for zero.

[Learn more about smart cities at VERGE SF 2014, Oct. 27-30.]

City and business leaders possess the power to advance the revolution. By collaborating with designers, architects and engineers, business and city leaders can have more influence than ever before on the impact of our infrastructure. Answering their call, designers can use tools that simulate carbon impact before anything is built or made. They can analyze energy performance, resulting in buildings that produce more energy than consumed. They can iterate with multiple rapid digital prototypes to develop more efficient infrastructure and involve more stakeholders.

This dynamic can be seen at The Pusat Tenaga Malaysia Zero Energy Office Building, one of the world's first carbon neutral and zero net energy commercial-scale buildings. The structure was designed to consume 85 percent less energy than conventional Malaysian office buildings through an integrated design process approach, responding to the conditions and needs of its specific site. Across the world in Fort Collins, Colo., another new standard is being set with the introduction of the Zero Energy District, or FortZED, where an entire cluster of facilities are designed to be net zero. Throughout the U.S., a growing list of 2,030 districts, representing more than 100 million square feet of commercial buildings in downtown districts, are all working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Scaling from products to buildings to cities and supply chains, designing for zero inspires a new way of thinking across many sectors. When we break down the silos among industries, we can connect and combine individual solutions to create a world where modern life doesn't have to mean planetary destruction.

Incorporating design into decision-making can help prolong our carbon budget and lead society to develop net-zero carbon systems and structures that one day will be commonplace. We need to challenge ourselves to design-for-zero together, today.

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