[3] Embracing complexity in Sustainable design

[3] Embracing complexity in Sustainable design

Last Updated
Last updated August 26, 2023

Conversation with Alicia Ville

Sustainable designer & strategist @VanBerlo

In this episode, you’ll meet Alicia Ville. Alicia is a Sustainable designer & strategist at VanBerlo part of Accenture. She will share her experience of embracing complexity when practising design for Sustainability and how designing artefacts help to deal with analysis paralysis.
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Links mentioned by Alicia

  • Vision in product design : Link

Raw Transcript

Note: This is a rough transcript that contains hiccups/typos. It could still be useful to the listeners that would like to come back to a precise point of the discussion.

Intro & Sustainable vision

Baptiste: This is going to be a quick quick interview on sustainable design and sustainability in general. We're trying to gather. Different perspectives on the, the, the word of stable design. Would you be able to introduce yourself briefly? Who are you, what's your age, what's your background? What's your job?
Alicia: Well, I'm Alicia originally from Spain. Grew up with my mother, Argentina. My both father French moved to Netherlands to study and now working here at Van. . He, yes, as a designer, so studied background in the product design and now I'm working in it product design that kind of like starting to go toward, its more strategic.
So, so like how's, how you, how you need to look at the whole system around the product to actually be able to apply sustainability to it.
Baptiste: next in line, I'd be curious if you can share a bit about yeah, your perspective, you, you told it a bit already, but your perspective on sustainable design, your perspective on sustainability in general.
Like what would be your, your definition of sustainability.
Alicia: Mm-hmm. . Mm-hmm. definition. It would be a bit difficult to go, but definitely, I mean, I've been dealing with sustain, like if I look. First I approach sustainability from reducing consumption. That was a bit like yeah, more meaningful consumption.
Like how, if I'm gonna be designing products they like, it should be about more meaningful products. And I think like for time I also been like yeah, sustainable design. I think it's really about understanding that it's more complex that you can even like, yeah, first I was really very solution.
Solution or ended like let's find a solution to reduce consumption. Now I think I'm more like, let's really try to understand how, yeah, how it's difficult to actually un like to, that everything is interconnected, so you gotta be like humble, just yeah, understand the system around things and. and based on that, take decisions always from that point of view of understanding how, how your impact is.
Yeah. Basically you're not gonna be everybody understanding your impacts of, so trying to do it as best within that, that respect of, yeah, like I'm, I kind of think I'm not even answering the question. No, that's great. Yeah. But yes, sustainability like design for sustainability in the sense. Understand complexity translate that story, tell that, and and designing, being cautious of that limitation, right?

Systemic sustainability

Baptiste: So a certain perspective on sustainability as a system and bit being humble with regard to the, to the system who question is then how, how do you, as a designer doesn't, doesn't it? Prevent you from acting to an extent, like seeing this complexity, how, how do you deal with this tension of like, this is so complex that it's very hard to see the big picture, but at the same time, I guess you need to do something about it.
So yeah, how do you deal with
Alicia: this? Yes. No, I think that's, that's definitely a frustration, right? Because if you wanna just. Do everything right. You just end up not doing anything. Or if you start doing like this visual storytelling of the complexity, then you end up not affecting your, you end up mapping, but really not having a and like execution.
That is eventually what is gonna be having an impact. Yeah, I believe, I believe it's a bit it's really understanding where in, where you can start adding and based on that, just yeah, start like really bringing it down to an execution. I think it's what I found in, in here, which is finding intangible things that are gonna be transporting and I think we used in the, in the past and I like to think.
An artifact or something that is like the way to ex execute or like, at least demonstrate what you could get from, from a more systemic approach. Right?
Baptiste: Yeah. So trying to make things tangible artifacts would you have examples of such artifacts? Like do you have ideas of
Alicia: Yeah, I could think about two ways.
So one would be. Using, like, just using something in particular to show how it could be done differently. So designing a artifact a product that allows you to interact with it differently. So by doing that, you. You, you somehow realized that you had patterns that of use or of assumptions that you couldn't have like that somehow, but for the use you, you get rid of.
And I remember a room that I was reading that. Had this man that was commenting that his father, like they were living in Berlin before the Wolf felt, and they were saying like, oh, it's impossible that the were like, this is gonna be the way it's go. Like, this is a reality. It's never gonna change. And then as soon as it felt he kind of reflected like he, it was very easy for him to accept the new reality and, and just like, yeah, it's like, , you need the, the action to appear and then you, you're very flexible in your behaviors.
And I think it's also a bit that, right? Like if you can use products as a way to change, be like actions, then like, yeah, something that looks very difficult to like change that mind look very difficult or would like to embody then become very easy if it happens. So I think that's a good thing about a tangible product.
And if not, I could also think about an artifact more as a way to tell a story. , just I'm thinking about a pro, a product that is a beef house that you can just build at your house. And it's a big house that is almost like a city that I could search and send you the link afterwards. But it just a, a very beautiful product that kind of engage you to go outside and like friendly and we behave differently and also, As it is a house, it kind of makes you also relate differently with the bees.
Well, it's more of a, it is not u like it doesn't have that much of a use as the other one. But it tells you a different story. So it might end of,
Baptiste: so could you say that it's, it's a bit about design for changing parroting is it, is it as maybe not, brutal is not the word, but as, as cut in time in this.
You maybe use a new product you acquire you follow a new service or mm-hmm. and then it changes your behavior from the get-go, or is it something that goes over the long run and, and takes a bit of time?
Alicia: Yeah. I, I, I couldn't believe we don't need that much time. I think Isabella was mentioning that she learned how to do ski like four years ago, and she got in Saturday while like back into her skis and she.
Literally very easily. I think like we're quite flexible. We're just like sustainability is not being implemented and we're just like very much executing. Again, if it's happened, not, not at an individual level, but at a city level, then like, yeah, you cannot make it like I think as an individual you could change very.
Quickly. Yeah. But it's then like, it, what makes it complex is that we just like have a lot of things assumed and at a more like, collective level. Right.

Systemic design tools

Baptiste: Yeah. I got a couple of follow up questions. So we've been talking about like the vision on sustainable design and just, just sustainable design in general. From your expertise, from your experiences are there methodologies or tools that you could recommend, which is very valuable, or has been valuable for you?
Alicia: Yeah. Yeah. I think a good, a good tool that at least like opened me to think about all this was the vision in product design, which I, when I studied in t l, was just shown.
which is one of the teachers there, like created it and I just had the opportunity to talk with him and he's just a fantastic person. You should include him in the box. Sure. Yeah. But yeah, it's, it's really this set of steps. So you start from looking at the product, then you will look at the interaction, then you look how that, what that means in trends or like, This where it sits in the, in the context where it sits and and then what they do.
they ask you to, to just ask what kind of other context would you like? And then you just do the same towards what kind of interaction would you like. So you, you imagine a future that you would like that, what kind of interaction would that mean? And you design back the product for the interaction. Right.
And I think it was the first time that I like really engaged into. More sustainability from this point of view of it might be not even about the, I mean, I'm very, I'm talking very about the system. Although my background is really from engineering, did my years of mechanical engineering and did my years of product design, right?
So it's apart from what I think is core, which. Designing better and designing, taking and thinking about the product, reusing the footprint of the product. It was a bit what got me this understanding of, yeah, like the product goes through a whole cycle and you gotta be thinking about that cycle and that interaction, whereas you're also missing about most of its impact.
Maybe not that quantifiable, but that other impact. And from there, so from the V I p, I think I. Jumped into more this system mapping. So could be the product journey map. Could be looking at customer journeys. It could be, but there is a lot of them. But I think that's a bit how I entered that word.
Baptiste: Right.
All sorts of yeah. System mapping and then wealth, vision in pro design first. Mm-hmm. . I'm, I'm checking concerning those tools, do you have examples like for example, vision in print design? Do you have example of. ways of applying it. Like do you have experience with applying it where that actually worked and that brought some, some valuable insights?
Alicia: Mm, yes. I remember. I mean, I, I used it mostly in the university context, but I remember this specific ASI assignment that I had, which was to redesign the delivery systems towards being more, more social. And that was a bit. The context in which it's sad, and then I use a whole method and and eventually kind of led me to think about the, yeah, the envir, like the fact of having to think about the interactions, but also to the environment made me link this idea like the, the whole concept to specific surround to, to its surroundings.
And also it made me brought it from. From this specific, yeah, from, from the point of view of like what is the value? It's a bit like this way of thinking what is the value that is gonna bring, and based on that I can, I can just design the product. So it was for sure, like eventually what I got from that product was a little well it wasn't a product, he was actually a center.
So we, like, I proposed to really to design kind of a center. That was the first point of a reverse logistic. . So you had all the parcels that were, that were brought back, that were given into the community, and you had this opportunity to just create a community where you had a Yeah, like obviously then you could see like you, you will have to look if companies will be eager to, but.
You could give back return parcels that would be destroyed if not, because that's a well, sadly, still a tendency. Well, now regulations are stopping that, but it is sometimes easier to destroy a parcel that is brought back from a delivery than, than actually open it. And look, if it is, if you can put it back into the, the system.
So yeah, I kind of like merged that with the city. So it was a center where you could just enable them. Yeah. Interactions through bringing back the return logistics. Right.
Baptiste: Okay. So reprocessing the package and,
Alicia: okay. And somehow I feel, I felt like the process did help me to. To, to just find that envision.

Carte blanche design

Baptiste: Okay. A couple of quick extra question maybe one, which is a, a bit tricky. If you had like a, blank check or something to design, like a product or service, a sustainable product or service what would be your choice? Would you have like a, a preferred choice? Like could you think about something that allows you to make an impact?
Alicia: Oh, that's a, that's a good question. I hadn't thought about that. Yeah, I wonder, I would, I would say it will be eager either something that has a lot of impact. So either I will look into redesigning some, some kind of computer or some kind, something that it's having a high impact from an electronical perspective or from a life cycle perspective.
and that I know that is very used in a global scale. So either I would think more about a product that, well, what, what we mentioned before, right? Something that has a bit more of a meaning. So something that would get you outdoors and get you to, to socialize with your neighborhood or get you to have your own garden.
And then you can be a bit more like just having your own. and maybe it's a sustainability which might not be having that much of a direct impact, but might help you to, yeah, get abbots that might lead you to be a bit more resilient or a bit more connected to, to your environment. So , that will be a bit like the two.
The two
Baptiste: It's crazy. A bit of both. So sending the right message.
Alicia: Yeah, I think I need to get a bit more of it. I'm just liking to watch the two sides.

Personal Odyssey

Baptiste: . No, it's fine. It's the system. Okay. Yeah, I'm thinking maybe as a follow up question, so of course this will be published on the Circular Odyssey website.
I'm a bit curious, like if we think about an Odyssey as a transition, it's like transitioning towards some places. Is there any transitions that you're currently making in term of process? Something you're currently learning, something you're currently doing, change of mindsets?
Alicia: I mean, I always studied a very more scientific approach to sustainability. So really like, and which I believe on, I truly believe on the fact that we have a lot of knowledge to be able to, to quantify and, and really have yeah, having impact based on what science has led us to better understand, but, I think I'm also doing a bit this, this also externally to, to the design.
Like, just like trying to understand what are the other ways to like, just not trying always to go for more scientific approach, but just also feeling like, like being aware of my gut feelings or being aware of something that's some, some I feel eventually sustainability, at least how I look about it, is if you look at the definition, fulfilling your needs without like, and letting the next ones also doing the same.
And I, yeah, it's like, what are my needs? Right? Like, and maybe like, it's not just connecting a bit more with my surroundings, with a, with a nice collective with having, I feel like Netherlands have shown me that I really like nature by the lack bit, but the, no, there's actually nice need too. Yeah, just understanding a bit more what is actually that, that end goal, because I can be very workaholic, so it's like, am I just working for sustainability by not enjoying my life?
Nah, it should be about enjoying. So I'm just kind of transitioning a bit into, yeah, I wanna make impact, but maybe the impact can be on individually at my scale and. Do wanna be. That transition though is Yeah. More meaningful, right? Personal balance.

Sustainable design in 25 years

Baptiste: Yeah. There is the, the personal, you say there is also what you're doing right now and maybe the transition to a job if I was to ask you how would you see the evolution of your job in 25 years?
Alicia: 25 years from now ?!
Baptiste: How would you think that would evolve?
Alicia: I hope it is still in the word of design, because I think it's a creative atmosphere that I really like. I still like the tangibility of product, so I think product design is really a thing that I feel comfortable in, and I feel it's maybe.
Maybe I'm seeing myself going more towards understanding what behavior is and just the interaction, what the, the interaction means in, in products. So maybe going more towards, yeah, designing for, for specific interactions, what that, that shaping actually been specific. Yeah. Behavior stores more sustainability.
I mean, loving what I'm doing of systemic design. Right. So just any, continuing on just storytelling. I feel design has a lot of value and we're just surrounding by designers that also understands it. But yeah, telling to o telling to others that might not be that used to think holistically the value of it, and by using visuals.
always something that I really enjoy. Aesthetic keeps speaking, but also like on this, like the value that they have in telling and it's, it's nice , so I wouldn't like to follow there in 25 years. I'm, yeah, , I guess just getting more people alone. Just shrink the way maybe living in some coal farm next to that power is the place where I'm working from.
Baptiste: Finding, finding a balance. Yes. Okay.
Alicia: Something like that and hopefully in a world that has a lot of regulations that make that sustainability happening and that, and there's no big companies that just mess everything.
Baptiste: Yeah. Nice. That alongside with the circular Odyssey there is this idea of going towards a 2 tonnes society, a 2-tonnes thriving society. So that relates to the carbon footprints, do you know about your carbon footprint?

Carbon footprint

Alicia: I know, sadly, yeah, because, well, not sadly, but I feel very responsible about it. ,
Baptiste: Do you mind sharing it?
Alicia: Oh. It's high. It was almost it was between seven and eight point something, and I'm gonna get a flight now, an intercontinental flight, so I think it's gonna go even higher.
Baptiste: Right. It's gonna be a hauling, I guess. How do you feel about it then?
Alicia: Yeah, responsible. It's also difficult right to that I think there's a lot of little decisions that I take in my daily life, such as trying not to buy. But I don't eat meat most of the time. And that then I try to buy, not in supermarkets, the, the fruit, but maybe asking for a farmer box.
And I like all these little steps that are actually conscious in my daily day and then what is a year I'm going like overseas. And then she's like, I've been doing all this. So it, I think. . I deal with it sometimes with a bit of frustration. But it's also nice to have that, something to look at. Right.
That is a bit more tangible. That, that you can see also your impact on and the impact of your decisions. Right.

Resources & piece of advice to younger generations

Baptiste: It's about finding the balance also. So we are approaching the end of the, the end of the session. I got a couple extra questions, which I ask to every interviewee.
So the first one is, can you think of a resource or podcast or a book you've already cited. Some, some, but that you could share with the people who will will see you, will hear about this po this podcast and, and maybe interesting to dive into and where you think about the first one as the second question, which is: Could you think about a piece of advice to share with younger designer just starting or even like studying in around design, but also sustainability, like entering the field of sustainability, entering the field of design.
Alicia: I think I heard the other. It's not gonna answer any of the questions, but I, I heard this woman, it's, she's called and she was saying we, like, she was talking about ancestors, so she was explaining the, how it is important to know the story of like, the story of like, she was looking at specific songs and explaining the stories behind it.
Some were coming from. Activist backgrounds or politics and some other like, well, she would just explain yeah, how it carries stories and it has, she asked at the end of the thing that just blew my mind, like, oh, think about what you wanna be an ancestor of because you are gonna become like your, your ways of living are gonna become ancestral for someone else.
I can't learn. That's too much responsibility. So that kind of resonated with your second. So simply too much of a responsibility to give advice to the next ones, but I will try. Okay, for the first one, I think I am well, the v i p book, it's a good book to gle like to get a bit more of a methodo methodology, which at the end is likely to tones, give you a bit more of a clear hand on how to act upon then I, I.
The book that I said the Berlin Wall was in, it's called Flourish, but I'm reading it still, so I'm not sure how good it is. I am enjoying it right now, although it's for architects. So it speaks more from the building and environment wise. Oh yeah, there's so many books. I liked very much one that is called The Life of Plants, and he speaks about just plants.
Mushrooms and how they're just like interconnected. They create the, the atmosphere and how we're just like, it's kind of like a note, like an ode to plants and I find it very funny. So yeah, maybe that's enough for books and recommendation. Yeah, for the piece
Baptiste: of advice.
Alicia: Just yeah. Study design. It's cool. no I think. Yeah, I, I really, at least for me, methodologies and thinking of methodologies and systems work, so I'm coming. My first background was really designed from a styling point of view, which somehow gave me more look into the end than into the process. I think all these tools that are process oriented are good, and even more, if you can still have a bit.
Intuition on them. Like, not, not that I'm saying like, oh, you shouldn't be super methodological, but they're nice. They're, they're
Baptiste: good. So balancing the methodology with a bit of intuition
Alicia: and yeah, I mean the intuition is difficult, right? Is what we were saying of being able to put numbers are, is very valuable, right?
That's a part of like knowing where the impact actually lies. But yeah.
Baptiste: Great. Final question. If if people. Want to get in touch with you, want to reach out to you. Do you have any account, Instagram, LinkedIn, something where they can they can reach out
Alicia: to you? Yes. It's Vil, so my surname.
Under. Like Under score. Under score. Alicia. Okay. For sure. Cool. Men liked it though. What about this? Better? Great stuff.
Baptiste: Thanks for your time and thank you.
Estelle: Thank you for listening to this episode. We hope you liked it. Don't hesitate to reach out if it sparks any questions or thoughts. In the
Alicia: meantime, take care of
Estelle: yourself.