How can we create a common language?

Traditional pedagogies advise educators to establish a list of terminology – a common semantic language – when introducing new and complex topics. Around the topic of sustainability, it seems that creating a shared vocabulary could make great advances in easing communication across disciplines, and moving past semantic hurdles.

In fact, key terms on the subject of sustainability do exist: dictionaries, Wikipedia, guidebooks, and textbooks offer definitions from multiple perspectives. Despite these known references, there is still a running debate about how we might even define the term sustainability, much less the adjacent terms.

While the concept of normalizing language has merit, the very nature of adopting sustainability as part of a value system – not an objective checklist of tasks – means that we need a different approach. In fact, attempting to create a stable and definitive set terminology would also ignore our culturally diverse design community. It would also not account for the importance of a design student’s personal understanding of the concepts necessary to practice sustainable design.

Sustainability is evolving and personal. One must discover it herself to truly relate to it. In the learning environment, educators must establish empathy; acknowledge existing frameworks, information, and organizations; and develop a common center of understanding. These actions can result in an emergent and relevant language of sustainability within a given context.


The “S” word

Talking about sustainable design is not the best way to talk about it

Focus on leadership skills, participation, transparency, engagement, networks, human centered design, respect, and active listening. Ask students to rethink current paradigms and to envision a better future.

Understanding is the language

Sustainability is a frame of mind, not a list of frameworks and terms

By undertaking projects that address class/race/gender, socio/economic status, environmental stewardship, transparency, engagement with local and global communities, networks, human-centered design, multiple disciplines, and active listening, students will experience sustainability through a common understanding. The common understanding is the common language. It is not necessarily a spoken language.

Guide and facilitate – don’t dictate

Allow students to discover meaning on a personal level

Use existing concepts and case studies to encourage students to explore their personal conceptions of sustainability. This establishes empathy – an essential element in forming a common language or common understanding.

Experience locally, apply globally

A personal experience can lead to a larger application

Create a relationship between a personal (micro) experience and a global (macro) awareness. Once students have a common understanding and language at a small scale, engage them with larger related issues. Facilitate a personal understanding of sustainability in a collaborative and co-generative manner. The need for sustainable design exists in our everyday lives. Find meaningful, local, and personal opportunities to apply sustainable design.

There’s no such thing as sustainable

Less bad does not equal good, but it’s a start

In an effort to form a common language, frame the concepts as being within reach. Provide exposure to opportunities that are attainable – this may be a student’s first introduction to sustainable design. Shift out of the absolute and into the relative.

Texting + textbook

Augment with social media

Embrace the casual conversational tone of social media over the highly structured crit. Use social media and its immediate short-form content like texting and twittering as learning tools. The seamlessness and accessibility of these avenues of communication can provide a means by which conversation can continue outside the classroom. Social media provides a more casual and non-committal medium, and a method to brainstorm ideas and new possibilities for a project amongst all stakeholders and co-creators.


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