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Sustainable Design: Needs Verses Wants – the Good News, by Lee Barry

Submitted by on July 17, 2010 – 9:47 pm 2 Comments

Did anyone else get the needs v’s wants lesson early in childhood? I must have been no more than six or seven. The teacher had us say what we thought was a “want” and what was a “need”. Small frowns creased tender faces as we struggled with such a daft question. But the light dawned and we listed things like strawberry milkshakes, our favourite TV shows and to have the wardrobe door closed so we could get to sleep. We were gently informed there are actual only three human needs – water, food and shelter.  I remember being quite shocked that what we strictly need to survive is so basic. I still am. It’s something worth reminding ourselves of from time to time.

In the book “Carbon Neutral by 2020” David Trubridge writes of a design solution that sounds like quite an effective reminder – apparently a gift from the designer Inna Alesina. A water glass with a line etched halfway up and the words “want” above it, “need” below it. In line with the line is a hole drilled in the glass. A failsafe reminder of the consequences of misjudging want for need.
But we humans do it endlessly – in fact, it possibly defines us as human. Arguably we “need” a whole lot more than what physically sustains us. How often have you hovered under a soggy tent fly on a weekend camping trip, fed and watered sufficiently, and satisfied.  The needs have technically been met but….. for many people this experience just doesn’t quite cut it.
Far more attractive would be the holiday I was just reading about – cruising the French Canal du Midi on a restored heritage barge complete with local seafood platter, fine regional wines and a competent crew.

We are certainly well-conditioned to “needing” far more than the basics, or preferring it at least. I guess that’s where design comes in. Providing more attractive, more comfortable, more functional options.  Allowing us to gain more pleasure from simply meeting those needs.  That seductive quality of design has led our lives to something far from basic.

David Trubridge suggests design was originally a way to ensure survival – perhaps he means by fashioning stone tools to hunt with or clothing to protect us. Having taken us on a merry dance of over-consumption, design has been part of the problem. Now, says David, “everything has to be redesigned. The role of design will have to revert…back to ensuring our survival, as it always used to”. He also reckons designers have the power – “the training and ability – to question and re-evaluate every process, system and way of living and doing”.
To continue the continental canal theme, here’s a thoroughly inspired way to meet the basic food need. “Boatanic. The name combines “botanical” and “Titanic” and it embodies a simple, beautiful, re-evaluation of living and doing. Rottadam-based designer Damian O’Sullivan has conceived of reinventing those tourist boats on the canals of Amsterdam into floating greenhouses. You know the ones – huge panels of glass form the roof and walls of the single cabin, allowing passengers a clear view of the passing cityscape. But what potential! A floating food garden-come-market. O’Sullivan has expanded the concept with – what else? – a bicycle delivery service to customers who miss the boat.

If I may add my humble suggestions – make it bio-fuel powered from the used cooking oil collected from the restaurants ‘Boatanic’ supplies and irrigate the crop with canal water.  Maybe we can still get immense satisfaction from meeting our basic human needs.

About Lee Barry
Lee Barry is celebrating five years of being a New Zealander after many as an Aussie and less as a pseudo-Scot. Her time has previously been spent as a “cultural support worker” in arts and event management.  She now works as a climate change campaigner in Wellington and tries to grow and make her own stuff.

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  • John Knox says:

    Designing for energy efficiency from the outset saves a whole lot of re-engineering later and has the potential to make our lives much more sustainable.
    Designing for longevity rather than disposability encourages good, quality design and avoids throwing goods ‘away’ – wherever ‘away’ is! It also supports a local service/repair industry.
    Designing from ‘cradle to cradle’ acknowledges that this wonderful planet we live on has finite resources and that it wasteful to dispose of anything.

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  • Lee says:

    Thanks John – couldn’t agree more. Its all just common sense really. I get personally rather affronted when i can’t find a second (or third) use for something. I wish I was better a repairing things because, like you, I know there is no such place as “away” to throw them. Good luck with your amazing journey around Australia by bike!

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