Designit Q&A: How Can Sustainability Be Sustainable?

Credit | Designit
Miguel Sabel, Global Director of Strategy and Sustainability at Designit, explores how sustainability can be made long-term and embedded into businesses

Designit is a global experience innovation company that uses creative pragmatism to help businesses build competitive advantage and deliver positive change. For more than three decades, the company has used its expertise in strategy, design, marketing and tech to create bespoke solutions to the most complex of problems for clients including BMW, Kraft-Heinz and Microsoft

As Global Director of Strategy and Sustainability at Designit, Miguel Sabel Pereira’s main responsibility is developing new business models through design.

Miguel has led Business Design, Venture Creation and Service Design projects internationally in a range of industries including finance, manufacturing and energy industries, with category leaders like ING, ThyssenKrupp, BBVA or Ferrovial.

Sustainability and technological innovation have been central themes in his career, from creating SaaS for carbon emissions management to building data-based digital products for risk reduction in hazmat transportation fleets.

Miguel Sabel, Global Director of Strategy and Sustainability at Designit

Miguel spoke to Sustainability Magazine to explore how impactful sustainability can be.

Please introduce yourself.

I’m Miguel Sabel and I’m the Global Director of Strategy and Sustainability at Designit and have been for the last two years, but I’ve been at Designit for over a decade now.

My background is in industrial design - but I endeavoured to build my professional life around connecting the two worlds of business and design. I really believed that there was potential for each discipline to learn a lot from the other. I still stand by that now.

As my career evolved, my understanding of design's impact broadened. The externalities of what we create and how we create it became even clearer and, with some excitement, found this to be an increasingly common talking point for the companies Designit partnered with.

I’m very fortunate that my job is so closely intertwined with something I’m passionate about. I take care to be intentional in the pursuit of sustainable and responsible design and in helping my clients see the value in integrating sustainable approaches into their work.

What is the difference between sustaining and sustainability? 

Often, companies will offset unsustainable activities against responsible activity elsewhere in the business. 

Sadly, it’s quite rare to see a business embed sustainable principles into every aspect of its activities - which is why, from a design and innovation perspective, sustaining and sustainability can be such disparate concepts. Sustaining extractivist business models, for example, is unsustainable. The same goes for customer experiences that promote linear consumerism. Sustaining an uncaring use of technology, too, is unsustainable.

In my view, in reimagining what these harmful and outdated processes could look like, design has something truly exciting and meaningful to offer. 

To address challenges as complicated as these, with such wide-ranging implications, a strategic mindset is essential. We ought to be questioning each component of existing processes, what makes them viable and whether they meet the needs of all stakeholders involved - not just customers. 

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What are the key things that need to change to drive positive, impactful change? 

The key thing, at the risk of stating the obvious, is promoting action. 

As part of our work at Designit, we’ve surveyed hundreds of global companies – and what we’ve learned is that the strategic actions that make all the difference in creating a sustainable future really boil down to five things. The first two have to do with how goals are set. Any goal or commitment that isn’t fully integrated into management principles and intertwined with core business thinking is essentially useless - it becomes incredibly hard to measure how exactly a company is performing against said goals. 

Companies have made substantial progress in transforming their operations - but these advancements are lacking when it comes to product development and service offering. To change this requires a total shift in mindset: meeting sustainability goals is not a ‘nice to have’, it’s essential. These goals should be a central factor that informs a company’s proposition and drives the innovation process, rather than being treated as a politically correct afterthought. 

Thirdly, there is an obsession with sustainability data. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it distracts from the important part which is activating that data, working out how to use it and how it can guide decision making.

Fourth, a factor that you might not expect: in my experience, the strongest predictor of a company’s sustainability prowess is the intensity of collaboration across the board. Problems can be clearly understood and much more easily resolved when different departments work closely together internally - but this thinking should apply to different industries too. It would be great to see more collaborative work across whole sectors and value chains. This is ultimately how we make sure that every stakeholder’s needs are taken into account. 

Finally, a company’s staff remains the greatest untapped resource in sustainability. Those in leadership roles need to take the time to listen to their people - they both want to contribute and often have great ideas. Making sure the employee experience and the company culture are designed such that people feel they can take action is an absolute must. 

What is Do No Harm? 

Do No Harm is Designit's responsible design framework, developed by our very own Dr. Pardis Shafafi and Giulia Bazoli. It is to design what the Hippocratic Oath is to medicine. The framework consists of a set of principles that mitigate the potentially harmful impact of poor design work on third parties.  

The framework helps avoid tunnel vision when working on a design project: it can be very easy to become completely focused on providing a solution that is functional against a particular brief. Do No Harm helps keep context, macro-economic and societal factors front of mind as well, ensuring that what we do doesn’t negatively affect social fabric, the economy and the environment. 

Because each principle is tied to a specific action, the DNH framework is applicable in a very real, tangible way across all our client engagements. We believe that if design is going to evolve as a discipline, it has to become a safer and more conscientious version of itself. We need to develop approaches from within to effectively forecast, prevent, and respond to harm.  

What advice would you give to other executives looking to boost sustainability in the experiences their organisations offer?  

Challenging established approaches to customer experience would be a great start. I’d encourage looking into emerging concepts and exploring how they can be made use of, things like sufficiency or choice editing. More often than not, there doesn’t need to be a complete overhaul in a company’s approach to sustainability - marrying new ways of thinking together with established ideas like circularity can provide a breath of fresh air to the way products and services are created and delivered. Amending various processes in this way positions a company strongly not only when it comes to improving sustainability performance, but in re-imagining the experiences they are bringing to market.

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