Designing Sustainably: “Do not Harm” Principle

Series 5/14: Grass Route Social Innovation – Understanding the road towards integrating genuine grassroots social innovation into sustainable development.

Mini Series 2/2: Peace and Conflict Resolution – The following series will research the themes of Peace and conflict resolution in order to understand how they relate to sustainable development.

Connectors Dividers

Peace and conflict resolution is an integral part of achieving sustainable development. The absence of physical and cultural violence provides a safe place to work together and design a more sustainable future. However to achieve a long term sustainable vision we need to move away from traditional structures which promote business as usual, and unsustainable growth. To achieve this we must bring about structural change through the principles of Peacebuilding. Designers shape the environment in which we live, it is therefore important to apply Peacebuilding within Design. If designers can grasp these concepts, we will be able to build a culture of Peace and sustainability within our environment. What are the principles of Peace and Conflict resolution and who can they be applied within the design process?

The founding principle of peace and conflict resolution is the Do not Harm principal. Do not Harm is the consideration off the holistic environment within the design and its sustainable impact. This is a central concept to sustainable development and leads the designer towards the Human Centred Design process. Do not Harm is about asking the community if they have a solution to the challenge, and building an understanding of the environmental limitation with the community. To achieve this practically we must understand the different Connectors and Dividers within the community. Connectors are the structures that bring the community together; a sustainable design needs to build on these connectors in order to connect with the potential of the community. Dividers are the structures that bring about conflict within the community; design must address these dividers to design a resilient solution. If the design at any time negatively impact on the Connectors or introduces conflict to the community then the designer needs to consider alternative options.T

hese principles are in essence already applied into the construction industry through the way we manage Health and Safety. Over the last decade the UK construction industry has strived towards Zero Casualties, ensuring all staff get home safely at the end of each day. To achieve this we have built up a Health and Safety culture into the design process; from conceptual design through to the construction and demolition. At each stage we consider the risk and alternative options to reduce the risk. The same methods are applied in order to understand our environmental impact, there is however a limited integration of the social impact throughout the design process. The theory of connectors and dividers could enable the construction industry to build the Do not Harm principle into the design process. This would enable us to go beyond ensuring Zero Casualties and enable us to build up design solutions which have a long term positive impact on society. How can we build these principles into engineering and enable designers to identify with these concepts?

Jenn was inspiring in her approach to peace and conflict resolution. As we challenged her in the practical application of Peace and Conflict resolution she was quite clear in knowing the limits of her knowledge. Jenn didn’t apply the theories if she didn’t understand the social environment in which she was designing. I have met some inspiring Health and Safety managers over the last year and the one trait that leads to excellent Health and Safety management is being aware of the risk and knowing that you cannot solve the challenge yourself. An excellent Health and Safety manager works on getting the staff on board with the solution. Peace and Conflict works in the same manner, Jenn understands that achieving a sustainable Peace is challenging and requires each of us individual to develop in our behaviour and attitude. Sustainable Development should apply the same principles in order to get the community on board with the design process. As designers we need to be aware of our limitation in achieving sustainable development. We need to be humble in the way we approach and work with the wider community. This will enable us to build up solution in which there is a wider understanding of the importance of sustainable development, in which we can capture the human resource within the design process.

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Human Centred Design: it Starts with You

Series 3/14: Grass Route Social Innovation – Understanding the road towards integrating genuine grassroots social innovation into sustainable development.

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


My wife is an artist, she is driven by the creativity design process. Everything she does is led by a passion to explore research and understand different ideas and concepts. Before I met my wife I could distinctly separate the idea of art and design. To me art was about expression and communicating your identity through a creative process, design contrary to art was about working for the end user and building up a solution to solve a challenge they are facing. With this definition of design don’t we lose the idea of ownership and responsibility? Is the challenge of designing with the community, first about understanding who you are as a designer? When I first met my wife I started to understand more about the design process, I started to work on my engineering designs as an artist would; taking ownership of the design and crafting the details. The more I understand who I was the more I enjoyed the process of design. I was less driven by the result; instead I saw the process as an opportunity to grow and learn and discover my own identity as a designer. Is the journey to achieving Human Centred Design therefore a journey of self-leadership?

This idea of self-leadership is central to the design process. It is required in order to understand and relate to the problem, it enables us to dig deeper and find the route cause developing a design which empowers the community. This part of the creative process is the empathy stage and in order to develop empathy you must know yourself and use emotional intelligence to relate to and understand the problem. Emotional intelligence enables us to connect with people and develop a genuine understanding of the impact of our designs. This was where my week in South East Asia started, it wasn’t in the excitement of discovering a different culture but in the reflection of understanding who I am as a designer. This first workshop was led by May Sripatanaskul founder of the Asian Leadership Academy. We started to learn more about empathy and how it fits within the design process. The workshop was a great insight into how empathy can build up the creative process and bring identity into design. How does defining your identity as a designer empower you in the design process?

May enabled us to understand the connected nature of the design process, how each piece of the puzzle fits together to create an innovative solution. The process of empathizing built up the understanding and passion to ideate; developing different potential solution. The more unrestrained the process was the more innovative we were in our approach. This was a central lesson in the Human Centred Design process; there is a time to be creative and a time to narrow down on the idea. The creative stage is about building up on ideas, using creativity to create. In order to achieve this we need to create a safe place for innovative thinking in which we can openly discuss different ideas. Understanding the creative process and the importance of following through the stages of the design is the first step to designing with impact. Human Centred Design starts with each one of us, it starts with understanding the way we relate to each other and how we can encourage and build each other up. Is the basis of sustainable development about building up relationships and working together to create a better future?

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The Story of Strategic Development

Series 2/14: Grass Route Social Innovation – Understanding the road towards integrating genuine grassroots social innovation into sustainable development.

Mini Series 2/3: Human Centred Design – The following series covers the concepts and ideas behind Human Centred Design?


I have always loved strategic planning and structured development. It’s one of my personality traits which led me to become a civil engineer. I love the methodology and high level management engineers use. Everything has to be designed to a high level of detail and the design has to work together with this detail. Landing in Bangkok and discovering the city was therefore a little overbearing for a self-confessed obsessive compulsive perfectionist. It was challenging to make sense of the way buildings came together. The structural diversity I observe in one city in the UK was present within one street in Bangkok. The wealthy modern buildings where surrounded with self-assembled buildings. The city presented element of organic community led growth and strategic development. It was a great place to try and understand the different ideas and concepts behind development and the practical impact. It provided a great place to develop an insight into organic growth.

The first part of my journey into understanding this question was to understand the idea of sustainable development and economic growth. This question would enable me to understand the practical impact of strategic or organic growth. The level of affluence present in today’s society can be traced back to the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution enabled society to progress from a general level of extreme poverty to an affluent and opportunistic society. The issue is we have never been able to create a prosperous society in which the great wealth creates a wider sense of well-being. We have constantly worked towards quantitative solutions creating more effective and calculated systems. These systems have enabled us to develop amazing and wonderful engineering systems; our failure has been in measuring their wider impact. Two pillars of sustainability our extremely difficult to measure: the environmental and social impact; as a society we have ignored these ideas. It is therefore more important than ever that we focus on qualitative solution in order to create sustainable growth. How do we achieve qualitative solution when the basis of our modern economy is founded on mechanical quantitative progression?

The difficulty with qualitative solution is they cannot easily be defined or measured. Qualitative solutions require us to listen and understand the problems, potential solution and their impact. It is not just about having the best engineering solution but designing the solution which works for the end user. We cannot achieve this without Human Centred Design; our traditional design methods limit what we can achieve both economically and personally. In order to be creative and approach the different design challenges we have to rethink the reason why we are designers? Is it to design using the tried and tested method? Or is it about taking ownership of the design building an innovative solution which challenges our understanding? How do we take ownership and design using innovative processes?

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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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Iterating with Purpose

Core Goal

A few weeks back I wrote a series on engineering leadership in which I discussed the importance of overcoming failure in order to develop and progress. Failure is a natural part of the iterative process and is required in order to define and understand your objectives and goals. EDSI needs to be lean, to succeed EDSI needs to have well defined goals and a problem statement limited to just a few words. This has to be core to the project and everything EDSI sets out to achieve must be centred around this core objective. Defining this has taken years of purposeful iteration; digging deeper and constantly asking why.

The ideas behind EDSI started, a few years back, with an interest in regeneration and sustainability, and the question of how to consider the different stakeholders throughout a regeneration project. This has led me to study and research different ideas and from an initial interest I discovered a passion for different themes. To dig deeper I had to constantly move outside my comfort zone in order to understand different perspectives; trying and testing different ideas to understand how they relate back to engineering. A couple of months back I started the DSIL (Design for Social Innovation and Leadership) course, which is ran in partnership with UPEACE, the course brought together different subjects I am passionate about. This provided me with the opportunity to start EDSI with the tagline of connecting the dots between people and engineering.

When starting EDSI I didn’t have a business plan, mission statement or core objective. My main aim was to share my journey to South East Asia and my passion for civil engineering. As EDSI has developed, so have I, and during the trip to South East Asia I was finally able to define my core goal for EDSI. This goal connects what I am passionate about and enabled me to have a strong focus moving EDSI from a conceptual idea towards real world impact. Focusing on the why has taken me on the journey of a lifetime, in doing this I have built up a project with a purpose.

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