Sustainable Development: A Strategic Human Centred Approach

Series 1/14: Grass Route Social Innovation – Understanding the road towards integrating genuine grassroots social innovation into sustainable development.

Mini Series 1/3: Human Centred Design – The following series covers the concepts and ideas behind Human Centred Design?


Over the past few years I have been challenged by the impact of unsustainable growth. We have exceeded the planetary boundaries, the safe and sustainable working boundaries in terms of climate change, ocean acidification and nitrogen cycle… Our cities continue to grow with 1/3 of the urban population living below the poverty line. We haven’t just abused the environment in which we live we have let the few take, abuse and squander our resources. There seems to be no perfect solution to designing sustainably and creating equal opportunities. When designing large infrastructure projects we have a responsibility to manage resources effectively and consider conflicting demand. There is however a limit to what we can achieve through strategic thinking. We cannot design a resilient transport system, resilient flood defence system, resilient energy supply, or resilient social housing. Supply and demand simply means we cannot bridge the gap in between the resources we have available and the continual increment in demand; as the world population increases and leads more complex lifestyles. The current situation does not require a blame game, it requires a sustainable solution but how do we design innovatively and bridge this impossible gap?

To achieve this we have to embrace the most important resource we have; each other. As engineers we need to design solutions which empower communities to take control of their own future; their potential. This isn’t simply about placing people at the centre of the design process but about working with and listening to the community to understand their strengths and skill set. There is hope for a more sustainable future, this requires grass route initiative and social entrepreneurs, who can make a difference and create positive change. Over the last few months I have met different social entrepreneurs, I have researched the reasons behind social entrepreneurship and worked on understanding what makes a successful social entrepreneur. More importantly I have worked on one challenging question: how does grass route social innovation work with strategic planning?

The problems society faces are integrated they cross boundaries and cultures. They are not limited to one sector or discipline. More than ever we need strategic thinking and Integrated Resource Management (IRM). We can no longer work on solving problems separately, we need to work together to avoid unintended negative impact. However we will not achieve this objective if we do not also work/design with the community. The problem with strategic thinking is that it creates distance in between the designer and end user; there are too many stakeholders and it is impossible to manage. How do social entrepreneurs work with and design with the community? How can this be applied back into strategic planning? How can designers work on large scale global challenges without losing sight of you and me? The following series will attempt to explore these questions. It will study different concepts in sustainable development, community engagement, peace and conflict resolution, and understand how it enables us develop new ideas for strategic thinking in large scale infrastructure projects.

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