Redefining the Approach, Widening the Lens
The Natural Step (San Francisco, California) and Stanford University
Over the past few years, a growing number of ecological and sustainable programs, protocols, formats, and design tools have emerged. This rapid proliferation is confusing to many newcomers to the sustainable design field who want to understand which tools to use and when. Choosing from among the number of tools is daunting. Each has its own focus, attributes, and challenges. It is often difficult to discover whether the process or tool has been applied before and with what degree of success.
How is a designer to sort through and select what tools and approaches are most appropriate for designing more sustainably?
In response to this need, the Natural Step has developed a new methodology that begins to clarify how various tools and approaches can be used at different points in time and in distinct projects. The approach is based on the Natural Step Framework, a science-based and peerreviewed method that enables integrations of sustainability factors into decision-making processes. (See Appendix A.) The framework defines what sustainability means and helps organizations apply the concepts to their decision-making processes. In addition, the approach can be applied to assess the sustainability implications of today’s products and processes as well as to determine the measures that must be undertaken to make them more sustainable.
For designers, the Natural Step Framework explains how to understand design in the context of a whole-systems approach to problem solving. It offers an alternative vantage point through a set of principles (Appendix B) and strategic tools that are based upon an understanding of the functioning of ecological and social systems. The Framework is applied within a process called “backcasting,” during which a sustainable future outcome is envisioned (such as, a sustainable product or a sustainable business) and then using TNS’ principles for sustainability an assessment is made of the current state of play (e.g., of the product or business) and a clear path from where we are today to where we need to go emerges to work toward the vision. One can then begin to solve design problems in a manner that points forward towards sustainability.
This paper will illustrate how the Natural Step Framework and process of backcasting can be easily applied to the design process. The structure of the paper follows a standard design process.