How Design And Experience Inspires Change: Rethinking Plastic Waste

Dr. Sally Eaves

The London Design Festival conceived by Sir John Sorrell and Ben Evans – and now in its 17th year – showcases the creativity of this dynamic capital city and advocates a positive local and global vision for design – and for change. It tells the stories of our time that matter the most to inspire curiosity and connection, evoke emotion, and incite new perspectives and actions on addressing the challenges encompassed by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Perhaps one of the most critical of these pressing narratives is Sustainability.

In the concentrated and immersive experience of the iconic Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), one of the most important institutions in the UK, the history of design meets the very latest in design practices. Access to this treasure trove of inspiration and innovation is democratized for all to appreciate. Today, in its grand entrance, visitors can experience a new, dynamic, and thought-provoking installation after its launch at the festival. The pioneering piece “Sea Things,” by renowned British architect Sam Jacob, aims to build awareness about plastic waste – something that has never been more important given recent forecasts that there will be more waste than marine life in our seas by 2050 (Ellen MacArthur Foundation).

I believe that this approach can play a vital role in helping to rethink, refresh and reframe our perspectives on the perennial plague of plastic – we must break the non-circular cycle and embed sustainability in by design.

Watch Sally’s interview with Ben Evans.

Seeing climate change differently with “Sea Things”

It was a privilege to spend time with Sam Jacob before the exhibition opened – a creator I feel represents the next generation of designers and innovators who foreground social, environmental, and economic challenges in their work. Sam explained how the installation was commissioned to help us all reevaluate our relationship with waste and the global plastics system. His take on this, “Sea Things,” was inspired by the collection hosted in the V&A and especially a pattern on marine life by Eames, and offers a contemporary perspective. As Sam describes, the piece “animates statistics” that can often “be difficult to relate to on an emotional level.” I certainly concur with the emotional response it brings.

The breathtaking, large-scale installation is suspended above visitors and brings together the physical and the digital. It takes the form of a two-way mirrored cube with an animated motion graphic within to reflect an infinity that seems both as wide as the ocean and as large as the challenges we face. It brings to the fore that if you were a sea creature, this could well be your landscape. I believe Sam has truly visualized his intention of “dramatizing the timeline of plastic production.”

Sea Things exhibit

This had an immediate immersive impact, and every time I look at the exhibit I see, feel, and think something new. It was also rewarding to see Sam looking for different angles and engaging with his creation!

Another part of the “Sea Things” experience is the remaking of objects from the V&A’s collection using experimental new materials based on, for example, coconut and tomato extracts. This reflects the potential of post-plastic objects in the future, with some novel creations now being exhibited on hand-turned plinths within the V&A’s ceramics gallery.

Sam’s views are echoed by Ben Evans, director of the London Design festival, who sees the installation and overall event as a platform for new ideas and discussions that sets the stage for change and could help create a carbon-neutral economy. Ben emphasizes the city-wide nature of the festival, with 400 projects across the capital. At its heart is the V&A exhibition, with the “Sea Things” installation the first experience of it for thousands of visitors. Ben discussed the importance of deepening collaborations to transform the plastics problem, describing the installation as telling “the story of a change in our oceans, from an ocean of sea creatures to an ocean polluted by plastics.”

Watch Sally’s interview with Sam Jacob.

Sustainability by design

It was enlightening to speak with Stephen Jamieson, SAP’s head of Sustainable Business Innovation for EMEA, to learn more about this partnership and other actions being taken to address environmental challenges. Stephen emphasizes that he hopes that the exhibit will provoke new thinking and action to support climate change – a move from passion to action – including opportunities for new designs and innovations in materials beyond plastics, as exhibited in the ceramics gallery. This brings together both design change and systems change.

Stephen also describes how the plastics problem must be addressed in three key areas:

  1. Enhancing collaboration across different types of organizations
  2. Achieving a better understanding of the impact and the sources of all we consume
  3. Using technology to enable new sourcing options and create new marketplaces

As a design-focused organization, SAP, as an enterprise software company, clearly and strongly recognizes its obligation to help design a sustainable future for the generations to come. Integral to this, emerging technologies and Big Data insights can be leveraged for better business results and to help achieve broader social, environmental, and economic impact results. This is the ethos of shared value.

Jamieson created the Plastics Cloud to help reduce and ultimately aim to eliminate single-use plastics waste. This first phase focused on collecting existing live data from across the UK plastics supply chain to help catalyze innovative thinking on how to achieve waste reduction.

This is now being expanded to extend Ariba Network, the world’s largest business-to-business network, to create a new global marketplace for trusted suppliers of recycled plastics and plastic alternatives while helping buyers to connect to them. With around US$10 billion worth of packaging flowing through this network each year, and most ocean plastic originating on land, this affords significant promise.

I hope this can set a new benchmark in stimulating a recycle market economy, benefiting everyone from the waste-picker community to meaningful brand partnerships, and cultivating product innovation while reducing environmental impact at scale.

Watch Sally’s interview with Stephen Jamieson.

We experience design everyday – it is all around us – but how often do we pause for thought about the purpose and potential of what design can achieve?

At the V&A Museum and across London Design Week, the contemporary, antique, and futuristic have come together and stimulated this opportunity – which has been a privilege to experience first-hand. Design enables a creative response to both local and global issues and can play a pivotal role in fostering new ideas, evoking emotion, and changing attitudes towards sustainability, for example around food consumption, energy use, and, as we have focused on here, waste management.

As companies, communities, and individuals, we all play a key role, alongside technology and design, to make our world a more sustainable place. I am optimistic that collaborations, like the one between an architect, a museum, and an enterprise software company, are helping to create the space we need to reinvigorate our approach. Additionally, forward-thinking applications of next-gen technologies are helping to bring new insights while invigorating a “coming together” for marketplace change and reframing narratives: there is clearly value in waste. In combination, this ethos of embedding sustainability by design helps us move from creating dynamic new conceptualizations for change to delivering scalable actualizations for a more sustainable future. This is a journey I am committed to and look forward to sharing regular updates.

As Sir John Sorrel mentioned in his opening words at the London Design Festival, if you believe in design, then spreading the word about its importance is incredibly vital. Please feel free to share your thoughts below or tweet @sallyeaves

The “Sea Things” installation is open at the V&A until 19th October 2019 and it’s free.

Watch the highlight reel with Sally Eaves.

Dr. Sally Eaves

About Dr. Sally Eaves

Dr. Sally Eaves is a highly experienced Chief Technology Officer, Professor in Advanced Technologies, and Global Strategic Advisor on Digital Transformation, specialising emergent technologies (notably artificial intelligence, FinTech, blockchain, and 5G) for business transformation and social impact at scale. An international keynote speaker and author, Sally was an inaugural recipient of the Frontier Technology and Social Impact award, presented at the United Nations in 2018, and has been described as the "torchbearer for ethical tech" by founding aspirational futures to enhance inclusion and diversity in the technology space and beyond.