53 Roles of design in sustainability and low-carbon transitions in cities

İdil Gaziulusoy, University of Melbourne, Australia

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the term ‘wicked problem’ was coined within the planning discipline long before it became a buzzword for qualifying sustainability problems. Indeed, the need to create change in cities, especially at the scales and timeframes required, challenges scholars and practitioners alike by demonstrating all characteristics that make a problem ‘wicked’. Wicked problems are ill-defined, have no stopping rule, no ‘correct’ solution, are contextual and therefore unique, and are highly political in nature (Rittel & Webber, 1973). It has been argued that a design approach is suitable for addressing wicked problems, which require the generation of breakthrough knowledge and innovation and necessitate democratic deliberation (Dorst, 2003; Goldschmidt, 1997; Rittel & Webber, 1973).

The distinguishing intellectual and functional characteristics and foundations of design activity has long been a topic of high interest in design discourse, particularly in the areas of design history and design theory (e.g. Archer, 1984; Cross, 2007; Krippendorff, 2006). Design, as an approach to defining, framing, and solving problems, has been distinguished from engineering and business approaches to problem solving (Gruber, de Leon, George, & Thompson, 2015). Similarly, generation, qualities and use of design knowledge have been differentiated from those of scientific knowledge (Archer, 1984; Cross, 2007; Krippendorff, 2006; Rittel & Webber, 1973). Design starts with a focus on observing humans and systems in their context and in relation to each other and frames the problem based on insights acquired during this phase; i.e. it is human-centred. Therefore definition of design problems can accommodate not only technical issues but also socio-cultural and behavioral issues stemming from the dynamic interactions between humans and systems, which together create system behavior. The solution delivery in design is not linear nor assumes the presence of a single-most optimum solution; it follows an iterative process of concept generation, prototyping and testing, concept synthesis and generation of contingent solution proposals which can be negotiated by stakeholders (Brown, 2008; Frauenberger, Good, Fitzpatrick, & Iversen, 2015). Design process thereby empowers stakeholders of a problem by enabling their agency to be enacted directly in the co-designing of a solution that will directly affect them.

Sustainability and low-carbon transitions are archetypal examples of wicked-problems, especially when considered in the context of cities. Transition interventions require consideration of current and future stakeholders, long timeframes that span beyond election cycles, business strategic outlook and in some cases the life-time of the members of currently alive human population (Gaziulusoy, Boyle, & McDowall, 2013; Holling, 2001; Jansen, 2003; Loorbach, van Bakel, Whiteman, & Rotmans, 2010). The outcome of interventions cannot be precisely foreseen, and there is not a single preferable version of the future. For this reason, alternatives need to be developed attending to different political agendas that are inherent in visions of sustainable, low-carbon futures (Scoones, Leach, & Newell, 2015).

Sustainability and low-carbon transitions in cities raise a three-fold design challenge:

  • The first challenge is conceiving new socio-technical systems – complete with their institutions, organisational models including new business and governance models, technologies including associated products and services and new social practices including norms, values and behaviour – that could support a vibrant, culturally satisfying, productive and resilient urban existence.
  • The second challenge is designing participatory and democratic processes that are sensitive to the political nature of transition processes to deliberate and negotiate characteristics of those future systems, and the innovation and policy pathways for their realisation with relevant stakeholders.
  • The third challenge is designing, developing and implementing those pre-negotiated innovations and policies that will increase environmental and social resilience in cities.

To better understand the roles played by design in responding to these challenges in a project, we made some observations in the context of a project about transitions to low-carbon and resilient futures in Australian cities: Visions and Pathways 2040 (VP2040). VP2040 is a collaborative project funded by the Australian Cooperative Research Centre for Low-carbon Living (CRC LCL). The primary methodological content of VP2040 project is a series of participatory workshops bringing together members of the existing socio-technical regimes, niche-innovators, activists, designers and researchers to co-develop visions, scenarios and policy/innovation pathways through a systematic progression over four years.

During visioning workshops professional designers enabled more effective stakeholder participation by on-the-spot concept sketches of particular features of the envisioned futures. This created a space for deliberating not only formal characteristics of the future city but also mediated discussions on desirability and plausibility of envisioned futures. The visualisations they developed communicated this diversity of perspectives and later assisted the research team in developing four distinct future scenarios, each with different emphasis on the role of technological change versus socio-cultural change in achieving low-carbon resilient city futures. Akama (2008) identified a similar role played by design as initiating and facilitating a human-centred inquiry which enables surfacing and discussion of politics, agendas and assumptions of both direct and indirect stakeholders within projects and building relationships through which deliberation can take place. This is defined as the ‘dialogic role’ of design.

Design charettes were held following visioning workshops to create visualisations depicting snapshots of desirable and plausible city futures that were radically low-carbon and resilient. This required integration of insights generated during the participatory visioning workshop and findings of exploratory research on emerging disruptive technological and social innovations that could assist with low-carbon transitions. Each designer were given system levels to focus (city, precinct, neighbourhood), particular changes to depict (technological innovations, behavioural elements, products and services) but were not briefed about output format. Although mainly a process of complex knowledge synthesis, generation of visualisations also required development of new design knowledge by the designers. They not only contemplated what might be called ‘could-be’ systems but also brought a lot of additional information into the process to be able to connect disparate types of knowledge but also system components displaying appropriate relations as a whole (Goldschmidt, 1997; Johnson, 2005).

Design becomes visible in public through the outputs it creates. Nevertheless, the role design plays in knowledge generation within society in general and generation of knowledge and strategies in the context of system innovations and transitions is numerous. Manzini (2015) argues that everyone has a natural capacity to design and can undertake design activity. He calls this activity “diffuse design” as distinct from “expert design” which is performed by professional designers. In projects aiming for systemic change, these two roles intermingle and interact in ways to enable co-designing of future visions and strategies to achieve these. The particular roles played by the intermingle of expert and diffuse design we explicitly observed in VP2040 include:

  • Role of Design in Inquiry

Participatory and human-centred inquiry
Analysis and synthesis of different knowledge forms
Systematising solving wicked problems
Attending to different politics and value sets
Dealing with complexity of socio-technical systems

  • Role of Design in Process

Iteration and prototyping
Facilitation of participatory inquiry, design and deliberation

  • Role of Design in Outputs

Visual communication of visions
Scenario prototypes


Akama, Y. (2008). Politics makes strange bedfellows: addressing the ‘messy’ power dynamics in design practice. Paper presented at the DRS2008, Design Research Society Biennial Conference, Sheffield, UK.

Archer, B.N. (1984). How designers design, Internal Paper, Department of Design Research, Royal College of Art, London 1984. Described in: K. Magee (Ed.), The Elicitation of Knowledge from Designers, Design Studies 8(2) (1987) 62–69.

Brown, T. (2008). Design Thinking. Harvard Business Review, 86(6), 84-92.

Cross, N. (2007). Designerly Ways of Knowing. Basel: Birkhäuser

Dorst, K. (2003). Exploring the Structure of Design Problems. Paper presented at the Proceedings of ICED 03, the 14th International Conference on Engineering Design, Stockholm.

Frauenberger, C., Good, J., Fitzpatrick, G., & Iversen, O. S. (2015). In pursuit of rigour and accountability in participatory design. International Journal of Human Computer Studies, 74, 93-106. doi: 10.1016/j.ijhcs.2014.09.004

Gaziulusoy, A. I., Boyle, C., & McDowall, R. (2013). System innovation for sustainability: a systemic double-flow scenario method for companies. Journal of Cleaner Production, 45(0), 104-116. doi: 10.10.16/j.jclepro.2012.05.013

Goldschmidt, G. (1997). Capturing indeterminism: representation in the design problem space. Design Studies, 18(4), 441-455. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0142-694X(97)00011-2

Gruber, M., de Leon, N., George, G., & Thompson, P. (2015). Managing by Design. Academy of Management Journal, 58(1), 1-7.

Holling, C. S. (2001). Understanding the complexity of economic, ecological, and social systems. Ecosystems, 4(5), 390-405.

Jansen, L. (2003). The challenge of sustainable development. Journal of Cleaner Production, 11(3), 231-245.

Johnson, J. (2005). Complexity science in collaborative design. CoDesign, 1(4), 223-242. doi: 10.1080/15710880500478346

Krippendorff, K. (2006). The Semantic Turn: A New Foundation for Design. Florida, United States: Taylor & Francis.

Loorbach, D., van Bakel, J., Whiteman, G., & Rotmans, J. (2010). Business strategies for transitions towards sustainable systems. Business Strategy and the Environment, 19(2), 133-146. doi: 10.1002/bse.645

Manzini, E. (2015). Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Social Innovation. Cambridge, London: MIT Press.

Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155-169.

Scoones, I., Leach, M., & Newell, P. (Eds.). (2015). The Politics of Green Transformations. New York: Routledge.







Author Biography

Idil Gaziulusoy

Dr. İdil Gaziulusoy holds a M.Sc. degree in Industrial Design (2003) and a Ph.D. in Sustainability Science and Engineering (2011). She is a transdisciplinary design researcher and a strategic consultant developing theory on the roles design and innovation play in transition processes as well as practical tools for design and innovation teams to become active agents in ongoing and unfolding transitions. Currently, she is working at Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab, Faculty of Architecture Building and Planning, University of Melbourne, as the Principal Researcher of a collaborative, multi-stakeholder project aiming to develop visions, scenarios and pathways for transitioning to low-carbon and resilient futures in Australian cities.

Contact Details: 

Twitter: @blindpsykhe

Academic profile: https://unimelb.academia.edu/AIdilGaziulusoy 

Professional profile: LinkedIn/IdilGaziulusoy 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *