Aug 13 2019

Design for the Climate Crisis: A 4-Step Framework

By Raz Godelnik

Let’s face it. We have a design problem when it comes to addressing the climate crisis. We have good ideas (Project Drawdown), but we fail quite miserably when it comes to actually implement them. It is time to consider a different design approach that is implementation-oriented and is serious about context and urgency. Presenting DEFT: A new design framework for the climate crisis.

On Monday, July 29th we “celebrated” Earth Overshoot Day (EOD), which “marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources (fish and forests, for instance) and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year.” This basically suggests that we currently need 1.75 Earths to sustain our way of living. The problem of course is that we have only one.

On the same day Greta Thunberg announced on Twitter that she will be “joining the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, COP25 in Santiago and other events along the way.” Greta, who don’t fly because of the environmental impacts of flights, wrote she has been offered “a ride on the 60ft racing boat Malizia II” to sail from the UK to NYC.

While one may find these two stories to be only loosely connected, I see a strong connection between them as they both represent our failure so far to design effective weapons to fight the climate crisis.

When it comes to EOD, its progression in the last couple of decades (In 1999 for example, it was September 29th. In 2009 it was August 18th) suggests we have been failing to reduce our ecological debt and are only making things worst every year. In the case of Greta, she found a great a zero-carbon mode of transportation, but one that is not available for 99% of the population. The best we can offer the average person right now is carbon offsets, which have little to no value (and some would argue even negative value).

So, yes, Houston we have a problem.

More specifically, I believe we have a design problem. Using Herbert Simon’s definition that “everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones”, it seems pretty clear that we have hard time designing our way into preferred situations when it comes to climate change. This failure is not uncommon, but when in the case of the climate crisis it can be critical — after all, we’re talking here about the “greatest challenge humans have ever face”.

I don’t think we have a problem on the ideas level. As Greta Thunberg pointed out in one of her speeches: “…the climate crisis has already been solved. We already have all the facts and solutions.” The best example is Project Drawdown, which has researched and ranked the 100 most effective solutions to reverse climate change. And yet, even with all the information at hand we have a difficulty time implementing these solutions.

We tend to look at obstacles like systemic obstacles or powerful forces, which make the efforts to change course extremely difficult, but maybe it’s time to look at the mirror and ask ourselves if the problem is also with our ability to effectively realize ideas to fight climate crisis.

In a paper I’m working on these days I try to offer a different design approach that hopefully can offer an effective pathway for designers to address the climate crisis. It is implementation-oriented and is also focused on the specific context of the climate crisis (“the age of Greta” as I call it). In this article I’m going to present a framework representing this approach.

Before we dive into the framework I want to share a couple of brief explanations on the thinking behind the framework:

Who is it for? As I mentioned this is a framework for designers, but in a broad sense of the word (consider Herbert Simon’s definition above), so it’s definitely not only for those who have the word “designer” in their title or job description. I see it as a framework that can be used by anyone looking to create solutions for the climate crisis, including policymakers, activists and corporate executives.

The age of Greta — A word on the context. This framework first and foremost takes into consideration the need to adjust our toolkit to a looming crisis that we need to address urgently. To do so it also takes a page from Greta Thunberg, whose unapologetic, candid and blunt approach made her into a leader of a movement of young people, who are fed up with the bullshit around climate (in)action and tell us loud and clear — “the emperor wears no clothes”. So we need to think not just how we design solutions for Generation Greta, but also how to embed their spirit and courage in the design process.

Why DEFT? — Finally, I want to mention that the framework I present below is inspired by a framework developed by Scott Anthony. In his book “The First Mile” Anthony offers the idea that “businesses are most fragile in the first mile, when they move from plan to reality” and suggests that much of this fragility is due to the difficulty in implementation, not to the quality of the ideas that are implemented. To help companies improve their chances of success Anthony introduces the DEFT (Document, Evaluate, Focus, and Test) framework, which is a more systemic approach to addressing the difficulties in the first mile.

Similarly, the framework presented below, which shares the same acronym (DEFT), is focused on implementation, offering what can be a compass for designers navigating their way through the unknown. This focus is grounded in the understanding the importance of context and systems thinking, as well as the complexity and indeed the fragility of realizing new and challenging ideas. Last but not least, this framework does not aim to replace other design processes, such as the design thinking process, but to complement them.

OK. I think we’re ready! So, here are the four steps of DEFT: Design framework for the climate crisis:

1. Define the Journey

The first step emphasizes two important elements: 1) Systems thinking, and 2) Backcasting.

Let’s start with systems thinking. Designers are no strangers to systems thinking, and the relationships between design and systems have been explored by many scholars, such as Richard Buchanan, who made the following observation:

“Systems thinking begins with a concept of systems and ends with the need for design action. Design thinking begins with creative inquiry in action and ends with the creation of systems of diverse scales, ranging from communications and artifacts to activities and organizations.”

Still, it is not an easy task to use systems lens, no matter how aware you are to the need to do so. That’s where the iceberg model can be helpful, showing the connections between what we see above the surface (“events”) and what is beneath the surface, which is far more important to our understanding of the problem/s we try to fix. “Rather than reacting to individual problems that arise, a systems thinker will ask about relationships to other activities within the system, look for patterns over time, and seek root causes,” The Northwest Earth Institute explains.

So rather than stay in the event level or even go a little bit deeper to the patterns or underlying structures levels, we need to make sure we are going all the way down to the deepest level, where we focus on mental models — “the attitudes, beliefs, morals, expectations, and values that allow structures to continue functioning as they are.”

This is the level designers need to work on no matter what climate challenge they work on. If we try to ignore it, maybe being afraid that this is just too difficult, we are basically shooting ourselves in the foot. As Prof. Karen O’Brien, who sees mindset change as key to achieving a system change, writes: “Activating conscious human agency that is critically reflective of individual and shared assumptions, beliefs and paradigms is a powerful way to shift norms and institutions in ways that support the roadmaps and pathways consistent with the Paris Agreement.”

OK, so first we focus on mental models. What’s next? Identifying a desired or ideal future in terms of mental model and backcasting from it, i.e. you start with the outcome in mind and work your way backwards to the present. John Robinson who coined the term backcasting explained it as follows:

“The major distinguishing characteristic of backcasting analysis is a concern, not with what futures are likely to happen, but with how desirable futures can be obtained. It is thus explicitly normative, involving working backwards from a particular desirable future end-point to the present in order to determine the physical feasibility of that future and what policy measures would be required to reach that point.”

Taking a page from the Natural Step’s framework for strategic sustainable development with adjustments to the time constraints and the need to make drastic changes until 2030, it is suggested to start the backcasting in 2030 and do it with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in mind as the vision of future success in 2030. In other words, your starting point is a vision of a world of 2030 where the SDGs have been achieved.

With these “future desired conditions” in mind you need to consider the desired mental model, i.e. what values, beliefs, norms and assumptions shape the system or industry in which your solution will live? Then you start going backwards from the 2030 desired mental model you’ve articulated all the way to the present mental model, which you should articulate as well, identifying the necessary steps to connect 2030 to the present.

The question you should end up asking yourself is: What do I need to do today to achieve the vision (SDGs + desired mental model) for 2030? This process should hopefully give you not only a permission to ignore the (mental) limitations of the status quo, but also the ability to do what Peter Stephan calls ‘leading from the future’.

2. Evaluate Your Solution

After you defined your journey it is time to do an honest evaluation of the solution you’re designing. It’s time for you to ask some difficult questions about your solution to figure out if it indeed can help solve the climate crisis. In other words, it’s time to take the red pill!

Choosing the right questions for the evaluation stage is critical. As mentioned in one of my earlier articlesJohn Arnold, who taught a course at Stanford in the early ’60s called ‘How to Ask a Question’ once said: “Each of man’s advances was started by a question…Knowing what questions to ask and how to ask them is sometimes more important than the eventual answers”.

So what questions should designers ask to evaluate their solutions? In my opinion the questions should reflect three elements that need to be integrated in every solution: Affordability, delightfulness and meaningfulness. From my point of view these elements represent three design principles that are key for designing effective solutions: radical thinking (affordability), practicality (delightfulness) and urgency (meaningfulness). I won’t elaborate here on these principles (I do so in my paper), but I do want to offer some thoughts about each question and the logic behind it.

Is it affordable? It’s time to make it clear: If it’s not affordable, it’s not sustainable. If it’s not affordable, it cannot be considered as a solution for the climate crisis. If it’s not affordable, it’s just not good enough. It’s time for us to realize that the climate crisis is not just environmental crisis, but “an economic, environmental, and social justice issue”.

In addition it should be clear that designers cannot ignore the most vulnerable communities, i.e. “indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth” which are affected disproportionately by the climate crisis as explained in the Green New Deal.

What does affordable actually mean? While designers should make their own final judgment, the idea is that when you design solutions for transportation, housing, energy, food, etc. you need to ask yourself if people can actually afford it. Your goal should be to make your solution available for everyone, with a minimum level of two thirds of the people you address.

I know it may sound crazy, but so is the fact that “one in ten people in developing regions are still living with their families on less than the international poverty line of US$1.90 a day, and there are millions more who make little more than this daily amount.” If we want to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” by 2030 for example we need to take a very different, not to say radical design approach.

Does it mean affordable right now? This can be tricky — after all, it took solar and wind years to reach price and performance parity — sometimes it’s a matter of technology advancement, economies of scale, network effects, or just the time it takes for these changes to happen. So while I’m not naïve and accept the fact that it’s difficult to offer affordability from day one, it is important to have it as a goal for 2030. In other words, if the journey defined in the first stage does not seek affordability as defined here by 2030 then you need to go back to the whiteboard.

Who seems to do it well? I believe Impossible Foods’ plant-based burgers is going in the right direction (did you try the Impossible Whooper?). Who seems to do it poorly? Tesla cars. Sorry, Elon, but even a $25,000 Tesla is not affordable enough.

Is it delightful? If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the numerous efforts over the years of companies, organizations and governments to offer sustainable solutions, it is that no matter how sustainable these solutions are — if they’re not delightful, they fail. This really goes to the need to disrupt and delight — BBMG’s idea that in order to disrupt the unsustainable status quo we need innovation that is based on delightful experiences.

This is the part requiring designers to take a good look around them — in 2019, when almost every experience we have is designed to be more convenient, easy-to-use and frictionless, we cannot allow that the tools we use to fight the climate crisis will be any different!

Take for example convenience. One of the key barriers we have to overcome is the convenience of unsustainable practices, from using single-use bags and bottled water to ordering take-out food.

Convenience, as Tim Wu points out is a powerful force shaping our everyday life decisions and preferences. We deal with a tech industry that is obsessed with creating frictionless experiences (but not so much with the climate crisis) and has a growing impact on the design of our everyday experiences (think Amazon). This is the context in which we operate and we cannot ignore it — we need to design climate crisis solutions that take into consideration our growing addiction to convenience.

It doesn’t end with convenience of course. Designers should pay attention to all the aspects of the solutions they design, including materials, (no) packaging, the different touch points, and the business model. Otherwise, it’s just not going to work at scale and without scale we can’t win this fight.

Who seems to do it well? I believe Loop is doing a good job with the reusable packaging it offersSonny, the portable bidet has a great designMisfit Market (food) and Lemonade (insurance) are examples that come in mind for delightful business models.

Is it meaningful? This is perhaps the most difficult question, but let’s try to make it simple: Meaningful solution = A solution aiming to help achieve rapid reductions in carbon emissions over the next decade to enable us to live “in a safe and just operating space”. In other words, the solution you design should be able to support reductions of about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 and reaching net-zero around 2050 in order to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees.

This question sets a high bar for designers, but we have no choice but to aim high given the crisis we face. The goal should be clear and so does the urgency to act. If you feel you are not anywhere close to generate a meaningful solution go back to the whiteboard and start over.

Who seems to do it well? Go to the website of the Science-Based Targets initiative and look at some of the stories of companies working to align themselves with the Paris Agreement goals to learn on the opportunities and challenges of designing meaningful solutions. It’s also worthwhile to take a look at cities taking the fight against climate change more seriously, such as CopenhagenNew York, and others.

3. Feel the Bern

Step no. 3 is not as much about action as it is about your posture as a designer. This approach is somewhat aligned with the Transition Design framework, which “sees the designer’s own mindset and posture as an essential component of transition designing.” As Irwin, Kossoff and Tonkinwise write: “Designers’ mindsets and postures often go unnoticed and unacknowledged but they profoundly influence what is identified as a problem and how it is framed and solved within a given context.”

In this case I ask designers to take a moment to reflect on their posture and ask themselves the following question: Do you think the system can be made to work in more or less the form it currently exists or do we need to blow it up?

This question was presented by Alex Burns, who covers national politics for the New York Times in the Times’ podcast, The Daily, as a way to describe the divisions within the Democratic Party. If you watched the Democratic debates this week you can probably agree that Joe (“nothing will fundamentally change”) Biden best represents the first approach, while Bernie (“It’s time to complete the revolution we started”) Sanders best represents the second.

The choice you need to make as a designer is not political per se — this is not about who is your favorite presidential candidate — this is about whether you accept or reject the system in which you operate, and the posture you hold accordingly.

It is my belief that it is time for us to be honest and clear about our operating system and accept the fact that it doesn’t have the ability to address the climate crisis effectively. This is a moment of truth and we need to acknowledge the fact that we need to get out of our comfort zone and change our posture into one that is truly about challenging the current system, and not just at the edges, but at its core, asking difficult questions about the assumptions and structures that shape our life.

“Now there is one outstandingly important fact regarding Spaceship Earth, and that is that no instruction book came with it”, Bucky Fuller writes in “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth”. This is an important reminder as sometimes (if not all of the time) we behave as if the current operating system is based on a well-written instruction book, and therefore we don’t feel too bad about confining our designs to the range the system finds to be acceptable. This should no longer be the case. The climate crisis requires us to rethink everything we know and accept that we may need “an absolute revolution of humanity” as Fuller suggests.

To do so designers need to ‘feel the Bern’, which from my point of view is not about endorsing socialism or the need in revolution, but about courage, reflecting E.F. Schumacher’s notion that “any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”

4. Translate your solution into a compelling story

The final step focuses on storytelling, although it is more accurate to describe it as translation from one language to another. Storytelling was always key to sustainability and the climate crisis is no different. No matter how great the solution you design is, it won’t work unless you figure out how to communicate it well. A few examples, including impossible burgerMisfits MarketSonny (a portable bidet for eco-conscious humans) and even Extinction Rebellion (aka XR) and the youth climate strikes demonstrate how paying attention to the story and how it is told can pay off.

So, what do you need to do in order to translate your climate crisis solution into a compelling story? The following is not a recipe, but more of reminder of what you need to pay attention to:

1) Is it clear? It should be very easy to understand your solution and what makes it valuable. Consider Misfits Market for example. If you go to their website you can see how the company takes a quite complicated issue such as food waste and transforms it into a pretty straightforward story about the solution it provides.

Now, clarity doesn’t have to be just about benefits for consumers — it can also be about a concise message like the one you find on XR’s website (“We are about political change, not personal change (though we welcome the latter). We are completely nonviolent, our actions are done in full public view and we take responsibility for them”), or in Greta Thunberg’s speeches(“I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”)

The ultimate test should be the 30-second elevator pitch — can you create a clear story around your solution that can be told in 30 seconds to someone who doesn’t know anything about it and get her or him to understand what your solution is about?

2) Is it relevant? Many climate crisis solutions get themselves trapped in what I call the ‘fifth risk’ syndrome’, i.e. they cannot escape the perception too many people have of climate change as a distant threat, or what Michael Lewis calls a ‘fifth risk’: “The existential threat that you never really even imagine as a risk”. In other words, you have great solutions that people just find irrelevant to their life therefore ignore them.

Your story therefore needs to establish relevance. It needs to frame and present your solution as one that either solve a (painful!) pain point for your audience, or provide them with a value proposition that can clearly make their life better. One of the best examples I saw for establishing relevance was in this CBSN documentary, “A Climate Reckoning in the Heartland,” where you can watch how regenerative farming is communicated to farmers, who suffer from extreme weather events, but nevertheless “may be reluctant to define increasingly extreme weather as climate change.”

3) Is it exciting? The excitement factor as I call it is crucial to the success of every climate crisis solution. When you think about the story you tell about it make sure to consider this factor. Remember that everyone loves a good story, and the more exciting it is the better.

Just ask yourself: Why do so many people post a picture with their new Tesla on Instagram or a video on YouTube about the day they got it? How many people take a picture or post a video with their bus or train (we have some progress now with flygskam movement, but still..)? And it’s not just Tesla. Consider impossible burger vs. ‘regular’ veggie burgers that no one takes pictures of, or even the young people showing up every Friday to demonstrate against climate inaction, making such a commitment for the first time in their life.

What is common to all of these examples? They represent a product, experience or an idea people get excited about, and that excitement can makes a difference between a solution that succeeds and one that fails. So take a minute and consider how to translate your solution into a story that can make people excited about and eventually move them into action.

Thank you to the many smart people who inspired this work, some of them are mentioned here and some who aren’t (for example, my friends at r3.0). This is still work in progress at so if you have any comment about it feel free to email me here — I’ll be happy to hear you!

Raz Godelnik is Assistant Prof. at Parsons School of Design in NY. Interested in new business models, designing solutions for the climate crisis and making sustainability work. Learn more on Linked In.