In a global eco-emergency, nature is our inspiration for real change

Research into natural processes combined with design thinking is helping to generate not just new solutions, but new ways of looking at the problems of planet Earth


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Two years ago, the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design (CIID)  opened an outpost in Costa Rica. This might appear to be a seemingly random office move. But, explains Simona Maschi, co-founder and director of the CIID, Costa Rica is the perfect base from which to work on the biggest design problem of our generation: that of saving the planet.

Designing interactions might sound a little confusing. The word design is traditionally associated with aesthetics; designers are often thought of as people who make products pleasing to the senses.

Maschi explains that the Institute focuses on the design of systems rather than products. In that context, the pleasure of the design comes not from its visual or sensual beauty, but the beauty of how well it works as a process. The work of the CIID is about designing futures to which people are attracted.

Intesa Sanpaolo shares CIID’s vision of circularity and sustainability. Through its Innovation Center, it explores ways to build meaningful and impactful partnerships across business, NGOs and society.

In Costa Rica, the Institute collaborates on research in the fields of biomimicry and biology. Maschi notes that, as life has been evolving on Earth for 3.8 billion years, nature has been prototyping regenerative systems. As human beings we have a lot to learn from it.

“We believe nature can be a mentor,” says Maschi. Studying the systems of nature reveals a natural circular economy; nothing in nature is wasted and the waste product from one process is the starter for another. There is where the thinking of the CIID team in Costa Rica begins. “It’s about looking at those dynamics and using them as inspiration for informing our decisions,” she adds.

“The challenges we need to solve to create more sustainable and more circular ecosystems cannot be solved by individual stakeholders”
Simona Maschi, co-founder and director of the CIID

Bringing research into natural processes together with design thinking helps Maschi and the Institute generate not just new solutions, but new ways of looking at problems. Creative thinking on problem setting, not just solving, is a modern approach that many believe could help break through the deadlock caused by human inertia or overwhelm in the face of the global problem of climate change.

Designers and creative minds also have the ability to visualise, notes Maschi, imagining new futures completely unshackled by the current ways of the world. “This is very important, this idea of visualising futures, to make it easier for the key stakeholders to get excited about and buy into those futures,” she says.

Research and problem solving is the initial stage in any design process, so it is always where work starts at the CIID. Prototyping is the phase that follows, where ideas can be made to allow stakeholders in potential projects to get a grip on what the project is actually about. “The prototyping process enables all stakeholders, from the consumers, producers, anyone who is part of the value chain of the new concept, to take part in its actual development,” says Maschi.

In some ways, the plurality of the prototyping process gets to the heart of what it will take to create a greener and less wasteful future: collaboration. “The challenges we need to solve to create more sustainable and more circular ecosystems cannot be solved by individual stakeholders,” says Maschi. There’s a greater chance of an idea being adopted in the real world if more people are involved in creating it. She points out that ownership of an idea is crucial to turning an idea into an innovation that lives in the real world. “By prototyping, people who have different backgrounds, different agendas, can actually co-create and shape together solutions that were not imaginable before.”

The Covid-19 pandemic presents another global challenge – one that cruelly complements the demise of the planet’s natural resources. Maschi notes, from recent research by the CIID, that the slowdown forced on most of the world from Covid-19 has at least brought more attention to the problem of waste at the household and community level. “You look at waste with new eyes and give to it new value,” she says. “We shouldn’t just wait for the perfect policy to come into place, we shouldn’t wait for a new taxation system… it’s the responsibility of everyone to decide which products to buy… to make a more circular future.”

Perhaps the best question to ask of someone who designs the future is what an ideal future looks like. For Maschi, it’s one in which the very idea of value moves away from being solely focused on markets and instead is a measure of how well we are integrated with nature and making the best use of the natural resources around us. “Imagine a situation where the stock exchange is replaced by a system that not only assesses the value on the market, but maybe assesses the value based on how much waste we create or don’t create,” she says.

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