Written by Trish Hansen, Good Design Ambassador and Commissioned by Dr. Brandon Gien, Good Design Australia.


Humanity is amid a right of passage. 

After being immersed for centuries in the industrial era of ‘take-make-waste’, we find ourselves with only six only summers left to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, and avoid the irreversible and catastrophic impacts of climate change. 

Climate change is only one of nine interdependent planetary boundaries that we have already exceeded and need to reverse,  for humanity and millions of other species to survive. 

Biodiversity loss, freshwater removal, land use and the pollution of soils, oceans, rivers and the air we breathe are all signalling the need for urgent transformation.

The magnitude of the challenges we face is unprecedented, which presents designers with momentous responsibility, and boundless opportunity – a momentous quest which is possibly the greatest in all of human history. 

The Nine Planetary Boundaries – Stockholm Resileince Centre. Estimates of how the different control variables for seven planetary boundaries have changed from 1950 to present. The green shaded polygon represents the safe operating space. Source: Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Designing for the Sustainable Development Goals

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also known as the Global Goals, were adopted by the United Nations in 2015 as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity.

The 17 SDGs are integrated and recognise that action in one area will affect outcomes in others, and that development must balance social, economic and environmental sustainability.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Image: World Design Organization (WDO)

The World Design Organization (WDO), the global body for Industrial Design, has embraced the SDGs as a framework for action that has the potential to simultaneously offer positive social and environmental impact as well as financial return.

Over the next 5-10 years, our design decisions will determine whether we and many other species and ecosystems will flourish or fail.  

And like any right of passage, we don’t yet know how it is going to turn out. 

Design plays a critical role

How might we imagine a flourishing future for people and life on Earth and what role can design play in making this happen?

Across the diverse spectrum of practice, design shapes the ‘what and how’ of everything; policy, products and services, strategy to precincts, places, business, buildings, infrastructure, digital technology, data – to the what and how we make, mine and manufacture. 

It even shapes what stories we tell ourselves and even how we tell them.  

So how might we transform the way we approach design, for all humans to thrive as part of Earth’s flourishing ecosystems? 

This is a question for all design leaders and practitioners, across all disciplines, at all levels of every industry and supply chain.

It is in this decade that we have the most influence and potential to mitigate catastrophic and cascading systems failure, from which recovery is impossible – than any other time in the future. 

How we got ourselves here is complex, but one major factor is that one of the most powerful design drivers of the industrial era was, and in many cases still is, profit. 

Over the past decade design has become more human-centric; considering the impacts of design on humans.

However, even human-centric design assumes that people are separate from and better than all other natural systems and beings.

Human-centric to Life-centric

Ego-centric v Eco-centric diagram adapted from Art Tawanghar, Designer, San Diego (2016). Image: Designing with Country Discussion Paper, Government Architect New South Wales, March 2020.

So, as we re-design almost everything, everywhere, all at once –  how do we avoid making the same mistakes?

How might the ‘what and how’ we design, contribute to a better future? 

Several ‘life-centric’ design approaches are emerging and gaining momentum that are well worthy of exploration including; Designing with Country, Circular Design and Regenerative Design

These life-centric approaches acknowledge complexity. 

Complex systems are characterised by many components that interact in multiple ways with each other and their environment. 

That everything is connected, interactive, adapting, changing, and emerging, often in unpredictable ways.  

Designing with Country 

First Nations Peoples in Australia and around the world have endured for tens of thousands of years, by adapting ways of being, knowing and doing to live entirely regeneratively in relationship with their local places. 

Information, knowledge, skills and design ingenuity have been passed down for countless generations through sophisticated cultural practices and models that are embedded in all aspects of life. 

Country (with a capital C) has a significant spiritual meaning for Aboriginal Peoples and many nations have unique ways of describing the concept. 

“Connection to Country means that we are connected to every living thing around us, the Ruwi (land), Murrundi (Murray River), Mungkular (lakes) and Yarluwar (ocean), trees, plants and animals. Our mi:wi is our spirit, our mi:wi connects to every living thing around us. It is our responsibility to care for Country, as it is a part of our soul and Country will always provide for us with everything we need. Healthy Country, healthy people.” 

Quoted here with permission from Kaurna and Ngarrindjeri Elder Major ‘Moogy’ Sumner.  

Designing with Country goes beyond human-centred design to life-centred, or Country-centred approaches to design. It views all natural systems and beings, including people, alongside animals, plants, landscapes, waterways, the atmosphere and the night sky as equally important parts of an interconnected ecosystem.

“Nata ngadlu kumangka yara kumaninthi” Now we together, two become one. 

Quoted here with permission from Kaurna Elder – Uncle Lewis Yarlupurka O’Brien AO 

Many Aboriginal Nations are developing local frameworks and processes to guide Designing with Country approaches that are: grounded in trust, genuine collaboration and generate community vitality, honouring the ecological and cultural and wisdom stories of place, and consider the impact of the project for future generations; of humans and all other living systems. 

Designing with Country starts with knowing the place and being in a relationship with local First Nations leaders to understand and honour the local stories, and be a part of contributing to the place flourishing into the future. 

Puntukurnu AMS Healthcare Hub – 2021 Good Design Award for Sustainability. Designed by Kaunitz Yeung Architecture and commissioned by Puntukurnu Aboriginal Medical Service. Image: Robert Frith, Acorn Photography.

The Puntukurnu AMS Healthcare Hub is deeply rooted in place and imbued with humanity that engenders community ownership. It does so by cladding the building in rammed earth using earth from the site, incorporating art from female and male indigenous artists from five communities, incorporating 150kW of photovoltaics that produce 100% of electricity when the sun shines (more than 85% overall) and landscaping with more than 4000 endemic plants. Above all, this is achieved by genuinely involving Aboriginal people and respecting / reflecting people, culture, and Country. This was all achieved within the standard Commonwealth Government funding for similar buildings.


  1. How can we, as designers, learn from (beyond but including learning about) Aboriginal culture? 
  2. What are the most respectful and appropriate ways to engage First Nations leaders and Elders? 
  3. How might we move at the speed of trust? 
  4. How might we put relationships before tasks?  
  5. How might our designs consider future generations – for all living beings (including humans) and ecosystems?

Regenerative Design 

Regeneration refers to ways of being, living, working, learning and making that revitalise ourselves, each other, all other living systems and beings in the places we live on our wondrous planet, as part of the cosmos.

Regenerative design is an approach that cultivates the conditions that replenish human and other natural ecosystems to continue to flourish into the future. 

So what does that mean for the design of everything?

Sustainability is not enough 

Sustainability has come to mean ‘doing less harm’ and at best ‘doing no harm’, however this means that the planet is still dying, just less slowly. 

Regenerative design aspires to ‘do more good than harm’, having a positive, systemic impact – culturally and ecologically. 

For projects already underway, this means shifting the focus from getting specific projects done for their own sake, to considering the highest order potential of a flourishing system or place, and finding ways that the project might be in service to that. 

In a practical utopian future, it’s the ecological, social and cultural flourishing of places at the bioregional that determines all else; the projects, materials, even local economies and industries. 

The focus on place at the bioregional scale means that the place is big enough to be an ecosystem, but small enough for it to make sense and have meaning – for people to care.

Trajectory of Ecological Design: Bill Reed, Regenesis


  1. What is this place/ bioregion wanting to come to be? 
  2. Is your project in service to that? 
  3. What value are you trying to create? 
  4. What do we mean by this place? 
  5. What are the bigger wholes that this place nested within? 
  6. How is this project in relationship with the place?
  7. How might this project serve the essence of this place? 
  8. How might this project nourish the ecological resilience of the place? 
  9. How might this project enrich the lives of the local community?
  10. How might this project build local vitality?  
  11. How might the design process and/ or outcome enrich people’s dignity, sense of belonging, connection to each other and place? 
  12. How might the design process and/ or outcome deepen people’s connection to other beings and ecosystems as part of nature? 

Circular Design 

It is clear that the linear ‘take-make-waste’ system of product design and manufacturing of the industrial era is unsustainable. 

The decisions made through the design phase have ecological, environmental, social and cultural impact throughout a product’s entire lifecycle. 

It is estimated that over 80% of all product-related environmental impacts are determined during the design phase of a product.

The shift towards designing products and their component parts to be repaired, reused, repurposed, and recycled – with the intention of keeping materials in permanent circulation, is the basis of Circular Design. 

Circular Design is a ‘whole of lifecycle’ approach based on three principles: 

  1. Wasting nothing and eliminating pollution
  2. Up-cycling everything by keeping materials in use
  3. Regenerating nature 
Huskee – 2018 Good Design Award Best in Class, Product Design, Housewares and Objects. Designed by Vert Design for Huskee.

Huskee uses coffee husk as a raw material combined with a unique eco-composite polymer. By repurposing this bi-product from the production of coffee, the Huskee range reduces waste from the coffee farm through to the cafe, where it diverts disposables from landfill.


  1. How might we use recycled materials across our product lifecycle? 
  2. How are materials across our product lifecycle repairable or recyclable? 
  3. How is our product lifecycle cultivating the conditions for human and ecological flourishing? 

Biomimicry – nature’s design genius 

Human’s are the only species on the planet that generate waste.

All other species live in reciprocal relationships with the places they live, wasting nothing, upcycling everything, doing chemistry in water, at low temperatures, and using only local resources that contribute back to the ecosystem that in turn create the conditions conducive to life.

Other species have ingeniously designed trillions of diverse materials, forms and processes. 

“The best ideas might not be ours” Janine Benyus, Founder of Biomimicry

The web of a tiny spider that is five times stronger than steel (per square inch), seashells harder than concrete, beetles that harvest water in the desert, seeds that fly, skin patterns designed to resist bacterial growth, feathers shaped to generate beautiful colours and wild networks of underground interspecies communication systems. 

It’s wild – literally. 

The concept of Biomimicry was presented by biologist Janine Benyus in the nineties acknowledging that it’s taken 4.5 billion years of R&D for species to evolve in the places they live.

How might designers learn from (beyond learning about) other living beings and systems and ‘ask nature’ for inspiration?

Warka Water – 2015-2016 World Design Impact Prize. Designed by Arturo Vittori, Architecture and Vision and Commissioned by Warka Water Inc.

Warka Water Tower is designed to harvest potable water from the atmosphere. It collects rain and harvests fog and dew and functions only by natural phenomena such us gravity, condensation and evaporation and doesn’t require any electrical power. The Warka Tower is designed to be owned and operated by the villagers, a key factor that will facilitate the success of the project. The tower not only provides a fundamental resource for life – water – but also creates a social place for the community, where people can gather under the shade of its canopy for education and public meetings.


  1. How might we waste nothing?
  2. How might we use and design materials that are non-toxic? 
  3. How might we upcycle everything? 
  4. How might we design materials at room temperature?
  5. How might we design materials at low temperatures?
  6. What problem are we trying to solve and how does nature solve this? 
  7. How might our food production restore soil health?

Designing for Better 

There is not one way to design for better – but myriad ways, by myriad practitioners in myriad relationships and collaborations.  

So how might we cultivate the conditions to design for better? 

  1. Nestedness – consider the place or system that your project is nested within and its greatest potential to flourish.  
  2. Trust – honour trust a unique and critical enabler, that it takes time and can’t be faked.
  3. Curiosity – creating team cultures that can embrace big, wild and difficult questions. 
  4. Diverse perspectives – actively seek to expand worldviews and listen deeply to others who are genuinely interested in the potential of the greater place or system your project relates to. 
  5. Deep listening – developing skills to respect and understand the meaning of others perspectives.
  6. Holding space – having the patience to allow for consideration and emergence. 
  7. Navigating ambiguity – sitting in the discomfort of not knowing all the answers as you proceed.

Luck Iron Fish – 2016 Good Design Award Best in Class, Social Impact. Designed by Gavin Armstrong for Lucky Iron Fish.

Lucky Iron Fish is a simple, reusable and effective cooking tool that adds extra iron to daily food and drinks. It is made from food-grade electrolytic iron powder that is FDA certified and approved for food fortification worldwide. The Lucky Iron Fish is a side-effect free source of iron, especially for those with iron deficiency anemia.

What other questions should we be asking? 

In our endeavour to catalyse a regenerative future, we believe that one of the most powerful things we can all do is to ask great questions and have great conversations. 

In shifting from ‘What problem are we trying to solve?’ to ‘What value are we trying to create?’, we propose this series of questions with the intention to provoke rich and constructive  conversations. 

Not all of these questions will resonate or be relevant for all situations, but provided simply as provocations. 

Call to action – have a conversation.

  1. Start a conversation with your design team, colleagues, friends and family. 
  2. Listen deeply with respect and kindness – put the relationship first.
  3. Discuss whatever arises  – the value is in the conversation. 

We earnestly encourage you to come up with your own and would love to hear what design questions you and your teams are finding energising and helpful.

Please let us know what other design questions you find helpful. Go strongly, gently.


Main image credit: NASA

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