‘Our research helps designers to excell’

‘Our research in preparation for the Clean Energy Challenge focused on finding out where designers can make a difference in this context,’ says Sophie Knight, who together with co-founder Bas Raijmakers explored the topic for almost half a year at WDCD’s research partner STBYSTBY, based in Amsterdam and London, has worked with WDCD since the first challenge, on refugee housing. 

The agency specializes in design research, i.e. research that forms the first stage of a design projects. ‘Design research differs from other forms of research in the sense that it reckons with what information designers need in order to come up with entirely new solutions,’ says Raijmakers. ‘Actually, we prefer not to speak of problems and solutions, because addressing climate change as just a problem is downsizing the complexity of it. And no designer will be able to solve it alone. So instead of problems and solutions we prefer to speak of situations and interventions.’ 

Design research also makes use of design tools and methods, Raijmakers explains. ‘Infographics are very helpful both as input and output for design research. Visualization helps to summarize and understand complex information better.’

‘Another characteristic of our research is that we start with a broad view and then seek to narrow things down,’ Knight says. ‘In that part of the process we teamed up with WDCD, IKEA Foundation and many experts, to verify our findings and identify what our partners found compelling, useful, or worthy of further research.’

Finding narratives

From that point on, the research focused on finding a narrative for each city that had a link to one or more of the topics defined. ‘Gradually we realized that these topics don’t exist apart from each other, but are all interrelated,’ says Knight.

Raijmakers: ‘At first we defined the topics as “transport”, “food”, “housing”, and so on. But then we realized that many necessary changes require behavioural change. That is why we redefined them with terms that describe human activity: “moving around in São Paulo”, “eating in Nairobi” or “building in Delhi”.’

Local workshops

To establish the narratives, STBY activated design research partners in the five cities. In workshops with local experts, municipal officials and designers they explored the most pressing issues within the framework of energy and human activity in each city. This led to surprising insights, Knight and Raijmakers tell. In Mexico City, for instance, the issue of waste, not identified as one of the initial topics, came to the surface as a very visible issue that relates to energy in many ways. In Amsterdam it was established that one of the biggest challenges here is how new technologies for sustainable energy production or energy saving can be incorporated into the existing historical city.

‘With this approach we were able to narrow down the big energy issue to topics that are of real concern for the local communities,’ Raijmakers says. ‘Meanwhile, we also considered to select fields that still offer lots of possibilities for designers to find improvements. We always look for the areas where there are opportunities for design.’