Inspiration Sustainability Champions

Q&A with Dr. Mariana Amatullo: “Sustainable design is not a choice but an imperative”

Dr. Mariana Amatullo is a tremendous advocate of the role design plays as a driver of societal innovation— as evidenced by her ongoing work and dedication as a design researcher, practitioner-scholar, strategist, educator, and author. Mariana is an Associate Professor of Strategic Design and Management at The New School at Parsons School of Design. She is the co-founder and former Vice President of Designmatters at the ArtCenter College of Design. She additionally acts as Executive Board Member for the Cumulus International Association of Universities and Colleges of Art, Design and Media.

In her work, Mariana helps conceptualize and bring to life a broad array of international design projects, research collaborations, publications, and initiatives—all residing at the intersection of art, design, and social innovation. Including as lead editor of the book LEAP Dialogues: Career Pathways in Design for Social Innovation, which examines the changing role of design and designers in society and how designers can pursue these emerging pathways.

Here, Mariana shares some of her latest high-impact projects, talks about how she is working with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and emphasizes the critical role design plays in advancing sustainability.


Q: What is your main purpose-driver at work? 

A: As an educator and design researcher, I am moved by the agency and transformative power of design to catalyze social innovation and positive change.


Q: What are you working on these days? What are you most passionate about? 

A: These days my work is a mix of teaching very talented students in our graduate program in Strategic Design and Management at Parsons, collaborating in research initiatives investigating the agency of design in public sector settings with colleagues in the Parsons Desis Lab; and finishing a post-doctoral study at the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University, where we have been conducting research about the Innovation Division of UNICEF. Our study sheds light on UNICEF’s work via a Venture Fund that invests in entrepreneurs who are applying frontier technologies to benefit the welfare of the most disadvantaged children. Finally, I am also co-leading the management initiative at The New School. The latter is a university-wide effort developing an integrated approach for a new vision of management education for the 21st century driven by principles of design, creativity and social justice.

I continue to be most passionate about those endeavors that allow me to address gaps in our understanding about the value of design as a change agent in social innovation. As part of my service in the executive board of Cumulus, the International Association of Universities and Colleges of Art, Design and Media, I am privileged to do some of this work at a global level.


Q: What’s the biggest challenge in your work?

A: It is hard to point to one single big challenge. The work I do in the design for social innovation field is defined by complexity, so challenge is the name of the game! However, I feel increasingly compelled to act with a sense of productive urgency. I am very keen to see actionable outcomes result from everything I undertake. At the same time, I am often reminded that sometimes things just do not move with the agility we might anticipate or hope for. That’s when I tend to iterate and go at it again!

“I believe that sustainable design is not a choice but an imperative.”

Q: What’s the greatest opportunity in your work?

A: The greatest opportunity in the work I do resides, in many ways, with the students I get to mentor and get inspired by. They are the next generation of design leaders who are shaping the spaces and career pathways to take this work forward.


Q: How do you view the role of designers when it comes to bringing more sustainable solutions into the world? How much responsibility should they take?

A: I believe that sustainable design is not a choice but an imperative. The philosophy of designing artifacts, the built environment, services and systems to comply with the principles of social, economic, and ecological sustainability is foundational. At Parsons, it is an ethos that permeates all of our art and design programs and it drives several research institutes at our university, such as The Tishman Environment and Design Center.

“Sustainability considerations no longer represent a “nice to have” proposition; instead they fall in the “good to have” set of organizational priorities.”

Q: What do you see as the main business opportunities today in sustainability? How much responsibility should business leaders take?

A: In an era of increased real-time data and consumer-savviness for transparency, I believe we are learning that the most enlightened business leaders are recognizing a whole set of business opportunities in sustainability and acting on them. The triple bottom line, “People, Planet and Profit” is being very much integrated at the strategic level in the private sector. Sustainability considerations no longer represent a “nice to have” proposition; instead they fall in the “good to have” set of organizational priorities.

The circular design guide that IDEO developed in partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is one recent tool that I have found helpful in making tangible the role design can play in advancing this agenda forward.


Q: How do you view the importance of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals?

A: As we know, the SDGs are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all human beings have a chance to lead peaceful and prosperous lives. I believe that they offer a pragmatic dimension to complex issues. The targets they provide us with are critical in pointing to avenues for the international development community to have a unified agenda, and partner with the private and citizen sectors to tackle wicked problems and bring about positive change.

“I see the SDGs as an important blueprint of critical issues that are often interdependent and for which our contributions from the design community are paramount.”

Q: How have the SDGs impacted your work/the way you work?

A: Back in the early 2000s, I was very engaged with my colleagues and students at ArtCenter in bringing public awareness to the framework that came prior to the SDGsthe MDGs, or Millennium Development Goals. One of my favorite projects from that time remains a PSA and print campaign we developed in partnership with the UN Foundation that uses the perennial design thinking question“What If?”as the basis for a very actionable message about those original eight goals.

What If? from Designmatters at ArtCenter on VimeoRon Tapia, Director / John Emshwiller, Motion Designer /Chad Howitt, Motion Designer. © 2004 Designmatters at ArtCenter College of Design.  


In terms of the SDGs and how they impact the way I work, it really is a continuum for me. I see the SDGs as an important blueprint of critical issues that are often interdependent and for which our contributions from the design community are paramount.


Q: What specific actions, projects or initiatives are you currently taking that positively impact on the Sustainable Development Goals?  

A: My current projects and research initiatives touch principally on SDG #1: Ending poverty. Many of the issues I am engaged with are connected to socio-economic inequity and the cascading effect that these circumstances have in the wellbeing of individuals and communities. The next studio I will be co-teaching in our Trans-Disciplinary MFA at Parsons will actually address how we might innovate services in New York City for individuals who are looking to rebuild their lives after incarceration. Many of them are living below the poverty line.


Q: Can you give an example of a project or initiative that has made a difference and inspired you, which others could look to for inspiration?

A: One of the most inspiring initiatives I facilitated during my time at the helm of Designmatters was with Dr. Rojas and his team at COANIQUEM in Santiago, Chile. We partnered with this award-winning pediatric burn rehabilitation center on a number of projects that continue to date.

I take particular inspiration from The Healing Tree project that resulted from one of these engagements. It is a comprehensive storytelling design system conceived by one of the students in the Designmatters social innovation minor, Alvin Oei, with a team of students and Environmental Design faculty at ArtCenter from the Safe Niños’ course we mounted.  Basically the whole environment of the COANIQUEM clinic, including examination and therapy rooms, waiting areas, and corridors, were  transformed with life-sized illustrations of whimsical characters that are also part of a storybook and medical passport that the young patients experience during their visits to COANIQUEM for care.


Pictures from the The Healing Tree project at the COANIQUEM clinic.  

Alvin Oei, Design Lead / Belle Lee, Illustrator  /Lori Nishikawa, Research + Strategy  / Lauren Medina, Communications Strategy /José Tomás Marchant Verdugo, Industrial Designer /Yixuan Liu, Photographer. Images courtesy of Designmatters at ArtCenter College of Design. © 2017 COANIQUEM and Designmatters at ArtCenter College of Design.  


The team spent a lot of time immersed in the field and had the opportunity to co-design this system with the contributions of many among the COANIQUEM staff and community. To me, the results are examples of design at its best: empathic, holistic, and caring. The impact the project has had on the children has been a true gift and humbling to witness.


Q: How did you hear about the Oslo Manifesto?

A: I was introduced to the Oslo Manifesto by the team at DOGA (Design and Architecture Norway), when I visited them a couple of years ago, as the document was being finalized. I was delighted to sign and endorse it when I was still at the helm of Designmatters at ArtCenter in California before moving to my new position at Parsons in New York last year.


Q: Now that you have signed the Oslo Manifesto, what action(s) do you plan to take?

A: I am looking forward to continue advancing the SDGs through my research in design for social innovation. I am particularly committed to #17 and working through creative partnerships across disciplines and beyond borders to create new spaces for design to take on the leadership and agency it warrants to effect change.


Learn more about Dr. Mariana Amatullo and her work here or here, and follow her on Twitter @MarianaAmatullo


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