Designing sustainable futures

In Ireland and the developed world, we are living in an unprecedented time of over-consumption. Globally, we already consume one third more natural resources each year than our planet can replenish. Likewise, in the latest IPCC report, stark warnings were made for the global community “to accelerate efforts to combat climate change and steer humanity out of the danger zone”. What do these challenges mean for our everyday lives and how can we promote behavior change for sustainable consumption?


The EPA-funded Consensus research project, is examining these questions – particularly looking at household water, energy and food consumption. To think of more innovative approaches, we applied a creative, collaborative visioning technique. This involved imagining future scenarios of sustainable consumption followed by working back to the present to design practical steps to achieve them. Up to 80 key stakeholders participated in this process from commercial, policy and civil society sectors in Ireland, representing a range of disciplines from engineering to planning and communications.

Visioning workshop image

Brainstorming session at a Consensus visioning workshop

For example, in our study of household water use, we focused on our most consumptive end-use of water in the home – which is our personal washing practices (including showering, bathing and bathroom sink usage). In Ireland, we each use around 50 litres of treated drinking water per day for these activities. Against this background we asked stakeholders to imagine new technologies, behaviours, systems of provision and policies that might help us carry out our washing more sustainably; particularly looking for ways that use less water and energy. Future scenarios were imagined for example where people adapt their washing behavior according to natural weather fluctuations, waterless gels are used in times of water stress and live feedback is provided on water consumption at point of use. These scenario concepts are explained in the video below which was created for the Science Gallery’s Future of Water exhibition (which will be a subject of another blog post to come!).


Visioning processes are increasingly applied in the commercial sector, for example IBM’s Smarter Planet initiative, or Philip’s Design Probes. However such studies often prioritize technology change and green economic growth without considering the social and individual changes that are required. Consensus is pioneering an approach that places these requirements for change in values and behavior at the centre of the agenda, whilst advancing goals of personal and social wellbeing. We are working across sectors to develop technology, education and policy proposals that together can promote dramatic sustainability transformations in our everyday consumption practices. To find out more see Consensus.

Authored by Ruth Doyle, Postdoctoral Researcher, TCD Geography


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