By Kevin Boon

REAL takes a look at Design Council’s April 2021 report. Design Council is the government’s advisor on design. Their mission is to make life better by design. Enabling sustainable living is one of their three key priorities outlined in their Strategy 2020-24. As part of their work to improve design standards and promote sustainable development, they have been conducting research into design for net zero. Over the summer of 2020 a team at Design Council set out to research how design methods, frameworks and principles were being used to achieve net zero, including circular and systemic methods. They wanted to work across business, public and the third sector, in alignment with the UK government’s target outcome of net zero emissions by 2050.

They found, through their work, that many experts agree that aiming for net zero alone is not ambitious enough. Net zero plans often rely upon continued global inequality. Furthermore, these goals do nothing to address other destructive behaviours such as loss of biodiversity and environmental pollution. They believe there is a need to focus not only on fossil fuel reduction but on broader regenerative goals. It is vital that we take a holistic approach that encourages actions that are environmentally and socially sustainable.

Key insights from the study were as follows:

  • Net zero is not enough. We need to focus on broader concepts of sustainability or regeneration.
  • There is lots of technical knowledge already out there but it is not accessible to many or not being used in the right ways.
  • Designers need to work more systematically.

The project involved interviewing individuals from a range of industries from architecture to fashion.


Language was identified as being a barrier. The recommendation was that designers need to use terms that are clearly understood across fields such as the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. Terms must be agreed upon with partners from the beginning of the design process to define clear and meaningful goals. They talk about the importance of collaboration and forming equitable partnerships. Systemic thinking is also identified as being important with design playing a role as a bridge or translator across different sectors and professions.

There is currently a focus on profit and “the bottom line” with many harmful effects not being visible or immediate. The report recommends that designers need to benchmark and measure the social and environmental impact of their work.

In society, cultural change is happening especially amongst younger people. However this is taking place at a slower pace in organisations. The recommendation is that design processes need to articulate and commit to the values that they want to bring into the world through products, services, and places.

To translate knowledge into action, there is a need for Design Council to support the development of ethical and sustainability standards across different design sectors. To facilitate change and overcome logistical challenges, the study finds that Design Council needs to support alternative design commissioning processes that are experimental, visionary and expansive, at the same time as being inclusive, achievable and sustainable.


Design Council identifies that there are small pockets of design-led systemic change taking place. They see four key roles leading change: system thinkers, leaders and storytellers, designers and makers, and connectors and conveners. For projects to be effective, all of these roles must be filled from the start of the process. The report provides examples of projects relating to these areas.


Design Council believes there are a number of things that need to change within the design process to help designers work more sustainably and systemically. The report sets out six principles for systemic design which can be used to help people to develop or adapt new design methods and tools from their own practice. These are:

  • People and planet centred – focusing on the shared benefits of all living things
  • Zooming in and out – from the micro to macro, from root cause to hopeful vision, from the present to the future, from the personal to the wider system.
  • Testing and growing ideas – making things to see how they work and help more things emerge.
  • Inclusive and welcoming difference – creating safe, shared spaces and language to bring in multiple and marginalised perspectives.
  • Collaborating and connecting – seeing a project as one element in a wider movement for change.
  • Circular and regenerative – focus on existing assets (physical and social) and how we can re-use, nurture and grow these.

Their research has shown that systemic design works best when the four core roles (system thinkers, leaders and storytellers, designers and makers, and connectors and conveners) are fulfilled.

The report considers the design process as a series of stages (orientation and vision, explore, reframe, create, catalyse) and looks at the activities which are important for each stage.

Click here for the full report.