A planet is for keeps - we're not just visiting

From a talk given by the broadcaster and writer Jonathan Dimbleby at the Design Museu as part of the Corus Design Sense Awards
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The Independent Online

When I first heard the term "sustainable development", my heart sank. Another piece of abstract jargon, I thought. The kind of language used by nerds and zealots. I now fear I am both a nerd and a zealot because I regard the idea of "sustainable development" as intriguing, threatening and challenging - and, to put it grandiloquently, the most important "big idea" confronting humankind.

When I first heard the term "sustainable development", my heart sank. Another piece of abstract jargon, I thought. The kind of language used by nerds and zealots. I now fear I am both a nerd and a zealot because I regard the idea of "sustainable development" as intriguing, threatening and challenging - and, to put it grandiloquently, the most important "big idea" confronting humankind.

I am fearful of definitions because either they are prone to become enormously elaborate - like a legal contract - or they beg so many questions that the meaning gets lost in the interpretation. So it is with "sustainable development" - though in fact I think the concept is easy enough to grasp.

When the term first entered the official language, it was defined as "development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Now that begs a few questions of course: what constitutes "meeting our needs"? Are needs distinguishable from aspirations or desires? And if so, how? And so on. But we don't need to get bogged down by such imponderables to have a broad idea of what is at stake. To put it another way: we must treat the planet as if we are going to live for ever and not as though we had simply dropped in for a weekend break.

The issue of sustainable development is a very great challenge, and on too many fronts we can be accused of doing too little very late. Take for example The Hague Summit on Climate Change, notably log-jammed on carbon-dioxide emissions.

It is deeply frustrating that governments everywhere still fail genuinely to put sustainable development at the heart of their thinking and planning for the future. By no means always but all too often, politicians pay lip-service to the idea as they cave in to this or that pressure group who don't want to face the facts.

I am tempted to be pessimistic but in fact I am an optimist. I do not wear a hair-shirt, nor do I want to stifle enjoyment or creativity, or eradicate material comfort or the love of elegance and beauty.

Mercifully, we have the resources, the talent, and the technology to enhance all these delights and to develop in a sustainable way. The question is: do we have the will?

I think we do. I have just taken part in the second year of the international Design Sense Awards, an imaginative initiative by the Design Museum and Corus that offers a beacon to designers, architects and to consumers.

Sustainable design is no longer a preserve of the "greens" but is gradually edging its way into mainstream culture. We are also witnessing it moving slowly up the political and business agenda. If good design is crucial to commercial success then sustainable design is crucial if we want to create buildings and products that will meet today's needs without compromising those of future generations.

The goal of sustainability requires us to retain a human view of design. Its realisation is dependent on solutions that are socially acceptable as well as technically and economically viable. The complexity of modern life seems to drive us to become specialists, gaining ever-more knowledge in narrow complex fields. However, if we are to create sustainable solutions, then we need to see how our special skills fits together to create a truly holistic approach.

We will have to tear down the walls that separate us and replace them with bridges that allow us to cross the boundaries between us. Because, without a greater fusion between all the participants in the life-cycle of, say a product or a building, both in and out of the economic value chain, the quest for sustainability will remain an elusive goal.

In striving to meet both our obligations and our aspirations, we are building an awareness that this planet is precious and that we aren't merely here for the weekend.

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