Trend and material designer Henriette Ackermann and product designer Axel Kufus explain how good design can promote sustainable action - for example in 3D printing or renewable materials.
Sustainability is a key issue of our time - especially in these weeks around the UN climate conference in Katowice, Poland. And last but not least for the automotive industry. "Volkswagen takes responsibility for climate protection," wrote Dr. Herbert Diess, CEO of the Volkswagen Group, on LinkedIn in November 2018. And Michael Jost, Head of Group Product Strategy and Chief Strategy Officer of the Volkswagen brand, added at the Wolfsburg Auto Summit in early December: "Volkswagen not only wants to meet legal requirements, Volkswagen also assumes social responsibility for the climate. The Volkswagen Group is committed to the Paris climate targets with a clear plan".
In this context, designers play a central role that is often overlooked by the public - and design in particular can help consumers develop a sustainable relationship with products and achieve better added value. Trend and material designer Henriette Ackermann and product designer Axel Kufus are doing just that - Ackermann is helping to shape the future of mobility at the Volkswagen Group Future Center Europe. And Kufus, by intensively researching the topic as professor at the Institute for Product and Process Design at the Berlin University of the Arts.
Mr Kufus, what does contemporary design mean to you?
Axel Kufus: The concept of design has expanded extremely over the last 50 years and the potential of design can be felt in every corner of the world – successfully, but also with consequences. Victor Papanek, whose exhibition "The Politics of Design" is also an occasion for our discussion, criticized the seductive forces that designers use to create demand and demand very early. Whether we can use these forces for effective sustainability, is a big challenge.
Victor Papanek ...
... was one of the most important pioneers regarding the approach to design with a social and environmental orientation. His key work Design for the Real World (1971) is still the most widely read design book ever published. In it, Papanek advocated for inclusion, social justice and sustainability. Volkswagen has sponsored a retrospective with the title “Victor Papanek: The Politics of Design,” which is currently showing at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein until March 10, 2019.
“Sustainability is a very emotional subject.”
Victor Papanek coined the term “social design.” A design that should fulfill social and environmental values. To what extent can product design be sustainable, social and environmental?
Henriette Ackermann: On the materials side, it's all about energy efficiency. What energy is lost while mining and shipping a raw material, how well can a substance be recycled, where does the raw material come from? As designers, we naturally pay attention to the look and feel of a material. My job at the Volkswagen Group Future Center Europe is to research and use materials, colours and new technologies such as 3D printing for concept and show cars in interdisciplinary project teams. We're working on what the future of mobility could look like and how it feels. In autonomous driving, for example, we have to care more than ever about what you see and touch in the interior. I am pleased to see that the trend is towards emotionalized surfaces. For example, I see many young designers designing products with sustainable materials. Visible surfaces can be strongly textured and obviously recycled.
Axel Kufus: Especially in a world of goods where things usually have only a short half-life, it is important as a designer to ensure that personal relationships are created, and that sustainable added value is created through personal use, handling or far-reaching benefits. By this I mean things that are not worth half as much as when you buy them, but that actually become worth more over time. These cannot be only art, but also furniture, clothing or even cars! We need longer useful lives or more extensive conversions against the "waste" of values, which is all too often smuggled in by design.
What resources and materials will characterize the design of the future?
Henriette Ackermann: I hope that there will be a mix of all kinds of sustainable materials and things that we will get to know. There are a number of materials that are promising but need to be tested. These also include experimental materials such as fungal mycelium or algae. The use of 3D printing technology in combination with sustainable printing materials will also have an impact on our future materials world.
And how can they be made sustainable?
Axel Kufus: There is a very simple formula for this, which should prevail as soon as possible: Producers, take your things back when they are no longer needed! Then you would produce everything in such a way that it can be dismantled into its components again without great losses. It's about creating new material from old materials. Because the future quarry is our consumer world from which we have to recycle again.
“If you think in terms of sustainability, then you take back the product.”
What is the solution for increased awareness of sustainability?
Axel Kufus: I believe that sustainable action can above all be regulated politically. You shouldn't be allowed to call yourself a producer if you don't take back materials from customers or share responsibility for more extensive material cycles. You can see it in the beautiful example of PET bottles. If I don't take them back myself, someone else will do it - because they bring in 15 cents. This deposit recycling process may also be more expensive for other products with even more valuable ingredients or more harmful effects on the environment. Perhaps this is the way it should be done for many more things. I only own it for its useful life. The producer remains the owner. The deposit is there to ensure that it is not "lost" in the meantime.
How do you rate the benefits of new technologies, like 3D printing?
Henriette Ackermann: 3D printing offers a great opportunity above all where materials are to be used effectively. The material is only applied where it is needed. There is little waste. However, 3D printing is not per se sustainable if you take into account the energy the printer consumes during printing. It is important to find a smart combination of sustainable print media, printing technology and purpose. You don't have to print everything in 3D. As soon as rapid prototyping becomes rapid manufacturing, we're talking about products that come directly from the 3D printer. A big advantage is that complex components and geometries can be produced in one piece that cannot be produced with any other technology. In most cases, the printed objects have a very rough surface or are strongly textured. Here, it is more important to promote the acceptance of the customers, who first have to get to know the value of the surfaces created by the 3D printer.
“3D print can be done locally.”
Axel Kufus: The exciting thing is that 3D printing can be used decentrally. This means that this technology requires less investment in expensive tools and can therefore be produced not only centrally, but also on site or individually and specifically as required. Ideally, we can disassemble plastic products that are no longer usable, melt them down and print them out as new products. There are already interesting pilot projects for this, but a lot of invention and development work still needs to be done at various levels.
And how do things look on the renewable materials front?
Axel Kufus: We still have so much to learn in this topic. Both in balanced cooperation with nature itself and in competition with food production. And regrowth in the figurative sense, by that I mean: How does something broken grow back together again by itself, how does something heal itself, how does something adapt itself? How can we better combine biological and technological findings? And how can we integrate something created by humans into the complex cycles of the biosphere and even enrich the diversity of global metabolism? According to the motto: live with the world, not from the world.