- Advertisement -
Good InfoTransforming the world: by design - Positive News

Transforming the world: by design – Positive News

What Design Can Do champions creative solutions to climate and social challenges. Its founders reveal the inspiration behind their latest creative call: (the small matter of) radically redesigning everything

“Look at landfill sites,” says Pepijn Zurburg, co-founder of Dutch nonprofit What Design Can Do. “At one point, someone designed all that trash that’s in them. Everything that we made eventually ends up being a problem for us. Whether it’s food, clothing or other products: if we have been involved in creating this problem, then we should also, as designers, feel responsible for being part of the solution.”

What Design Can Do, an international organisation based in Amsterdam, with hubs in Delhi, Nairobi, Tokyo, São Paolo and Mexico City, began life 12 years ago, when co-founders Zurburg and Richard van der Laken decided to explore design’s impact on society. 

The pair – graphic designers who ran an agency together – began with a one-day conference, inviting experts to speak on how purpose drives design and aesthetics. “We liked to work with clients, of course,” says van der Laken. “But when you do your own initiative, you’re also the owner of the contents. As a graphic designer, you could say that you design the cover, but you never write the book.” What Design Can Do is the designers writing the book – and they’re far from finished.

Eco coffin

The Loop’s mycelium impressed the team at What Design Can Do. Image: Loop

In 2015 came the first of many challenges. Working with the Ikea Foundation and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the pair invited designers worldwide to submit design-led ideas that could ease the refugee crisis. More than 911,000 refugees arrived in Europe that year, with 3,550 losing their lives on the journey. The five winning submissions, which included a biodegradable shelter, a storytelling platform and a radio-frequency ID card, were each awarded €10,000 (£8,580) to make their ideas a reality. Since then, six more challenges have invited ideas to tackle challenges ranging from child sexual exploitation to waste. 

Entrants over the years have embraced the challenges wholeheartedly, if the ideas Zurburg describes are anything to go by. “One we liked very much is called the living coffin by a startup called Loop. It’s a coffin, made not from wood but from mycelium [a root structure that carries nutrients to a fungus]. When someone is buried, the coffin itself will disappear, and it will break down the toxic materials from the body. Something we see in many solutions is designers thinking about new materials. And with that, they often touch on other societal issues. This living coffin opens up a conversation about death, which is very often taboo, especially in the west,” says Zurburg.

This year’s challenge is the most ambitious yet: the Redesign Everything Challenge. “[The entries] range from overhauling and rethinking systems – for instance, new ideas for land use – to redesigning everyday products,” says Zurburg. “There is a new sort of circular, electric, concept car in there. But it’s also about materials, such as biodegradable or circular alternatives to plastics, leather and textiles. The range is very wide.”

If we have been involved in creating this problem, then we should also, as designers, feel responsible for being part of the solution

More than 550 ideas have been submitted, from neighbourhood initiatives to rejuvenate local food systems to solar-powered innovations that support communities in need. A selection committee has narrowed the field down to 33 nominees, who will go before an international jury, which will determine 10 winners. Those winners will be invited to Amsterdam in the first week of July to a ‘sprint week’, where they’ll take part in workshops, masterclasses and visits to circular design agencies. On 5 July the winners become a central part of the What Design Can Do Live where hundreds of creatives, activists and policymakers will meet at the Muziekgebouw in Amsterdam to share ideas. 

Redesign Everything is exactly what it says on the tin: an invitation to rethink everyday products, processes and systems for the better, with circularity at the core. 

On the subject of materials the pair have had thought-provoking conversations with people who work in waste management. “They tell us about the challenge of packaging often being made of different materials melted together, which can’t be separated. The only thing to do is incinerate it,” adds van der Laken. “But if it’s designed differently then the waste management facility can separate and reuse the materials.”

Book tickets to What Design Can Do Live
Want to learn more about creative climate action? Visit Amsterdam for a day of talks and workshops on design and climate justice at the Muziekgebouw on 5 July 2024. Explore how creativity can be a powerful tool for change — and to learn from leading voices in the movement. Use code PositiveNews for a 25% discount
Secure your seat today. #WDCD2024

As well as considering constituent parts, the co-founders offer more advice for designers who want to make circularity central to their work: bigger is not always better. “Circling back to our challenge programme, we do not focus on big brands,” says van der Laken. “There are some great examples of designers and startups who became very successful entrepreneurs with their products, not that startups always succeed of course. But look at [Swiss bag maker] Freitag, for example. It started as a niche project by two graphic designers, making bags from used truck tarpaulins. Now it’s huge.”

It’s important to first work out where your ideas can really have an impact, says Zurburg. “Don’t just help to produce stuff that will end up being burned in landfill. If you really want to focus on sustainability, think about working somewhere where your vision and skills can most make a difference,” he says. “But that’s not so much about design – that’s just life advice.”

What Design Can Do Live is in Amsterdam on 5 July 2024.This year’s festival pass includes access to main stage talks by speakers like Bobby Kolade, Afaina de Jong and Clive Russell, workshops on themes like community-building and climate storytelling and a chance to connect with hundreds of likeminded citizens, creatives and activists. Get tickets here

Main image: Carol Sachs


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Subscribe Today





Get unlimited access to our EXCLUSIVE Content and our archive of subscriber stories.

Exclusive content

Latest article

More article

- Advertisement -