Concepts and Contexts of Design for Sustainability: (Coincidentally) Piloting a New Course at Aalto PhD Summer School

It’s been ten months since I started working for Aalto University, Department of Design. As a new professor in exploration of my new environment, with the aim of finding the best opportunities to contribute into Aalto while progressing my career, I raised my hand up to run this year’s departmental PhD Summer School few months ago. I was told that summer schools are more experimental than winter schools and good opportunities for testing new curricular and pedagogic ideas or piloting potential new courses. The course I wanted to run was of course going to be about design for sustainability. Nevertheless, I spent around a month thinking in the background processor of my mind what specific content I should bring together and how that content should be structured and delivered. My ultimate goal was to introduce design approaches for systemic sustainability transitions to students but given in our department there has not been systematic teaching on sustainability there was a need to build such knowledge base first before introducing this emerging, complex topic.

With this in mind, I designed the program to start by introducing theories relevant to sustainability, then move into issues and intervention contexts and finally present design approaches. The school would last for five days, so this plan meant that the students would be exposed to a substantial amount of new knowledge with a series of intense lectures. To balance such intensity I decided to allocate afternoons for reflections and activities relevant to the topic of each day. Then I contacted several lecturers and researchers to deliver the lectures. This was an enjoyable exercise as this way I got to engage with my colleagues in Aalto, in Helsinki University and found out about several experts in Finnish Environment Institute. I also invited two international researchers but only one of them was able to accept the invitation. The original program design had only minimally changed.

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Designing the program and engaging lecturers was one thing, organising the school itself was another; it required a lot of coordination and planning. Luckily I had an amazing teaching assistant, Maria, who pretty much took charge of all tasks including finding and booking a venue, organising catering (yes, we fed the students for free to keep them focused), booking flights and accomodation for Joanna Boehnert, the international guest lecturer, photo-documenting as well as note-keeping during the running of the school.

The school started with high energy both from students and from lecturers. The days went fast and were full-on in terms of ranges of topics covered. Afternoons had been good to synthesise learning but also to do some experiential learning with less need for cognitive stretch.

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Stefan Fronzek from Finnish Environment Institute SYKE lecturing on climate science and impacts of climate change

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Cindy Kohtala delivering her lecture on emerging practices of making and production

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Mikko Jalas delivering a lecture on materiality of care

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Eeva Berglund talking about political economies of design during her lecture on “uncommon ground”

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Me talking about roles of design in transition processes during my lecture on design for system innovations and transitions

Half of the students who participated in the summer school were in their first year of PhD studies. Feedback indicated that the three lectures that majority of the students found to benefit them most were practice theory lens for transition experiments, emerging practices of making/production and design for system innovations and transitions: positioning a new field. Almost all students found group discussions of lectures to be the activity that helped their learning most. All of the students thought that the program as well as the days were structured well and that they would recommend this course (or a variation of it) to MA and PhD students.

As the coordinator of the course I also found the experience very rewarding. It gave me the opportunity to get to know the new PhD students in our department. In addition, I had a chance to understand my colleagues’ research in more detail and learned many new things myself. This was the first course I ran since I started working in Aalto and I am happy that I did a good job as indicated in student feedback. I also appreciated once more the diversity and depth of expertise held within the department.

Now we’re only days away from Juhannus, which marks the beginning of month-long summer holiday for many in Finland, especially those in academia. I am not planning to take a whole month off as I’d like to take the opportunity of this quiet time to write a grant application. At the dawn of my first anniversary of starting my role as Professor of Sustainable Design in Aalto I am full of ideas including developing a new course on Design for Sustainability Transitions. This summer school has also acted as a great “pilot” for this purpose. I will certainly reflect a lot more on this experience as I design this course.

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Research and Teaching Statement

I’ve completed two years in Melbourne and on the Visions and Pathways 2040 project. My contract will end in 18 months and it’s uncertain whether there will be additional funding for me to undertake more research at VEIL, where I am working currently. Given academic recruitment is a long process, it’s likely that I’ll start looking for faculty positions here and elsewhere in the near future. So, for the sake of preparation I wrote up a new research and teaching statement. The reason why I post it here is two-fold. First, it explains what I’ve done and what I’d like to do in the future – the focus and direction of my research. So, it’s a document portraying who I am professionally really well. Second, I’m interested in getting some feedback to improve it along the way and making it public creates this possibility. Below.

Research and Teaching Statement

Vision & Progress

My career vision is to be among the world’s leading researchers in the area of design and innovation for sustainability in five years’ time and educate new generation designers who are able to address the complex, socially relevant challenges human society is facing through ecologically and socially regenerative, technologically appropriate design practice which is aware and reflective of its own politics. In order to achieve this, so far I have accomplished the following: 1. Completed a PhD project in 2011 on aligning actions of design and innovation teams with structural changes associated with currently unfolding system innovations and transitions in Sustainability Science and Engineering Program of University of Auckland, New Zealand; 2. Started developing a theory of design for system innovations and transitions through the lens of sustainability science; 3. Gained lecturing, post-graduate supervision, program leadership and curriculum development experience in the years following completion of my PhD in School of Design and School of Business of Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand; 4. Have become a Visiting Researcher at Design For Sustainability Research Group of Technical University of Delft starting from 2011; 5. Gained research, research team facilitation, project management and stakeholder engagement experience in a large, collaborative, multi-stakeholder project which bring together representatives from research institutions, industry, government and general public to envision and strategise towards low-carbon and resilient futures in Australian cities using design-led, participatory methodolodies in my current role as Principal Researcher at Victorian Eco-innovation Lab, Melbourne School of Design, University of Melbourne, Australia.

Research Direction

My research direction sits at the cross-section of design research, futures studies and sustainability science. This is aligned with emerging practices in design for sustainability in following ways: First, focus of design for sustainability is shifting from artefact to systems change. Second, there is an observable cross-fertilisation of design research and futures research. This enables design practice to adopt longer term timeframes than timeframes that has been traditionally adopted in design practice as well as asking questions about the future of design profession. Third, there is a developing understanding in design that sustainability issues cannot be reduced to solely environmental or social problems, that these co-exist and mutually exacerbate each other, therefore, techno-centric or socio-centric approaches in design, on their own, fall short in addressing these highly complex problems with many dimensions. In my research, I would like to keep on developing the emerging theory of design for system innovations and transitions. This direction involves merging of research directions which are either about political questioning or technological enabling that can be part of design research and practice. Specific questions that I would like to investigate involve: 1. How can we design for enabling self-organisation in human systems (relevant to group behaviour during crises and societal transformations but also to new models of governance that we observe emerging currently)?; 2. What new paradigms do we need in design practice in addition to human-centredness if we are going to be designing not solely for creating the technosphere but also for adapting to changes in the socio-ecological sphere (relevant to climate change adaptation and sustainability transformations in our built and natural environment)?. My research, on one hand, aims to push the theoretical boundaries of design with references to sustainability science and system innovations/transtions theories, while on the other hand, develop methods and tools based on this expanded theoretical territory for the use of practicing designers. One good example of this is the scenario method I developed during my PhD for the use of design and innovation teams to be able to align their design decisions and strategic priroties with the necessary long-term societal transformations. Other, less comprehensive processes stemmed from my work on cities of Australia which aim at enabling development of systemic future visions using design-led participatory approaches.

Teaching Approach

My teaching is informed by and continuously evolve through my research. For example, in my lecturing position at Auckland University of Technology, I taught a course on design futures. I designed this course to have two components of inquiry: one on evolving perceptions of design and designer by looking at iconic examples of sci-fi literature and cinema, the other on the emerging role of design in strategic creation of alternative futures with references to changing social context. Another course I taught was on sustainable design. In this course which was delivered to students from School of Business, I introduced different levels of design interventions including product improvement, product redesign, functional innovation and system innovation and got the students to design a business model that would utilise one or more of these levels to address a sustainability problem. In other, more self-directed courses, in which projects were developed by students based on their particular interest, I asissted student learning and exploration by bringing in to students’ attention theories and practical approaches that may be relevent to their project and by creating spaces for them which would both facilitate critical inquiry and practical implementation.

The basic premise of my teaching philosophy is empowerment of students to construct their own learning by being increasingly less directional as they mature in their studies. There are three main components of my teaching: content and context, skills and practice, and, reflection and improvement. Content and context constitutes the theoretical and context specific knowledge students need in order to undertake design projects. I both provide this information and also teach ways of finding relevant and effective information themselves. Skills and practice is the knowledge the students need to cultivate to conceive, develop and implement design solutions based on contextual knowledge of the problem. This involves teaching about design research and creative inquiry methods across a wide spectrum of practice framework including but not limited to product design, service design, and systems design. Reflection and improvement involves guiding students to adopt best-practice in professional development by teaching them tools and methods of reflective practice that also includes encouraging them to reflect not only on their design practice but also on framings, worldviews, politics and values that might have informed their design practice.

In my teaching, I treat the learning environments as an emulation of a professional setting which reflects the values and practices underlying the “better future” we want to create, thus providing students with an experiential opportunity for learning about cultivating collegialitaly and collaboration in multi-cultural multi-skill team interactions. In order to achieve this, I facilitate development of a group purpose and group culture at the beginning of semesters in each class. I encourage my students to challenge me, thus empowering them to question credibility and authority in power structures before developing trust in leadership. In my opinion, savviness in questioning power structures is a fundamental skill for professionals who will be involved in the grand project of humanity in achieving sustainability without compromising from socially fair and democratic processes.

I have research and teaching experience in three countries; Turkey, New Zealand and Australia. I am a citizen of Turkey and New Zealand having lived in both for several years. These two countries have extremely different social and cultural structures, natural and built environments and value positions on nature, democracy, social relationships and ethnic identity. I have also studied, undertaken research and lectured across several disciplines including engineering, design, business and sustainability science. As a result of these geographical and disciplinary exposures, I cultivated a dynamic understanding of the world which also informed my research and teaching substantially, enabling me to develop a comprehensive and unique approach to research and teaching in the area of design for sustainability. I am hoping to find academic mobility opportunities in the future that will both appreciate and expand this unique research and teaching outlook.

August 2015