Understanding and Evaluating Sustainability at Carnegie Mellon University

Carnegie Mellon University’s new course, “Nature, Ecology, and Sustainable Design,” gathers students from all over the university to discuss and critique the definition and the development of sustainability. The undergraduate and graduate students taking the class have backgrounds ranging from design, art, and architecture to engineering, computer science, environmental studies, and anthropology. The class meets twice a week in the spring semester with 15 graduate and undergraduate students.

This course was created to give students a better understanding of the broader philosophical issues involved in sustainable design and the different approaches that are emerging in contemporary culture. The course compliments other more technical discussions of sustainability in the School of Design.

Students came into the class hoping to learn how to take a systems approach to design, incorporate sustainability into their design process, and increase the number of sustainability issues that are taught in schools—even as soon as early education.

Professor Richard Buchanan and this interdisciplinary group of students work to understand the nature of what ecologist David W. Orr, professor and chair of the Environmental Studies Program at Oberlin College, calls “the crisis of sustainability.” This seminar course focuses on close readings and discussions of texts. In examining the arguments of the authors, the class collects and catalogues the wide range of definitions and models for sustainability.

We began the course by reading Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World (Suny Series in Constructive Postmodern Thought by Orr, an excellent beginning point for exploring sustainable design. Orr provides a thoughtful overview of the different perspectives on sustainability and a careful argument for his own approach.

This book provides a sound context for other works by designers and other writers. We proceeded to read sections from Technology and the Good Life? by Eric S. Higgs, Andrew Light, and David Strong, where we looked at focal practices in general and farming in particular.

We watched a series of short films about gardening and its roots in communities around the world. This allowed us to delve into the question of “what is nature?” and how indigenous peoples are critical to sustainability.

The Green Imperative: Natural Design for the Real World by Victor Papanek began our focus on the role of design and designers in reforming products, services, and systems.

William McDonough’s lecture in February 2003 and our subsequent reading of his Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by McDonough and Michael Braungart, gave the class concrete examples of an effective environmental future.

In Ecological Literacy, Orr explores a pluralism of views before advancing his own. In a similar manner, the class, and the population in general, is challenged to consider the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual pluralism that exists today as we each develop a system of understanding.

The problems that give shape to what we call sustainable design are what designer and educator Horst Rittel has termed wicked problems: a “class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing.” We attempt to learn as much as we can about sustainability so as to combat these unhealthy circumstances that currently block our path to the ideal “eco-effective” world (McDonough’s term?).

Our pluralistic approach to sustainability is to understand the rhetorical method that these experts use in their arguments and the assumptions that they make along the way. We gather as much information as we can in this course and then use that knowledge to help inform our own perspective on sustainability and give us structure for our own course of action.

Each student in the class then writes a final paper in which we discuss and explore our own focal practices and interests in sustainability. One student is looking at what sustainable design can learn from the theories of Japanese gardens while another student is looking at how cultural values play a part in sustainability.

Our papers will come together in a class book that we will be able to add to our growing bibliography. When this exciting new multidisciplinary class is over, there will be students all over the university able to introduce sustainability to their peers.

Keara Schwartz is a student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. This article was written with contributions by fellow class members Chad Thorton and Anne Wootton.

Professor Richard Buchanan is the former head of the School of Design, an editor of the international journal Design Issues, and president of the Design Research Society. He writes extensively on new developments in design thinking. He believes sustainability is a pivotal issue in human-centered design.

Categories: Design Education, Sustainability