I just spent the week in Brazil and attended the UN Earth Summit on sustainable development. Here’s my ramblings about what it was like from a designer’s perspective.

A perfect setting for the world’s largest Earth Summit.

As your plane makes its final descent into Rio de Janeiro airport, you are presented with an incredible landscape: tropical rain-forests, a dense city spread around the coastline with favelas tucked into every free space, and a good spread of large tankers and ships making their way in and out of the port. From that aerial descent to your hotel you can see the complexities of what the Earth Summit, also known as Rio+20, has been trying to tackle: the division of wealth, our reliance on commerce, and our desire for more stuff, overpopulation, the ever encroaching hand of man over his environment, all set against the vibrancy and optimism of the Brazilian culture and people.

You have to forgive Rio for the fact that its infrastructure struggled to support the traffic: the additional military presence, the cavalcades, and the countless courtesy coaches that were laid on for 10,000 delegates and visitors. Even with this it was the perfect setting. Brazil is making serious inroads to make social and environmental changes alongside its fast growing economic growth, and it shows. Easily the best examples of sustainability, community involvement, and social change were demonstrated at Rio+20 by the cities, companies and government of Brazil.

I was invited to Rio+20 to launch an open innovation challenge that we ran www.openideo.com in partnership with Itau, a leading Brazilian bank, the US State Department and the US Environmental Protection Agency. The challenge is focussed on the problem of discarded electronics or e-waste. You can read more or check out how challenge went here.

It’s been twenty years since the ’92 global talks on climate change and social issues took place in Rio. In that time we haven’t made great progress in reducing our impact on the world. Since then we’ve had various events, such as Copenhagen and Kyoto, in order to reset the pledges that heads of state have made to help improve the planet. This year Rio hosted again the global talks in an attempt to reach new agreements and reset things such as the UN Millennium Development Goals. If you’re reading this then you probably already know that the official talks and the document have been deemed a failure by many. However, rather than dwell on that too much, I want to talk about how I would like to have seen the event work differently, and touch on a personal perspective on why the talks were doomed to failure from the start.

This year the event was very different. It reflected aspects of our more socially aware and activist times. As well as the official UN talks, there were many unofficial ‘side events’, so many in fact that if you’d have taken all the soldiers that were manning every street corner or riding every armored vehicle that passed and spread them amongst the different events’ agendas I don’t think you would have covered everything. In addition to these there were the multitude of alternative events, happenings, and protests. These included the ‘People’s Summit’, probably the polar opposite of the official talks which were invite only, conference style, mostly one way broadcast communication. The People’s Summit was a cornucopia of native cultures, NGOs, etc. that represented causes and their format was one of open dialog. Whether it was grabbing the nearest patch of grass beneath a tree or using one of their music festival like tents, mostly the format was a circular one, designed to be inclusive, not exclusive.

One representative from the official proceedings couldn’t believe I’d been to what they called ‘the hippy camp’. The people’s summit was far from that, it was a real attempt to create inclusive dialog and I found it one of the most tangible ways to understand the real issues facing people affected by the issues of sustainable development, especially locally here in Brazil. I met one tribal leader, complete with beautiful head dress, and with translation help, asked him why he was here. He said ‘because my home is being destroyed by deforestation’.

Design was sorely lacking

It struck me after a while that the thing I care so deeply about, and believe can make a difference, design, was scarcely mentioned nor were there any design firms except us speaking or doing any of the events. I hung out with journalist Paula Alvarado from Treehugger and we challenged each other to find design at Rio+20 but we just couldn’t, not explicitly.

However, when I reflected on it some more, I found my self wondering two things: 1. Why did I consider it important that design should be part of the Earth Summit? and 2. After doing this realized that maybe it was there but hidden.

What is Design?

To me, design is a way of thinking and it’s a way of life. It’s about looking at the world and seeing opportunities and not accepting the status quo. It’s about finding new solutions to those problems and engaging the right people in the process of creating new ideas. It’s about exploring new options and choosing the optimal one for the context in hand. It’s about crafting a beautiful solution, it’s about creating delight, magic, surprise. You know good design when you don’t have to think about it. Good design creates new markets, new jobs, it disrupts the old way of doing things. It considers people, natural resources, and the economy at the same time, rather than as separate things that different people think about in isolation.

Experiencing Rio+20

When you think about design in this way, and separate out the elements of this definition you can see how design is playing a role in the whole Rio+20 experience in many wonderful ways. It’s just that nowhere could we find it in its totality. Here’s some musings on how it could have been improved, from a designer’s perspective:

7 ways to improve the next Earth Summit.

1. Make it Accessible

  • The official proceedings used language that the average person couldn’t relate to.
  • Design has the power to enable people from all walks of life to relate to common problems. It does this, when done well, by asking the right questions, the questions that really matter to all of us, and by asking them in ways that we can all relate to, without abstract jargon.


2. Make it Tangible

  • There was a real lack of convincing examples at the official proceedings and event. Two examples shone out however, which were side events. Humanidad 2.0 was an exhibition describing how we have selfishly changed this planet for our own collective human purposes. It took you on a journey using all the senses of the quantitative and qualitative ways in which the world was needing help. I have to say I felt utterly depressed at the end of the exhibition, standing on the roof of the temporary scaffolding surrounded by all the world’s flags watching container ships sail in between Rio’s beautiful islands and coastline. However it left me with a real sense of the sheer weight of the problem. It made it tangible.


One of the rooms from the Humanidad 2.0. Each of these boxes represents one of the hundreds of native languages spoken in Brazil.

3. Make it Optimistic

  • The second example I found enlightening was called ‘Sustania’. Described as solutions focussed, it represented a call to action and attempted to show the way towards change, rather than debating whether it should happen or not. Brainchild of Laura Storm, with Governor Arnold Swarzenegger as the honorary chair, Sustainia was an event which aimed to showcase 100 solutions and will culminate in prizes for the best ideas that demonstrate social and environmental impact in the world. Everything about the event was well crafted. It felt human, though a touch pretentious at times, but even in these moments it pulled it off with spoonfuls of charm.


4. Organise by issue not by geography

  • The Rio Centro housed representatives from each country who all gave talks one at a time, mirroring this, an area adjacent to this, called the athletes’ park contained major countries and an exhibition of their best efforts so far. However this only proliferated the siloed nature of the way we think about our shared problems. This forced the public into a mode of comparison, which gave an unfortunate competitive slant to the whole experience. A feeling not helped by the fact that the Italian pavilion had great coffee and looked stunning, whereas some other countries’ displays were, to be frank, just embarrassing.

5. Help people understand these are systemic issues

  • Let’s pick one problem at random to look at another factor that illustrates the need to greater collaboration and less competition: the fact that one billion people don’t have access to clean drinking water is not an isolated problem, and you can’t treat it as such. It’s a problem that has factors helping to improve it, and factors that are making it tougher. What has carbon emissions got to do with clean water for instance? An increase in CO2 thanks to the burning of fossil fuels, is helping warm the planet, which in turn is causing the sea level to rise. When the sea level rises, even by small amounts, people who live in flood plains, such as the thousands of people in coastal areas of Bangladesh, lose their homes and migrate inland. This increases overpopulation and increases our demand on the natural and human resources, thus making it harder to find access to clean water.
  • Rio+20 on the whole treated these issues as independent problems which need independent solutions. Many of the best solutions to these problems solve multiple problems at once. A good example is Solar Sister, a company that equips women with solar lanterns and a business model to help them sell these lanterns to their villages in rural Africa. This lifts these women, but also their communities out of poverty, increases the time that their children and themselves can read at night, and provides 100% clean energy.
  • Design Thinking can help with this approach. By its nature this way of thinking tackles problems from different perspectives at once and does so by engaging people who may otherwise never have worked with each other.

6. Make it action focussed

  • This setup created a lot of self-promotion, selling, and a dilution of the issues that we should have been focussing on, rather than authentic conversation, honest debate, and action. What if the goal was both to agree on what the short and long terms goals should be, but also to create actual change in the process? This is an idea that both design thinking and the lean startup movement embraces: learn by doing. What if the next Earth Summit was all about ‘change by doing’ (and less talking).

7. Focus on the long term and the short term

– I don’t know how you change this last factor, but given most of the world’s heads of states’ (and CEOs’) tenures last 4-5 years, and our collective problems require long term commitments and change takes time, we are stuck in a short-termist culture where no one is motivated to commit to initiatives that will outlast their term in office. World leaders: take a few tips from the LongNowFoundation.

One of the most humbling moments of the whole experience was watching a cripple begging by the side of the congested road en route to the Rio+20 event whilst cavalcade after cavalcade of heads of state and official representatives sped past, hurrying to agree to something that had already been mostly drafted, which wouldn’t really impact this poor person’s life. Watching this, it made me wish I was more than one person, and that I could try to make a bigger difference. But to take comfort from Ghandi’s wonderful words, ‘My Life is my message’, if we can each try and act like we all wish everyone else would, maybe we can change this planet for the better, one person at a time.

Nathan, 22 June ’12


Did you attend the summit? What were your thoughts? I’d love to hear what you thought of it or if you have any reactions to this post. Please feel free to comment or get in touch.