May 28, 2021

Revolutionising Design: How to design with ecosystems in mind

By Amy Crawford

Human-centred design concepts are “retiring”, giving way to the new concept of ‘eco-systems-centred’ design; a concept which balances the needs of all ecosystems as opposed to prioritising the needs of humans alone. With research starting to point towards being more mindful when designing solutions, we need to look into what we can do after we’ve done this research. How can we apply this knowledge to our design work in order to actually make an impact? 


Thinking beyond human archetypes

Let’s say hypothetically we are designing a solution for a company in the environmental sector trying to protect humpback whales. When working towards an effective solution, can we omit the key beings being impacted? No, which is why our research would need to take into consideration not only human and whale behaviour, but also the other ecosystems impacted. 

To start considering the whales behaviour, we should first create archetypes for it.

If you’ve already read articles on Environmental-Centred Design, you’re probably already acquainted with the concept of a non-human archetype. If you haven’t, let us explain… 

Ecosystem / environmental archetypes

The ecosystem/environmental archetypes are similar to the ones we do for our human personas, but they tell the story of certain aspects of the environment. 

Using anthropomorphism to create these new archetype categories could be a powerful tool to help designers better understand and empathise with non-human beings. This is currently the hot emerging topic around accommodating our frameworks to look into environmental actants. 

Though the environmental personas are great, we still felt it may not cater to every single project a designer will work on in their lifetime. Therefore, to cater for a more holistic view we should push this even further. 

With the environmental archetypes already in our checklist, what other actants can we introduce to our processes to use as a “sustainability anchor”?

This is when we explored the idea of creating archetypes out of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Sustainable Development Goals as archetypes 

S-D-What? Ok, taking a pause here, for those of you who may be confused, The Sustainable Development Goals are a collection of The United Nations’ 17 goals designed to be a global blueprint for dignity, peace, prosperity and a more sustainable future for all. You can explore the goals below:

Let’s now move on to why the SDGs are important. The SDGs are exactly that – anchors to guide us through the journey to a more interconnected world by addressing the global challenges we face, including social responsibility, poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice. 

Personifying the SDGs to shape additional archetypes will help designers to be mindful during the discovery and design phases, and will also help our stakeholders develop more empathy and thoughtfulness. This will help us to avoid and mitigate any negative impacts our work has on living and non-living environments around us.

There are some organisations who are already using this approach. Trace, a platform helping individuals and companies offset their carbon footprint, are usually associated with SDG 13- Climate Action. However, according to Trace Co-Founders Cat Long and Joanna Auburn,

The projects that we support have a much broader impact, so we decided to use the SDGs to communicate this and the response from our clients has been amazing. Climate Action is imperative, but so too are no poverty, life underwater and gender equality, to name a few!

You may ask, ‘are there any SDGs that would be applicable to digital platforms?’ The answer is yes, all of them could be applicable depending on what we are working on. We can start off with the most obvious and we should already be practising as business as usual.

Take SDG 12 for example,“Responsible Consumption and Production”. 

With ethics and impacts on wellbeing now becoming more relevant in digital environments, as designers we need to be mindful of the social responsibility we carry while creating solutions. We want to be thinking circular, end of life offboarding and mental impact. What happens with data once people don’t want to use our product anymore? Are we promoting over usage that may have emotional and financial impact on people by putting them in disposition?

What’s next?

Now that we have our human, environmental and SDG archetypes to help expand our empathy towards non-tangible (SDGs) and non-human actants (environment), where to next? Well, when creating the journey mapping, why not include the emotional journey map of our non-human and SDG archetypes as well? This would allow us to notice huge gaps and disconnects between our designs and the non-human environment or the SDG’s.

As the concepts gain more popularity we can imagine lots of designers will argue that this process is going to require too much effort and resources, questioning why we should strive for an ecosystems-centric approach and adapt all our current frameworks and methodologies. Apart from the planet not “running out of oxygen”, more people are asking the question “Is endless profit the only form of value we want companies to deliver?”

By utilising ecosystems-centric design to its full potential and integrating it into our end-to-end process we can meet the demand for sustainable and socially conscious digital environments, while also improving overall team morale and positioning.