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Design Visualizations

The power of design visualizations – imagineering potential futures of sustainability

Torsten Schroeder

Published Apr 14, 2021

1-Introduction

One field with a huge opportunity to bring more effective approaches to sustainable development is insufficiently recognized and explored: The power of design visualizations in their capacity of aligning diverse stakeholders and convincing them to enact the urgently necessary transformations. Drawing on research and design studio project this text argues that architectural and urban design visualizations (drawings, diagrams, collages, renderings, etc.) are key tools in architectural design education and practices to contribute to the creation of more sustainable futures.

2-The challenges 

30 years ago, with the launch of the Brundtland Report (1987) sustainable development began to occupy important places on many agendas. Since then many approaches towards sustainability were brought forward but many initiatives left much to be desired (Leach, Scoones, & Stirling, 2010). It is cities and buildings that inevitably stand at the center of our environmental future (Sassen, 2004). Cities and buildings are at once the engines of consumption of the world’s environment but they are also the centers of innovation and change. The battle for sustainability will be won or lost in cities (UN, 2017). Cities and buildings have the biggest transformative potential. Today, the challenge of how to give meaning to sustainability in architectural and urban design practice remains highly contested. Perspectives vary largely regarding what the issues are, which scales and elements to take into account, and through which design strategies/pathways to address them: Many focus on reducing CO2 emissions (operational and embodied), some call for more or less technology; some address recycling and resource depletion; others take inspiration from forms found in ‘nature’; some address issues of health and pollution; some call for participatory design; some question our excessive consumption lifestyles; and again others address human well-being, human rights or fair living wages within the production chains of building-materials spanning the globe. In order to achieve more effective initiatives, sustainability must be understood as a contested, discursive resource. This facilitates arguments about different forms of problem framing and different pathways to different futures. In this context, one field with a huge opportunity to bring more effective approaches towards sustainable development is the power of design visualizations in their capacity of aligning diverse stakeholders and convincing them to enact the urgently necessary transformations. Nowadays the sustainability transition is indispensable.

3-The crucial role of visualizations to bring potential futures into the present 

The majority of approaches towards sustainability lack the capacity to win over and convince stakeholders: They are either too much about limitations than about opportunities, policy guidance generally is rather dull and lacks inspiration, and quantitative performance criteria and assessment methods lack instigating necessary change. A creative boost is needed: the vital contribution of designers. ‘Imagineering Sustainability’ combines ‘imagination’ and ‘engineering’. A form of persuasive storytelling about potential futures that are both desirable and introduce fundamental shifts in how we live in cities and buildings. This process must be collaborative. Heterogenous actors - architects, citizens, politicians, engineers, clients - work together in a process of mutual learning to develop compelling future scenarios to instigate change. Visualizations of design become the key tools to facilitate the development process between stakeholders and to communicate proposals to the outside world. In response to clearly defined challenges of sustainability, these visualizations may construct and draw together specific spatial narratives: activities of citizens, alternative technologies, new forms of usage, emerging materialities, and many more (Figure 2).

4-Conclusions 

In summary, I present the following arguments for the power of visualizations to contribute to the enactment of the sustainable transformation: Visualizations can overcome the rather daunting nature of policy documents and abstract development goals. Visualizations have the capacity to render potential futures visible and thus have a pioneering role in leading the way in the sustainable transformation. This way they can bring potential futures into the present. The advantages of visualizations are that they can convey complex proposals very quickly. In order to enthuse, seduce and win over visualizations are crucial drivers of decision-making processes. This way they can become the glue (Henderson, 1999) that binds diverse stakeholders together, through which they negotiate, make choices, and work towards design implementation. Visualizations can bring together new coalitions and align diverse actors around a shared vision (Hajer, 2017). They can become shared products of shared stakeholders. Visualizations enable stakeholders to make decisions in situations of extreme complexity and uncertainty. In the controversies of giving meaning to sustainability, visualizations can slow down, modify, and perturb predominant perceptions. Visualizations can question and intervene in given arrangements, can take a position in a conflict over ways of perceptions and interventions (Rancière, 2004). Visualizations can progressively introduce and activate novel problem formulations, new potential pathways, and new ways of giving meaning to the world. Visualizations can play an important role to change how we view and in turn make the world. And design practices and their visualizations can make a crucial contribution to the vital question of how or in what kind of a world do we want to live in the future?


References


Hajer, M. (2017). The Power of Imagination. In. Retrieved from https://www.uu.nl/file/60195/download?token=jNg9xywH 

Henderson, K. (1999). On line and on paper : visual representations, visual culture, and computer graphics in design. Cambridge, Mass. ; London: MIT Press. 

Leach, M., Scoones, I., & Stirling, A. (2010). Dynamic sustainabilities : technology, environment, social justice. London: Earthscan.

Rancière, J. (2004). The politics of aesthetics: the distribution of the sensible. London: Continuum. 

Sassen, S. (2004). Human Settlement Development: The central Role of Cities in our environmental Future - Constraints and possibilities. In Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems. Retrieved from http://www.eolss.net [accessed 8 November 2007] 

UN (United Nations). (2017). Battle for Sustainability Will Be Won or Lost in Cities, Deputy Secretary-General Tells High-Level General Assembly Meeting on New Urban Agenda, UN-Habitat [Press release]. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/press/en/2017/dsgsm1080.doc.htm

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