Environmental collective URGE's logo

"Designers need to take a good hard look at themselves and stop making pointless stuff that looks nice"

Designers have an important role to play to help avoid climate catastrophe, write Alexie Sommer and Ella Doran of new environmental collective URGE.


If you've got half an eye on the climate agenda then you'll know that in October 2018, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlighted that we have just 12 years to limit catastrophic climate change that will make life on earth very challenging.

In July 2019, key leaders described the next 18 months as critical in setting the agenda; we now have 6 months to instigate new behaviours and designers can help lead the way.

Designers, as a rule, love unravelling the nitty-gritty of a specific problem, then designing a nice neat solution that helps solve that problem. Climate change isn't one of those problems: it's systemic and deeply complicated leaving the best of us motionless at times, and uncertain of which way to turn.

URGE is not a think tank – we connect the thinking and doing and drive change

Now that climate change is urgent, with less than a decade's window of opportunity, society needs all the help it can get to understand the problem, our role within it, and develop solutions that can enact effective change.

This is where URGE comes in. We're a multi-disciplinary collective working with businesses and organisations to envision and enact radical responses to the climate emergency. URGE is not a think tank. We connect the thinking and doing and drive change through transformation, education, innovation and communication.

Our self-selecting team includes Dougal Wilson, Ella Doran, Federico Gaggio, John Grant, Michael Marriott, Michael Pawlyn, Patrick Burgoyne, Sophie Thomas and Harry Pearce, who has just joined, and with his team at Pentagram designed our defiant logo.

We have come together because of the urgent need for radical change and the knowledge that we are stronger than our individual capacities. The strength and quality of our multi-disciplinary collective of strategists, storytellers, designers, makers and entrepreneurs is powerful. We offer a dynamic variety of skills and extended networks to serve individuals, communities and leaders on every step of the journey to re-evaluate business and society.

We have come together because of the urgent need for radical change

Re-thinking strategy, designing-in positive impact, effecting radical change, and authentically communicate along the way is essential to turning the ship around. We're equally engaged in how we activate the collective mindset. The paradigm shift required for us to tackle the climate emergency is both a strategic and intuitive one requiring human and digital transformation.

It's great to finally see the climate message filtering through to the design industry. This year's unusual Covid-19 restricted London Design Festival was clearly punctuated with talks about environmental and social impact namely The Circular Design project with SAP and The Ellen Macarthur Foundation, Deborah Rey-Burns's Re-Design Business Conference and Shoreditch Design Triangle's Redesign & Reuse talks (all available on demand if you didn't manage to catch them).

And here on Dezeen the editorial spotlight increasingly focused on purpose-driven design, not to mention our fellow URGE conspirator Sophie Thomas's "quick and dirty" environmental audit of the Dezeen day conference last November.

Moving forward, what changes does design need to make?

In the hope there is no smoke without fire, this is hugely encouraging and evidences the business of design starting to seriously take stock of the crisis on our doorsteps.

So, moving forward, what changes does design need to make? This is really a question about where on the journey designers are.

The first is not to panic. Covid-19 has necessarily slowed us down, destabilised much that we've relied on, and the economic doom predicted combined with the overwhelming threat of climate breakdown and chaos must be viewed as an opportunity to take time out and ask some fundamental questions: "How much is enough?" "Can I ride this wave by diversifying?" "Does my design business create positive impact?" "Am I happier and healthier working less?" "What am I professionally and personally doing to improve things and reduce my impact?"

The number of times I've come away disillusioned from a fancy design show thinking "same old sh*t, another room full of beautifully unnecessary stuff, made with earnest but in a vacuum, to be enjoyed by the privileged".

Designers need to take a good hard look at themselves and stop making pointless stuff that looks nice and fuels relentless consumption. Re-think the brief and make people and planet the clients. It's not ok to not know where raw materials come from. Full-stop. Going beyond circular; design needs to be regenerative, socially engaged and sequester carbon.

Secondly, start learning and doing. We can address the climate crisis by understanding our role within it. Calculate your carbon footprint, commit to buying well and buying once, see how your business stacks up against the B-Corp Impact Assessment tool, use the World Economic Forums' strategic Intelligence tools to focus both personal and professional attention, Draw down carbon from the atmosphere, apply for an allotment to get your hands in the soil, support the National Nature Service and if thoughts or fears of climate breakdown are keeping you awake at night, try Anouchka Grose's A Guide to Eco-Anxiety.

Brewdog's recent carbon-negative campaign is an excellent example of positive business impact

If you're reading this going "yeah, yeah, I've done that, I know all this" then great, the hope is you're now having more challenging conversations with your clients and customers?

Brewdog's recent carbon-negative campaign is an excellent example of positive business impact. Now beer brewing is a highly carbon-intensive process and currently offsetting is their zero-carbon friend, but once the Brewdog Forest has grown and they've invested £30 million in their green infrastructure plan we'll all be enjoying their guilt-free beer.

But not everyone is on board. Just two years ago most people did not think that climate change is mainly caused by humans. So, thirdly we need to make some noise and get politically active. We need to demand governments shift to a zero-carbon economy by committing to a New Green Deal. We need to support companies like Client Earth when they take Europe's largest coal plant to court and we need to get on the streets with Extinction Rebellion when they hold Governments and newspapers to account and demand they tell the truth.

If design is about creating desirable future narratives whether that be an innovative tech product or a behaviour-changing campaign, we need to deeply understand the environmental and social consequences of the design brief. We need to understand the role of design convener, use global networks to share knowledge and use that knowledge to act locally and connect back with our communities. If we all woke up tomorrow living a 15-minute city life, designing zero-carbon strategies, and with the confidence to influence tricky conversations with clients, we would leap ahead.