The Missing Dimension in Design

is the recycling of all materials back into nature or the marketplace in a manner that protects human health and the environment.


The Missing Dimension in Design

A simple brief to next design step by M H Jafri 

Let us not design things, "let us ecodesign things"

Brief One; The Design By the given concept and meanings of design, and by the dictionary entry, man has performed only one act, individually and collectively, in every direction of his life on earth--- the act of design.Things like wheel, plough, weapons, painting, writing, or governing systems were designed and placed in every day life much before we knew the word design. Design is the only heritage we have through our ancestors and the only thing we will leave for posterity. The same act will continue to shape our future as it is the only vehicle of change. All men, women and children are designers according to their merit of knowledge, requirement and need. All professionals in all fields and disciplines are only doing design acts with relevant purposes to achieve as, briefly, any act that fulfills a purpose is known as design act. We live our life through things, systems and expressions that we have designed for ourselves. We, therefore, never lose contact with design in our life right from our inception. Even a person in a state of coma is dependant on design. A dead body, too, rests in design. Somerset Maugham talked about Human Bondage. We in fact have been, and will continue living with Design Bondage. The design responsibility, by virtue of its definition, goes beyond the limit of so called design institutes and also professionals known as designers. This responsibility resides with all human beings.

It also resides with the other biological beings who cater to their needs. They also perform limited acts of design through their instinctive forces for hiding, eating, fighting, hibernating, shelter making, and reproducing. They, however, are not programmed (to our present knowledge) in a fashion that could design things like wheel, chip or democracy. They do not have any crowns of progress as we have. By being limited, (perhaps contended) they have caused no problems to themselves and the environment. No trade, no industry no economics, no currency, no super power, no wars, no first world and no third world; no poisoning of Socrates, no punishment to Galileo, no Nazi Camps, no racial or religious hatred and... so on. This seems to be an enviable achievement compared to our history of human conditions and systems of life on the globe.

It remains our pride, the pride of the supreme biological being, to have been able to design and redesign our living patterns and our own environment with a constant hunt for more and more innovative comfort, ways of life and something called advancement. From living on tree and in caves we have reached the vast expanse of space. It proves an amazing interaction of human thought with things, himself and laws of nature. To reach this point, man has invested untiring and incredible research with unparalleled use of his intellect. Many more surprises with more promises of advancements lie in wait after Dolly the sheep. The magic of change is great and often mesmerizing. We all for it; the same way as we have been for other things in history that promised a magical change in every day life. We may again, in the great flux of change, ignore a few voices that invite concern and doubts to man’s future through inventions, for we are ‘all sold’ on inventions. Spanguler’s fears of future Europe, Wordsworth’s London Bridge, and T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land have not been able to shake us out of our intoxication for ‘progress’ that has yet to be defined.

Brief two; The Assets.

Our total design assets are things, systems and expressions. They provide a measure of progress, and growth. That is how we determine the first and the third worlds. The second world is still unknown. Perhaps Dolly the sheep is the first genuine citizen of the second world. Our assets including Dolly, dictate and condition our life and thought. They impose, manipulate and generate our values, complexes, pleasures miseries aspirations or crimes in daily life, both, individual and collective. We pin our future on what we designed. The focus of youngsters has now shifted towards management, finances and IT. It was altogether different just 50 years before. What ever we have today through our tremendous genius, feed on two domains of nature, physics and chemistry. To put it again, all manifestations of research and discoveries in form of material things, mirco, macro or mega, utilize either laws of physics or chemistry, mostly both, to give form and function to inventions. Systems like democracy, law, economics and art are dependant on these very domains of nature. Cloning is no doubt an amazing achievement. It is not, however, as vastly beneficial to mankind as cyber space from physics and miraculous psychiatric medicines or aroma therapy from chemistry.

What ever we own i.e., things systems and expressions, constitute the present context of our life on earth. This is generally termed as human environment. One can ask what is human about it. The human environment seems to have vanished with the barter system long ago. Then, we had a much closer-knit, interdependent, and mutually respectful environment. We were far less progressed by our definitions of the word progress then. It did not, however, produce any Marcos, Cronje or the likes. No bank existed to deposit 100 billion sheep or a billion tones of wheat. There were no national or international bodies and individuals to control the whole fortune of millions of people by currency. Currency was inevitable in the course of history that we had. It however, snatched pleasures of that peaceful labour man enjoyed in making and doing things. As some one rightly said that a craft man would cry if his item was burnt after being paid for but a car manufacturer will burst into laughter at the same act. Hiroshima remains an icon of war disaster. The potentials of currency disaster is evident by 800 million people going hungry every day coupled with related crimes and robberies around the world. We can be proud of doing away with anarchist rule (perhaps). In fact the anarchist has changed from a person to a little paper; currency. It is currency based economy that holds back all policies to stop millions of murders by tobacco industry. This is neither being nostalgic nor it is rejecting. It is only to mention the other potentials in one single system designed by man.

Whether we call it human environment or the present context of life, it is giving us a loud warning; ‘take care of things that you designed or they take you and the earth with them.’

The warning has upset us all. As a response we have attacked all streams of waste in our life without questioning the presence of waste. There is a global urgency attached to recycling, managing and disposing the waste which in fact is possible to a minor extent only as compared to the size, weight and volume of waste faced by us today. Six billion people are bonded by a system to add waste every minute; 4 to 5 pounds per person per day; municipal waste only, that holds witness to our culture of disposables (including humans). There are groups, organizations, university programmes and research centers that are constantly trying to fight the threat of environment. Only few can be mentioned here.

  • The Green Peace movement.
  • United Nations Conference on Human Environment at Stockholm in 1972.
  • Agenda 21 in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 proclaiming 27 principles for sustainability which has a follow up in 186 places in the world including my country Pakistan.
  • Zero Waste America, a citizen group that promotes 'disposal bans' and the recycling of all materials back into nature or the marketplace in a manner that protects human health and the environment.
  • The Natural Step (TNS) from Sweden that is focusing on sustainability and leaves a vital question yet to be answered; ‘When the TNS Framework is applied, the present-day situation is viewed from a future sustainability perspective. Thereafter the question is asked: "What is strategically advisable to do today?". TNS is in action in about 8 countries in the world,

Bioremediation and genetically engineered microbes for more appetite for waste consumption have become a responsibility, challenge and business. Disposal alone is taking a huge amount of time, energy and budget. In 1999 alone, 39 billion Dollars were spent in US for the disposal of only Municipal waste. Laws are being framed and disputed to regulate waste. For example, US waste regulating authority does not include hazardous waste below 100 kg per month produced by a business. It also does not include toxic chemicals released into air or water as hazardous waste. Both the areas produced 279 million tones and two billion pounds of toxic release in 1995 respectively. Recycling has added one more industry with usual greed of profit along with a new technology to be loaned to third world countries. Economic structures in countries have to reflect concerns to environment by allocating substantial budgets. Ms. Mary Steinwachs, Director Waste Management Office at the University of Missouri USA, commented in October last; "Unfortunately, the current way of calculating economic growth shows expenditures on these types of activities as positive economic influences! The more sick people, the more spent on medical, the better the economy!" She was talking of dangerous Red Bag waste where the disposal workers face a high risk.

International Design Councils and Associations are raising awareness and re- thinking their responsibilities about environment. In 1996 the Recycling Show was held in London to promote re use of waste materials for a sustainable future. In 1997 the Humane Village Congress was there in Canada. It focused on redesigning of technology, process of design with a chart for designers, and a mention of a natural phenomenon of the falling of the maple leaf referring to a harmonial co-existence. The speakers included; Marilyn Waring, the economist; Bill Buxton, technology pioneer; Michael Lerner, philosopher; Maurice Strong, environmentalist; and others.. Our awareness to environment around the world establishes the fact that we do worry about sustainability. Sustainability, an urgent necessity, is will not be attained by handling, recycling waste; or by making governments sign the declarations preaching protection to forests. The waste streams, multiplied with population growth, are much faster and stronger than our total efforts. How much of it can we handle? What will be end result? The enemy to sustainability and environment is non other than waste. Why not question its existence?

Brief three; What is a waste?

It is an attitude, a blind spot in the history of human wisdom. It is a situation where we stopped thinking what to do with a left-over or a discard in our process of designing things. This is what which must have forced us to invent the word waste in all languages. This attitude is also responsible for how we feel and treat things that we do not like. Perhaps our scientific and industrial wisdom was not grown enough to perceive what Keats said ‘nothing is useless or low’. Had we received what he meant, we could have by now amended our attitude and may not have faced a waste generated environment. The words came in very early 19th century when the science and industry were still fledgling. We thought he was talking of what we called useless or waste. It actually needed an extension of immediate vision. All biological discards and residues are palatable, mouth watering and nourishing food to many other organisms. The breathing of biological beings exude carbon dioxide which is life giving to plants and trees which convert them into oxygen. All animal waste turns out to be the best nutrient for plants and agriculture. Botanical discards also get absorbed into the new plants. Rains are but a discard of the seas into air. Fossil fuels are acceptance of predators by the earth. Dead bodies are decomposed naturally and consumed and received by various systems; insects, soil, birds, animals and air. Had it not been the case, we would still be suffocating with scattered bodies of the predators, the animals we killed to eat or humans we killed in war. We failed to see that we ate our own residues through meat and vegetables. The general phrase ‘bull shit’ proves to be a wrong way to say that some thing is useless. We did not see the finest laboratory, the ‘stomach’ in biological world, and the roots and leaves in botanical world. A mango tree would never give oranges although planted side by side with an orange tree or a sunflower plant would never give roses by the same closeness in planting.

Perhaps such observations, inquiries and comparisons remained out of our design thought and processes because philosophy also did not inquire into ‘waste’ not even in the times when it was concentrating on the relationship of man with nature. We did question the falling of apple to the ground, which played a vital role in reaching to Mars. We forgot to ask where do the leave go after autumn, or where do the blood cells go after their short life in our blood stream.

Nature in its entirety, is a zero waste system. It is us who preached and dictated policies about what is waste and what is dirt. Just one example may serve here to illustrate the blunder we made with our attitude towards the ecosystem. Out of our passion for clean urban living we designed our sanitation system and directed all pipes from our bath rooms to rivers and seas, or out of the bounds of city and towns. For centuries it is continuing to gutter away the most precious vitamins our land needs. We now spend much more energy and budget with assisting technology in few countries for the chemical treatment plants of sanitary outpouring. We felt very smart and prosperous to invent Biofuel and Biogas and thought it is a good recycling of so called biological waste. This recycling forced us to design more industries for starving lands. Fertilizers and insecticides with associated industries for packaging and spraying made us happy and gave us ‘mad cows’. Thanks to Jan Drangart of Sweden who’s study shows the amazing value of residues from our body that can revitalize the agricultural soil. I would not call it a human waste. It is a human give away to other systems on earth. Just like we receive give-aways from other natural systems. This is an unmatched sharing of life. This also is the ultimate and absolute example of recycling and economy of means that never produces waste. The order of the universe and nature does not exist without recycling. This is the only secret to sustainability. This is the missing phenomenon that is crucial and central to all waste generating systems that we have. It may ask to re-asses our present recycling fever in many areas like the one in sugar industry. The residues of sugar production are converted in ethanol fuel in search of reducing air pollution by vehicles. Brazil, at the top of the list, produces 12000 million liters per year and is proud to runs 50% of its vehicles with it. Is it the right use and the right place to send the residue from this industry? Could there be another system starving for it? Many other discards like smoke and dangerous toxic chemicals waste will have to be re-examined seriously, honestly and collectively. This is a disastrously missed dimension in all our design acts.

Is it impossible to aim for a recycling design system taught by the ecosystem in nature? It may sound so at first. But the possibilities of human mind and intellect are definitely not limited. We have only used 10% of it so far. In times to come, atom, chips and the genes may appear as the a b c of our knowledge. If, if and if we want a sustainability, the new millennium must not see a repeat of any irresponsible design acts. To err is human, yes; but to repeat it is not human at all. There is no forgiveness expected in this context or the environment would not be crashing on us and the earth. It may demand doing away with many things and systems with remodeling of the others. Being addicted to the going systems of life does not hold much ground as being addicted to drugs does not prove the drugs as nourishing intake by any philosophy.

We will have to foresee all eventualities of our material and non-material systems before forcing them in life. If we don’t, it will be cruel, suicidal and criminal. Be it microchip, genetic engineering, democracy, legislation, web banking, e-commerce, e-trade, or life in space. It is the first and the most vital stage of any design vision that the end user of a product is more important than all energies and investments put together. The end user in this context, unfortunately, is not only humans who do not hold a better position than a slave consumer in industrial culture. Humans alone can not survive without an undisturbed ecosystem of earth. The present avalanche of recycling or the slogans like Go Green, Save Forests, Save Resources or Save animals and Marine Life will not cure the ailing environment and will not tame its wrath on us.

Brief four; The ‘Ecodesign’

The first way out may be to re-evaluate word ‘design’ as words/terms carry a human responsibility attached to them. This is how we understand words like truth, justice or crime. The word design does not invite any other responsibility except planning things to please human aspirations. ‘Ecodesign’ will attach a responsibility for all human beings to see that the lessons from ecosystem of nature have to be placed first in the order of every process of change initiated by man. Ecodesigners, as we all will become instead of mere designers, will be bound by its definition to foresee the immediate as well as the future eventualities of the change that is envisaged for human condition. Such a vision may have been difficult a millennium before. We do not need Nostradamus to vaguely say what future holds for us. Today calculated predictions travel faster than the event to a degree of exactness. Almost four decades ago we knew the birth date of the sixth billionth child. Scientists had very closely illustrated and shown the advantages (and disadvantages) of going into space. They had even drawn up cityscapes and ways of life in space with real estate purchases. Manufacturers of commodities can project and predict their sales and profits many decades in advance and plan accordingly. Ask IBM, Toyota, or Bill Gates. Their set backs (if any) have always resulted from calculations they missed. Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock published in 1970 proves that he had seen it much before the book was published. Human beings are the only creatures who have a superb capacity of forethought. Global politics stand a witness to that. Change in our life is inevitable, agreed. It is not uncontrolled by man as history proves. All changes, except those in solar and cosmic systems, were originated and will originate from man.

Ecodesign is not too foreign to us. Steam engines had a part of it in practice where steam went back to water. What is holding us to further explore the technology and run our vehicles with it? We have three fourth of water compared to land on our planet. There must be hidden reasons to this proportion. The sun, in enormous proportion to earth, may have more solutions to our many needs. The present solar energy technology will have to be detached from politics and researched and rediscovered in a form that can be as abundant as the sun light and air. The Nano Technology is already in hand that works with molecular conversion. ( I do not have details of its other benefits). Is it asking too much from the planners of our daily life looking at environmental threat to survival of all biological and botanical worlds including us and the globe?

The education in ecodesign can also not be left only to what industry needs. It should now be what our survival on earth needs. The Bauhaus has played its role and given us what we face today. Let it now be the role of our house; nature. The battle of art and industry that gave birth to Bauhaus philosophy of design is no more important in the present context. The battle now revolves around matters like our breathing, our water and food, our animals, diseases and the ozone. The training of all ecodesigners has to be framed in the newer context. A huge task, that needs many think tanks together, but not impossible once we decide our term of reference; the ecodesign. This is demanded by our common goal, sustainability.

"Protecting the environment is a duty we hold in perpetuity. Each generation adds to the foundation, but finality is an illusion, almost like parallel lines meeting at the horizon; it doesn't happen. But still we need to look to the horizon and beyond, because that is where the solutions to our new challenges lie. As our reach should exceed our grasp, so must our vision extend beyond plain view."

---Remarks of Administrator Carol M. Browner at the National Press Club, Oct. 3, 2000

( Zero Waste America)

"-----Thereafter the question is asked: "What is strategically advisable to do today?". (TNS)

Brief five; The other waste

The major focus so far has been around the waste produced in form of physical and chemical materials. The fact remains that waste is not only material. Non material waste is yet to be noticed, measured and dealt with. The loss of confidence in systems, governments, groups of people, individuals or institutions has been responsible for a blood shed in may parts of the world. The suicide statistics, divorce rate, abnormal youths old houses for aged humans, Ted Bundy and Jack the Ripper relate a bleeding story of systems of life that we preferred and dictated. All such matters spring out as a waste of systems that are not material. The crime generating underworlds are only discards and residues of a system. The scary situation invites attention of global residents before it is too late.

(Note; "The Missing Dimension in Design" was presented by M H Jafri at the International Seminar on Art, Design, and Architecture Education in the New Millennium in connection with 125 years celebrations of National College of Arts, Lahore from 9th to 11th November 2000.)

M H Jafri is associate professor of design and heading the Department of Design at National College of Arts Lahore, Pakistan. He has been teaching the subject since 1976 and practicing design since 1963.

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