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Q&A with Kristin Støren Wigum: “Designers need to ask more questions”

If you want to work more sustainably, more ethically, you need to argue for it. 

Kristin Støren Wigum is an industrial designer and researcher with a Ph.D. in Product and System Design for Sustainability. She’s also the owner of Gaia Trondheim—a small firm that’s part of a collective of eco-architects called Gaia Architetcs.  In her work, Kristin lets design-thinking mingle with sustainability and psychology, with human needs and desires, ecology, and aesthetics forming the foundation of the solutions she develops. Her projects are always transdisciplinary in nature, ranging from new material life cycles to modern co-living, and a new workshop which will help designers and leaders put the UN Sustainable Development Goals into a more accessible framework.

Here we talk with Kristin about some of her latest projects, the Japanese life philosophy Ikigai, and why designers need to ask more questions.

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

A: I’m trained as a designer, but I also work as a researcher in design and sustainability. Recently, my focus has become more oriented towards systems and service design.

Previously, I mostly worked with wooden materials. A lot of buildings in Norway are built out of wood and are also being torn down, so now we have more and more wood materials to use. Using it prevents it from being burned, so I’m helping close the loop. I’ve also been working with co-living through a concept called Gaining by Sharing. Together with architects, we interviewed people staying in co-living housing today to see how we can make a more commercialized version that doesn’t require getting a bunch of friends together. From those insights, we are now developing a co-living apartment building in Stavanger.

Gaining by sharing, and other projects I do, involve working with a lot with people to try and find out what their needs are and how we can include them in the design process. So participatory design has become important in everything I do. I’m now at the starting point in a new project in which we’re developing sustainable cottages in a valley in Norway to see who wants to live more simply. They asked me, “How can we work together with people on this?”

So it looks like I’ve become a facilitator and workshopper as well. You have to be careful not to bring up the wrong expectations in these workshops. Be clear, and listen to everyone as well as you can. Ask the right questions, go through exercises, and make it easier for people to get into the task. Also, challenge them.

So, my sustainability projects are becoming more and more about people. I really enjoy working with people and finding out what they love to do and what their challenges and visions are. But I would also like to look more into our specific relationship with nature—like, maybe our previous relationship was more sacred or holy. And I want to study the word sacred in terms of our relationship to it, movement in nature, and also materials. We need to stop for a moment and check where we are and ask how can we actually make more space for being human and connecting.  I’m very interested in eco-philosophy, but I like when it becomes very tangible and you can actually experience things. I like to work with artists and designers who are also questioning things like this.

“We need to stop for a moment and check where we are and ask how can we actually make more space for being human and connecting.”

Q: Are you doing any work specifically tied to the Sustainable Development Goals this year?

A:  I recently met with someone running a management course and spoke with 300 people in his course. Not one person had a question about sustainability.  We talk about the triple bottom line and so on, and I’ve been talking about it for 15, 20 years, but it’s still not common for companies to work with sustainability frameworks or goals like the SDGs.

So, I’m currently developing a course where we will try to put the goals into a framework that designers and leaders can understand. There is already a method that’s been developed called the SDG Compass. The tool is there, but how do you actually use it? So, we are putting designers and company owners into a two day workshop where we will teach them to use this tool, and challenge them to ask questions and look at how they can connect their work to the SDGs, both internally and externally. We will start with the compass, but will add designer tools too. Like how to close loops, material choices, and values. We will also work to fill the goals with more content that is relevant to designers. We’ll have to see who is attending the course and try to talk about the goals in a relevant way.

Q: Where can we learn more about the course?

A: The course is taking place March 7-8, 2018 at DOGA in Oslo, Norway. People can learn more and register at (in Norwegian only).

“It cannot be optional to work with sustainability…It should be part of the conversation from day one, when you start talking about materials and process.”

Q: What do you find most challenging about the design industry when it comes to sustainability? 

A:   Not entering the design process early enough or during the whole process. You have to come in from the front, you have to be there when the premises are set. And you should stick around until the result is in the market.

Q: What do you think the solution is?  

A: I think education really needs to be tougher on these issues. It cannot be optional to work with sustainability, and this applies for all educators. They must start getting serious about the environment and sustainability because it is a big issue. It’s really terrible that within design education, what students learn about the environment is still very fragmented. It should be part of the conversation from day one, when you start talking about materials and process. I don’t understand why it is taking so long!

“Often, as designers, we are so eager to come up with the ideas and bright solutions and be the clever one—because we’re trained to do that… But if you work together, you can share the ideas and share the solution.”

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: Designers need to ask more questions, and question the way we do things. Ask stupid questions! If you want to work more sustainably, more ethically, you need to argue for it. We need to learn how to ask questions in the right way, in a way that opens up the dialogue.

Often, as designers, we are so eager to come up with the ideas and bright solutions and be the clever one—because we’re trained to do that. But then, leaders or other important parts of the value chain don’t want to go after the same thing because they didn’t discover it themselves. But if you work together, you can share the ideas and share the solution.

The designer needs to take on the role of asking questions and working professionally with idea development. Maybe the core of the idea doesn’t come from the designer themselves, but from other stakeholders. The point is to bring it to life, and to be of service to the final product. Maybe something already exists, but the designer has the tools to bring it to life. You might meet a lot of obstacles in terms of meeting the goals of sustainability and connecting with the right professionals, and so on. But you always have to keep the red thread and get it together. And that’s the designers job: To not leave the process. Which can be a challenge in itself, since designers are sometimes hired for short time and don’t get to be part of the entire process.

Q: Do you have any role models in your work? Who inspires you most?

A:  The book Drawdown, by Paul Hawken. It contains more than 80 strategies for sustainability, and you can see the connections between all the SDGs and the solutions in the book. It brings up solutions that you might not have thought of as being so important.

Also, maybe a less typical source of inspiration in this field is Hildegard of Bingen, an abbess and magistra who lived in Germany 1000 years ago. I discovered her when I was a student. She was a holistic thinker. To Hildegard, art, medicine, the environment and spiritual life were closely connected. She was a composer as well as a leader and founder of several monestaries. She spoke out in society about unjustice and hypocrisy among leaders.

Q: Do you have any advice for creative professionals who want to get started integrating sustainability into their work? 

A: Start by asking yourself, “What do I love to do?” “Where do I have my energy?”

Recently, I talked to a young girl who is a makeup artist. What does that have to do with sustainability? You might wonder. Well, start asking the questions: What products are you using? How well are they produced? What are the resources? Who are the people that work on making these products? Then, suddenly you find yourself getting into gender issues, water issues, etc. You can take up any theme and start connecting it to sustainability. Often, it’s easier to get into the materials part of it first, but it’s also easy to start with quality of life. For example, let’s say you like computer games. What’s the message? What values are communicated through the game? Is it about sharing? Taking care of someone? Or is it just about killing? So, you can find any area from which to start up the discussion.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add? 

A:  Ikigai. It’s a Japanese life philosophy about finding your purpose. What you do for a living, and how you want to live your life. It’s a good way of checking up on yourself because you need to take care of your own sustainability. There are people today who are burnt out and so on. It can help adjust the direction of your energy and can even be applied to your company.


Watch Kristin Støren Wigum’s talk from DOGA’s 2017 Forward Thinking (Framtanker) Conference: 

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