Product, Service & Design Innovation
A Designer Fix to Our Current State of 'Broken'

From alternative materials to circular production methods, sustainable design continues on a viable path forward; it is an approach that I hope other manufacturers embrace as the ultimate design challenge.

As we move from climate change to climate crisis, it's increasingly important for all industries to identify the solutions they can bring to our current state of ‘broken nature.’ When designers and manufacturers innovate with this aim in mind, numerous possibilities unfold — such as chairs and stools made from mushrooms, recovered waste and even fishing nets collected from the ocean.

Over the last six months, thousands of people have discovered how design can be leveraged to repair the humanitarian and environmental crisis facing our world today at the XXII International Exhibition of La Triennale di Milano. Curated by MoMA’s Paola Antonelli, the exhibition — titled “Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival” — features works from over 25 countries. The USA Pavilion was conceived and developed by a group of passionate environmental advocates including Humanscale, Arup, MIT’s SHINE program, Novità Communications, NextWave Plastics, the Green Building Alliance and Stickbulb. Open through September 1, 2019, the pavilion, titled RECKONstruct, spotlights the materials revolution underway in the US, and documents how the design studio of Humanscale — a leading workplace furnishings manufacturer — reimagined a simple stool through three different approaches to sustainability.

As Chief Sustainability Officer at Humanscale, I challenged our team of designers to think critically about how we can utilize sustainability as the source of innovation for this project. In response, the team developed three unique stools using naturally grown materials (bio-fabrication), harvesting unused waste (circular economy) and mimicking nature’s engineering solutions (biomimicry).

To measure the sustainability of each of the three designs, we partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s SHINE program, a research center dedicated to improving the scientific basis by which Net Positive — or the movement to do more good than harm — is assessed across products, activities, companies, economic sectors, individuals and groups (SHINE stands for the Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise).

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Using a comprehensive Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) — which confirms and quantifies the land, climate, water and energy impacts for the entire design & production process; from materials sourcing to transportation to manufacturing to actual use — SHINE evaluated all three stool designs. Ultimately, each stool was measured for its environmental “footprint” and “handprint,” or how it can have a positive environmental impact.

The first stool is inspired by the Venus’ Flower Basket, a deep sea sponge. The design team worked closely with Lindsay James, professor in the Biomimicry Centre at Arizona State University. Thanks to 3D printing, they produced a light, comfortable stool that utilizes 24 percent less water, 99 percent less GHG emissions and 4.3 kg less waste, compared to traditional manufacturing methods. The designer, Jacob Turetsky, noted that “this stool would not have been possible without advancements in additive manufacturing. The ability to create complex shapes using only the material we need, based on lines of code we can download anywhere in the world, would be an interesting response to some of the wasteful practices we see today.”

Next, the Ciclo Stool was developed with UBQ Materials — upcycled, thermoplastic composites, or material traditionally destined for landfills — for the molded stool bottom, and felted, discarded textiles to make the seat cushion. My colleague, Sergio Silva, strategically chose UBQ material for its versatility and accessibility, two elements that make it a feasible option for future designs. The LCA determined that this stool uses 21 percent less water, 94 percent less GHG emissions, and 4.65 kg less waste.

Lastly, the Root Stool utilizes biofabrication. Paul Sukphisit worked alongside experts at Ecovative to create a stool made of mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms. Mycelium grows between hemp fibers to create composite blocks, which are arranged in the shape of the stool. The mycelium continues to grow, bonding the blocks together to create sustainable foams and more. This stool design utilizes 28 percent less water and 77 percent less GHG emissions than a traditionally manufactured stool, and is 100 percent compostable. This approach had its specific challenges that the designers creatively worked around. As Paul shared, “There is thickness and size limitation [with naturally grown materials], and it also needs to be in a controlled environment to grow effectively.”

If we integrate these new approaches into the design process from the start, the results are much more effective, and it shows that these resources have a clear place in future design. Already, it’s uplifting to think about the tangible efforts with new approaches to sustainable design that are already in motion. Thanks to cross-industry collaborative initiatives such as NextWave, companies across industries — including Dell, HP, Humanscale, Herman Miller, GM, Interface, Bureo and Trek — are working together to fight marine plastic at an industrial scale through a distribution web that repurposes plastic before it ever reaches the ocean.

From alternative materials to new methods of production that support a circular economy, sustainable design continues on a viable path forward and is an approach that I hope other manufacturers embrace as the ultimate design challenge.

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