How can we turn abstract ideas into concrete actions?

Theory provides a foundation upon which a collection of shared and divergent ideas can be explored. It is a valuable analytical tool for understanding and explaining sustainable design. Additionally, theory helps to create a commonly referenced set of principles that informs the actions one might take to balance complex environmental, social, economic, and cultural issues. Unfortunately, theory in the sustainability space is considered abstract and removed. In order to be meaningful, theory must be connected to action. Without that connection, theory exists merely for its own sake and becomes purely academic.

Theory is often taught through close reading, and analysis emerges through class discussion. Readings are supported with brief summaries or visual diagrams, helping to clarify materials whose meaning is sometimes abstract and difficult to grasp. While these methods advance the accessibility of theoretical constructs, case studies and personal action accelerate the assimilation of the principles of particular theories. Furthermore, a continuous reference to theoretical constructs throughout the design process helps make theory an active critical lens and benchmark against which to measure achievement.


Question authority

Interpretations are debatable

Theory must be understood and taught as a living and changing framework, rather than as a set of prescriptive codes. Students must be free to openly challenge and debate existing theories. In a non-threatening environment, students can feel free to experiment with new ideas. They are free to question, and to ask for clarification and help. Continuous and varied feedback applied throughout the design process can help students to gain the self-confidence needed to formulate their own point of view, building on the theoretical foundation. Reflection is crucial for developing the insights that guide future actions and generate new concepts.

Mix & match

Embrace theory from other disciplines

Sustainable design deals with complex issues. This complexity requires knowledge, methods, and theories drawn from multiple disciplines. Theory must move out of its discipline-specific silo and into a dialectic exchange among a diverse group of stakeholders. Interdisciplinary work not only provides participants with a broader range of approaches, but it enables them to modify their respective approaches to form new methods.

Big-picture thinking

Systems design can avoid a slippery slope

Infuse systems thinking into the iterative process. Sustainable design addresses problems that are not only complex, but also contradictory with elusive and changing requirements. Understanding and actively registering the context in which objects, services, artifacts, and people interact promotes empathy and more well-developed perspectives.

Systems are based on collaboration, reciprocity, and a primary concern for the community. Students learn the art of concession and compromise, in order to work collectively towards a shared goal. Their active involvement in the design process creates an emotional connection, which in turn produces a greater investment in the process. As new ideas emerge, new patterns of behavior develop which can lead to change and the development of new theories.

Aspiration to action

Adding a tangible context to theory

Process or project-oriented learning such as contests or competitions can also help students to connect theory with action. Experiential learning can help students and practitioners to understand the role of theory in planning, evaluating, and taking action. Make theory visible in the real world by encouraging students to incorporate narrative structures like stories and scenarios into their critical/reflective feedback and in their applied work. Use theory to inspire opportunity.

It’s the system, stupid

Articulating connections across projects and disciplines

Systems are made up of elements, interconnections, and purpose. Good design considers each of these parts on multiple levels and scales. By being project-centered, rather than topic- or discipline-centered, we enable a more natural entry point into systems thinking. Theme-based classes that are concurrently or sequentially interdisciplinary can help structure a systems design pedagogy.


Theory as a unit of measurement

Theory can be a qualitative evaluation tool to validate an idea or action. Locating and tracing the strands of theory throughout the design process can provide a means for assessment and accountability. In order to do this, the basic principles of a theoretical framework need to be clearly understood (if not necessarily agreed upon) early on in the design process. Then theory can become a tool, rather than an abstract set of constraints and rules.


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