We know that the need to address climate change is urgent. There’s no point in designing wonderful, user-centred services that will be redundant within a generation if we don’t tackle the environmental crisis.

To do this, we need to expand user-centred design to include planet-centred design. We share how we’re going about embedding caring for the planet through all our work.

From making the sustainable thing the best thing –  to making everything sustainable

In our blog “Making the sustainable thing the best thing”, we shared how we’ve been using design to make a sustainable product or solution more viable, desirable and widely adopted ie. “Making the right thing”.

However, “Making the thing right” (making everything sustainable) is less straightforward. It often requires a bit more work to reach a point where our team and clients consider the planet in every project, no matter what it’s about.

  • It can be hard to get people on board and put the planet on the agenda when the correlation between a project and environmental issues isn’t always obvious.
  • People need dedicated time to learn and think about this complex issue before being confident to put the planet on the agenda and convince others to do so.  
  • Finally, we also realise that the scale of change needed can feel overwhelming, so it’s important to motivate each other and stay hopeful.

5 ways to build the foundations of a planet-centred practice

Communicating the value of designing with the planet in mind is key to embedding sustainability in everything we do. We’re keen to share what we’re learning along the way in this blog, and hope it’ll inspire others to do the same.

1. Build a community of practice

Building our Thriving Planet internal working group has helped us to motivate each other. We meet every week to discuss how we can help organisations to become truly planet-centred, starting with our own. It’s also a great opportunity to work across disciplines, with colleagues we might not usually interact with, in our immediate project or practice teams, and overcome barriers together.

We’re now a solid project team with a defined vision, mission, objectives, roadmap, rhythms and rituals. We have three teams focusing on key areas: 

  • developing methods and learnings
  • building partnerships, and product and service offerings
  • communicating our ideas and work

We also regularly share learnings and ideas with the wider team and get input through learning sessions and workshops. It’s been great to see how it’s evolved from an informal interest group to becoming a strategic pillar of Snook’s work and practice.

2. Make it an organisational priority

A huge milestone was achieved when we formalised “Thriving Planet” as one of Snook’s core missions. 

This publicly shows our commitment to tackling the issue and recognises that the climate crisis is intrinsically linked with the social issues (inequality, health, and systems change) that we focus on in our work. 

This sets our clients’ and partners’ expectations and encourages them to consider sustainability in the projects they bring to us. It’s also instrumental in attracting, developing and retaining talent. At present, members of our team can dedicate their weekly learning and development time to building our planet-centred practice if they wish to. Going forward, we are aiming to dedicate more resources to internal development projects.

We also evaluate project opportunities based on how they meet our missions and target part of our business development efforts to bringing in work supporting this mission. Recently we’ve been working on including specific targets relating to this mission in the teams’ Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). This helps us to frame our day-to-day actions in relation to sustainability.

3. Use a strategic compass to stay on track

We believe that collective action is needed to achieve effective long-term change. To do that, we need to start with defining our own responsibilities and focus on changes that we can make as individuals.

A good strategic compass helps us navigate how best to use our time and resources, and be reassured that our efforts are worth it through the impact we can make through our work. 

We are starting to use established frameworks such as Project Drawdown’s Framework for Climate Solutions, the widely adopted UN Development Goals and Targets, and Doughnut Economics to help guide us. 

They give us a baseline to evaluate our progress against and assess what we need to leverage, change or strengthen.

For example, our expertise in service design, social innovation, systems change and collaboration, can be leveraged to navigate change inclusively and encourage sustainable behaviours collectively.

In parallel, knowing our current sphere of influence and where we sit in relation to systems helps us determine where we need to strengthen or build new partnerships with other sectors or disciplines so we can collaborate to make an impact. 

We’ve already worked with the food and energy sectors, getting sustainability on the agenda in our work with a  large catering firm that supplies services to higher education institutions and working with an energy supplier to develop a smart service with sustainability at its core. 

We want to build on work like this, with practical applications in every sector, whilst also building more connections with academia to combine the forces of deep research and practical prototyping and testing.

4. Grow the team’s expertise and confidence

Not everyone can become an environmental expert overnight, but we believe we can all become ambassadors. For that, the team needs dedicated time to learn a planet-centred approach and build the culture, in order to be confident and knowledgeable enough to discuss the benefits of working together to ensure projects are as sustainable as possible.

As we begin working on a product or service a Planet Ambassador should assess:

  • Direct impact: 
    • What are the environmental issues our work contributes to or is affected by? 
    • What is the footprint and material impact of creating, running and using a product or service? 
    • What are known solutions to mitigate it?
  • Indirect impact: 
    • What’s the system we sit in and what’s our role in it? 
    • What are the different spheres of influence and who are the decision-makers for this work? 
    • What are the invisible structures, drivers, ingrained behaviours and norms reinforcing (or deterring) sustainable behaviours and decisions?

It’s important to have a common language and set of tools that everyone can use to make these connections together and identify areas for interventions within our projects.

Similar to appointing Diversity and Inclusion and Accessibility representatives, we’re looking at introducing the role of Planet Ambassador – someone responsible for representing the planet as a stakeholder within partner organisations and projects. 

5. Learn by doing, testing and sharing

Agile principles are core to our work, so it’s crucial to test ideas and approaches in the real world before scaling them. Well designed, minimal interventions which feel achievable for the project team can have a powerful ripple effect.

Here are some of the ideas we’re introducing and testing:

  • We’ve been experimenting with “hacking” existing activities or approaches, such as including future generations in a project’s stakeholder maps so we also design for future needs
  • Discussing carbon-efficient tools and ways of working during kick-off meetings. 
  • Introducing consequence scanning sessions to think about the long term impact of a service, feature or product. 

We’re documenting learnings in our library of tools and sharing them with the team in learning sessions.

Making things accessible, tangible and fun and avoiding scare-mongering is an excellent way to get buy-in. We’re excited to take part in the Wildlife Trust’s month of Random Acts of Wildness in June, experimenting with ways to rebuild our connection with nature and regenerate it. 

Working together with other designers in initiatives such as the Design+Climate Community events has been invaluable. As highlighted in the Design Council’s recent Beyond Net Zero paper, the 1.69 million people working in the UK design economy work across virtually every relevant field, and at all levels from policy down to product. Designers and the organisations we work with, can have a huge impact if we work to ensure that caring for the planet is embedded into all our work and projects. 

But we also want to learn from, and work with other subject matter experts, from other disciplines. We want to build on the momentum leading up to COP26 to create more spaces for collaboration in the run-up to November 2021 and beyond.

We would love to hear how you’ve been including the planet in your work or organisation; 

  • What’s working well?
  • What’s not working or stopping you from doing this?
  • What do you need?

Share your thoughts by tweeting @wearesnook or contact us

Let’s build a planet-centred practice together.

By Aurelie Lionet. With input from the whole Thriving Planet group