Design for Sustainability vs. Design for Resilience: a time scale problem?

An open discussion about the meaning of design for sustainability and for resilience, and how these two terms relate to both speed of knowledge and time scale.

By Carlos Fiorentino

[Retrieved from paper submitted to the International Conference on Environmental, Cultural, Economic and Social Sustainability, University of British Columbia, Canada]

Defining Sustainability

Our perception of reality and facts is unavoidably influenced by our perception of time. This is relatively simple to notice in mundane things, in our everyday life. We know that when we wait for the bus in a cold -20 degrees morning, an extra minute feels like half an hour. We know that “time runs fast” when we approach a deadline or we see our children growing up. Although this paper will not discuss the relativity of time, neither in terms of quantum physics or psychological implications, the consideration of how a time unit is perceived differently depending on the context, is key to understand why we get in trouble trying to define what sustainability means for the short, mid and long term, and why it seems to be a concept that cannot fulfill the whole meaning it currently represents.

Sustainability is a controversial term, semantically and etymologically, complex in all its possible interpretations. It is a word that has quickly evolved in its very short life. The most accepted definition of sustainability does not exactly address sustainability. Instead, it is a definition about sustainability applied to another concept: development. In fact, the word sustainability is not present in traditional dictionaries. Only recently the term has been added to user-based public databases like Wikipedia. For years defining sustainability was still associated to development or more precisely economic development.

The Bruntland Commission to the United Nations introduced the most popular definition of sustainable development for the first time in 1987, but it was present in the minds of economists, thinkers and scholars some time before then. In the 1970’s. Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Norwegian Prime Minister, defined sustainable development as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. This is the most accepted definition of sustainability since then.

A more detailed explanation of the concept refers to the continuity of economic, social, institutional and environmental aspects of human society, as well as the non-human environment. In other words, it is also an attempt to provide the best outcome for the human and natural environments, both now and into the indefinite future.

Another well known and very accepted definition of sustainability is expressed by the triple bottom line, a diagrammatic representation of the issues that sustainability addresses, which adds to traditional business thinking of the “bottom line of profit”, with two new dimensions: the social and the environmental. These three bottom lines, in the shape of a triangle, indicate that the more centered in the graphic the approach to business is, the more sustainable a product is meant to be. The imaginary point in the middle of the triangle represents a sustainable product, which means socially equitable, environmentally harmless and economically sound.

In this context, if just one definition could collaborate to better understanding of Design for Sustainability, a first approach might be: Design for Sustainability is a process of design that creates the necessary framework to develop products of design or modify human behavior by design, which might meet the aims of sustainable development.Design for sustainability adds 3 new dimensions to the Triple Bottom Line as synergies between social, economic and environmental factors. In order to achieve sustainable design products, services and systems must meet these synergies: Designers have to take in consideration social and economic factors to make their design bearable; social and environmental factors to make their design equitable; and environmental and economic factors to make their design viable.

All these definitions have one idea in common: they implicate creating something to sustain. Something sustainable has the ability to continue a defined behavior indefinitely, and Design for Sustainability plays the role of a driving force for such ultimate goal. However, new necessary questions need to be formulated at this point: What do we want to sustain? The systems as they are? The future as it looks like right now? Would the word change rather than sustain be more accurate to what Design for Sustainability is trying to address? Do we need perhaps a better word to express what new generations of designers will be advocating for?

At these days, we are surrounded by advertising from companies that claim to be or working to be a sustainable industry. In particular the energy sector companies and car companies. Companies exploiting the oil sands in Northern Alberta, for instance, are aggressively spending millions of dollars on convincing the public opinion that their projects are sustainably sounded. In a very obvious way fossil fuel industries are not sustainable, but in a very obvious way they are also right: they are trying to sustain the industry, sustain high profit and economic growth, sustain traditional sources of employment, etc. Sustainability in their vocabulary does not mean change for sustainability. In other words, if there is such thing as sustainable oil we need another alternative term to sustainable design for the kind of design we need, because obviously we are not talking about the same concept.

Perhaps in the present, designers and many other professionals from all across disciplines find ourselves in a stage of realization, at the verge of an enlightenment period that shows us a gap between the concept of sustainability in the business-as-usual context and the concept of sustainability originally introduced or suggested by inspiring intellectuals like Aldo Leopold (1948) or Rachel Carson (1962). This two different uses of the word sustainability can be explained on one side, by the short-term sight linear way of thinking that follows the bottom line of profit, and on the other side by the long-term sight that envisions a world following the triple bottom line for diversity and balance, replaces maximums by optimums, and adds effectiveness to efficiency. In the core of both interpretations it is inherit the perception of time, scale and the speed of the changes needed.

In his book The Nature of Design Dr. David Orr adds speed as an intrinsically connected factor to our perception of time. In an attempt to explain how our modern society differs from other ancient cultures in approaching natural systems, Orr describes how the speed of information affects our capacity of acquire and process knowledge, or what he calls Slow knowledge vs. Fast knowledge. Comparatively, fast knowledge is always new, while slow knowledge often is very old. Sustainability is perhaps a child from our fast knowledge society.

Defining Resilience

In contrast to the modern word sustainability, the word resilience is an ancient one, originated in the 17th century, and evolved from the Latin resilient which means “leaping back”. Resilience is close related to other two key concepts: flexibility and restoration.

In modern physics, resilience is intrinsically present in the second law of thermodynamics, which introduces the idea of entropy or transfer of energy as a permanent condition for negative equilibrium and decay. In contrast to classical physics, modern theories demonstrate that natural systems are thermodynamically open systems and exhibit properties of self organization far from thermodynamic equilibrium. In biological terms, life on Earth, seen as a whole system, is resilient to entropy. While living forms are affected individually by the passing of time (from birth to death) they are also part of a cycle that can reach permanent equilibrium. Time scale and the speed of changes also affect the capacity of a system to be resilient. Some scientists go in further speculations, sustaining that the idea of time itself is a product of entropy. That is, the universe expands and makes the time exist or move with it. The way living forms and systems adapt to this idea is a way of being resilient to natural forces.

The Resilience Alliance ( defines resilience “as the capacity of an ecosystem to tolerate disturbance without collapsing into a qualitatively different state that is controlled by a different set of processes.” A resilient ecosystem can withstand shocks and rebuild itself when necessary. Resilience in social systems has the added capacity of humans to anticipate and plan for the future. Humans are part of the natural world. We depend on ecological systems for our survival and we continuously impact the ecosystems in which we live from the local to global scale. Resilience is a property of these linked social-ecological systems. Resilience, applied to ecosystems or to integrated systems of people and the natural environment, has three defining characteristics:

– A system is resilient when it can undergo with certain amount of change and still retain the same controls on function and structure

– At a certain degree, a resilient system is capable of self-organization

– A system is resilient when it posses the ability to build and increase the capacity for learning and adaptation (

In connecting resilience with design for sustainability, Dr. David Orr wrote an insightful definition while describing ecological design or eco-design –the closest relatives to Design for Sustainability:

“…[eco-design] is an art by which we aim to restore and maintain the wholeness of the entire fabric of life increasingly fragmented by specialization, scientific reductionism, and bureaucratic division” (Orr, 2002).

In this definition, Orr introduced the concepts of restoring and maintaining as a part of an integrated process of design. A chronological order is implicit in this statement. Design might be able to restore things first –products, systems and behavior, in order to later maintain a wished balance. Using the words that give title to this paper: in order to design for Sustainability, we must design for Resilience first. Resilience is both a conditional and a conductive factor for Sustainability.


Far from being a simplification of the problem, the time scale must be considered as part of the answer we are looking for when defining “design for…” Design for the short, mid and long term implies both resilience and sustainability as a continuum process.

Design cannot escape to this process, neither can other professional fields, industry, governments, etc. We might ask if the Mayor of a city can announce a 5-year plan for sustainability. While 5 years for a city is a short term, only a few restorative steps can be done in that period. A suitable word would be a “plan” for resilience.

Planning is to design what hope is for change and what change is for resilience and sustainability. Quoting Tomas Maldonado, “…designing and planning become superfluous when we have nothing to hope for, nothing to say to ourselves. Whereas hope without planning is a particular form of alienated behavior, planning without hope is its most typical form.” (Maldonado, 1972)

Designers working for sustainable futures must insightfully consider hope as a driving force for planning. Planning is about making time play a role in all our achievements. Time has to be used as a factor that works for the purpose of the design instead of fighting it.

Looking for the terminology that could better define the kind of design needed for sustainable futures is a wicked task, but also a minor one compared to the challenges that the discipline has to address. Perhaps the lack of one specific word to accurately describe the kind of design that is needed for this time in history is part of the new paradigm of design. Perhaps the limitations and ambiguity of the word sustainability is in tune with the short-sight and denial that characterize the Anthropocene. After all, like sustainability, design is also a young term, sometimes vague and often limited to describe a complex interdisciplinary field. If either sustainability or resilience are the terms that will remain evolved from a new design paradigm, that is something that only time will tell us.


Brundtland, Gro Harlem (1987).Our Common Future. World Commission on Environment and Development. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987 pp102

Carson, R. (1962). Silent Spring. Cambridge: Riverside Press

Fiorentino, C. (2008). Teaching Design for Sustainability in the visual communication design classroom: Preparing future designers for the next design (r)evolution. MDes Master’s Thesis, University of Alberta.

Fiorentino, C. (2011). Teaching design for sustainability in 2011: First results from a prospective curriculum. Paper presented at The Tao of Sustainability: an International Conference on Sustainable Design Strategies in a Globalization Context, Tsingua University, Beijing

Leopold, A. (1966). A Sand County almanac : with essays on conservation from Round River. Ballantine Books

Maldonado, T. (1972). Design, nature, and revolution; toward a critical ecology: Harper & Row.

Papanek, V. (1984). Design for the real world : human ecology and social change, New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Orr, D. (2002). The Nature of Design: Oxford University Press.

Orr, D. (2004). Earth in Mind. On Education, Environment and the Human Prospect: Island Press.

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    • idil
    • November 24th, 2011

    Carlos, quite nice paper and has makes good points to think about. Thanks for sharing.

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