What's a better term than "Sustainable Design"?

Brutalist Design at Ryerson University
CC BY 2.0 Responsible? Sustainable? Brutal? Ryerson University/ Lloyd Alter

I am leaning to Responsible Design.

Every spring I teach what's called Sustainable Design at Ryerson School of Interior Design, and when exam time comes around, one question is always "define sustainable design." I keep hoping that somebody will come up with an answer that really explains what it is in some inspiring, motivating way.

There is nothing new about this problem; as Bill McDonough said over a decade ago:

"We still have people talking about 'sustainability'! Nothing is more boring. Are you proud if your marriage is 'sustainable'?

Eric Zencey wrote in Orion Magazine back in 2010:

THE TERM HAS BECOME so widely used that it is in danger of meaning nothing. It has been applied to all manner of activities in an effort to give those activities the gloss of moral imperative, the cachet of environmental enlightenment. "Sustainable" has been used variously to mean "politically feasible," "economically feasible," "not part of a pyramid or bubble," "socially enlightened," "consistent with neoconservative small-government dogma," "consistent with liberal principles of justice and fairness," "morally desirable," and, at its most diffuse, "sensibly far-sighted."

Sustainability, and sustainable design, have to be more than this. It has to be more than the 1987 Brundtland Commission definition that started this all:

Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

No wonder we are bored. I didn't ask my students the question this year because I was bored reading their answers. But after a weekend talking and tweeting about renaming embodied carbon as upfront carbon emissions, I thought, maybe it is time to get people talking about renaming sustainable design.

Living Building Challenge petals© Living Building Challenge petals

When I look at the petals of the Living Building Challenge, they certainly go beyond just the sustainable stuff, when they talk about beauty and equity, inspiration and education.

One Planet Living criteria© One Planet Living criteria

Similarly, the One Planet Living people get into health and happiness, equity and local economy, culture and community. This is way beyond what many would consider sustainable. This is the right thing to do, to think about these things. It's the responsible thing to do.

Sustainability also makes me think of stability, keeping things the same for future generations to meet their own needs. But we can't keep doing the same thing; we are past that point. The right thing to do is to fix things, to make it better, to reverse the damage we have done. That is the responsible thing to do.

I think the better term we need right now is Responsible Design.


Coincidentally, while I was writing this, a tweet flashed by from Anthony Townsend of Bits + Atoms, with responses that ranged from Thrivable to Adaptable to Anti-Fragile.

So now, I am asking my students, which do you prefer, Sustainable Design or Responsible Design, and why? They are very smart and might just solve this for me. I will also ask it here in a poll, and look forward to suggestions in comments.


What's a better term than "Sustainable Design"?
I am leaning to Responsible Design.

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