Sustainability, Qualification back

greenlab: "We develop strategies not only for the market, but for life"

greenlab: "We develop strategies not only for the market, but for life"
Photo: © Malu Lücking

greenlab at the weissensee school of art and design has been implementing sustainable design strategies for years. What influence does it have on the work- ing world and industry? What paths do the students take afterwards? We talked about this in the weißensee Kunsthochschule's new magazine on sustainability with the professors and greenlab founders Zane Berzina, Heike Selmer, Barbara Schmidt and Lucy Norris. 


Interview Jens Thomas


CCB Magazine: You all work in the field of design research on very different focal points. Together you form greenlab. If you had to explain what greenlab is in a few sentences to someone who has never heard of it, what would your answer be?

Zane Berzina: greenlab is a research plat­ form promoting and fostering sustainable design strategies. It was founded back in 2010 as a cross­disciplinary research hub at the weissensee school of art and design, enabling our students across the departments to work on projects focusing on sustainability. In this way, our inter­ disciplinary laboratory links university projects with practice­oriented research and industry. Our aim is to inspire and develop innovative concepts for sus­tainable and environmentally friendly products and services. We work together with our students in ways that are very practice­orientated and hands­on, often in collaboration with relevant partners from research and industry.

CCB Magazine: Can you give a few prominent examples of what projects have come out of greenlab over the years?

Zane Berzina: We have many projects, several hundred since greenlab was founded, and some of them are very relevant: “Cooking New Material” by Youyang Song for example focuses on experimental and sustainable materials research. Existing materials are replaced with new materials which are more envi­ronmentally friendly and are derived from bio­waste – and so stand for a zero­waste strategy. “Black Liqouor” is another project, initiated by Esther Kaya Stögerer and Jannis Kempkens. It replaces petro­ leum­based plastics with biodegradable lignin­based products.

Heike Selmer: Another prominent exam­ple is “localinternational”, an international academic exchange programme focusing on fashion design and sustainable design strategies, which was initiated in 2014. The aim is to establish an awareness of sustainability and fair trade in the fashion industry for young designers. The focus of the last project run of “localinterna­tional °4”, for example, was on collabora­tion with female artisans and NGOs. In an online symposium, NGOs and compa­nies in Bangladesh and Germany that use sustainably oriented, traditional handi­craft techniques were presented.

CCB Magazine: greenlab is committed to sustainability. Since the concept of sustainability first appeared in forestry in 1713, it has come a long way. In 1971, Viktor Papanek popularised it for the design sector. In 1994, the sustainability triangle was founded to dovetail the areas of ecology, social issues and the economy – before sustainability and aesthetics were brought together in the Tutzing Manifesto in 2001. How is sustainability understood at greenlab? Is it reduced to ecological sustainability only?

Zane Berzina: Absolutely not! For us, sustainability stands for social responsi­bility that includes ecological, social and economic questions. And we’ve initiated many projects over the past years that explicity address social sustainability. The project “postcarbon” for example, where we looked at the social infrastruc­ture of the Lausitz region in Germany and what can be done to strengthen this area using sustainable design methods. In another greenlab project “living and working inclusively” we developed tools and spaces for coworking and, in the project “social design – shaping the world of learning”, we explored, together with our students, the possibilities of inclusive design within the context of Montessori schools.

Lucy Norris: For us, thinking about sus­tainability requires asking fundamental questions about the nature of the world we live in, and how we might enable each other to imagine new ways of living together as communities and as global citizens. How can we strive for social and environmental justice, envisage alterna­tive political economies, recognize and listen to other voices and develop more inclusive ways of flourishing in the world? Furthermore, how can we learn to make space for non­human life, and respect its diversity and abundance? Working towards sustainability will not be possible through large­scale techno­fixes alone, and requires massive cultural shifts in the way we think about our common future. In order to develop our sense of humility, deepen our respect for others and com­bine it with a new sense of purpose, we need to imagine multiple futures and embrace diverse approaches; we need to support the next generation of design­ers to play their part in thinking “outside the box”!

Cladophora, Non-woven (Photo: © Malu Lücking)

CCB Magazine: At greenlab, disciplines from textile and surface design, theory and history, visual communication and product design come together. What is the central aim? And how does it work in practice?

Zane Berzina: Our goal is to develop an interdisciplinary approach to design be­cause we can’t solve the problems of the 21st century alone. No sub­discipline can do that. That’s why collaboration between science and design is so important, and why interdisciplinary approaches are needed. And design can play an import­ant role in this. In the last few decades in particular, design has moved far beyond the production of objects towards sys­tems design and user­centered partic­ipatory practices. This also means that designers are faced with completely new tasks and challenges. Design is also about solving social problems. Keeping the big picture and the end users in mind here, while designers develop non­stan­dardised solutions, is what we try to teach at greenlab.

Barbara Schmidt: At the beginning of each phase, we encourage interdisciplin­ ary networking among the students on the “GreenDesign” projects via work­ shops and excursions. In most cases, teams of students from the various disci­plines involved, whose skills complement each other, form within the group. There are countless examples to mention here, such as the compagno project, which addresses the sharing of food under pan­demic conditions. The central question is how object­related boundaries in the pro­cess of eating can be made visible and be gradually overcome in order to strengthen the social fabric of eating through new forms of interaction: food, sustainability and forms of interaction intertwine here.

CCB Magazine: What happens afterwards? What paths do students take after graduation?

Zane Berzina: The paths are very differ­ ent. Youyang Song, with her replacement for animal leather based on fruit waste, is now in the process of founding her own company. “Black Liquor” needs further research in terms of applications of the material and the team – Esther Kaya Stögerer and Jannis Kempkens together with the Fraunhofer WKI (a wood research institute). Both are now teaming up with industry and pursuing further this prac­tice­based research project. As diverse as our students are, as different are their ca­ reer paths. Our greenlab alumni include, for example, “be able”. This company started during our first greenlab project back in 2010. They are concerned with social sustainability and design activism, aiming for more inclusion, creativity and social competence through the design of individual educational formats. “Wild and Root” is another example that originated in one of our greenlab projects “postcar­ bon” in the summer term of 2014. This company designs sustainable events with sustainable food design strategies.

Barbara Schmidt: But ideas are also pos­sible that are far from being commercially exploitable, yet benefit our work within the university. In the greenlab environ­ment, for example, Lilith Habisreutinger’s “re:lab” project has emerged, which has now produced a physical result for the university – a place that advances the circular economy in our own institution. I’m referring to the material cube, in which materials can be exchanged that previously often simply ended up unsort­ed in the garbage can. They enter new cycles of use, and the university saves the cost of disposal.

CCB Magazine: One problem with many design projects in the field of sustainability is that they are impulse generators for a sustainable economy, but find it difficult to hold their own on the market against large-scale industry. How are students prepared for the market situation?

Heike Selmer: In a wide variety of ways. Indeed, the transdisciplinary work alone is helpful. It is good preparation for future sustainability – that’s what it’s all about. Only these factors enable survival in a competitive and permanently changing job market.

Zane Berzina: In addition to that, green­ lab organises a yearly symposium with invited experts from industry, science and design as input for our students before they start to develop their own ideas for a project. This gives the students a very good insight into current discourse in the field of research and, more broadly, in the creative industries.

CCB Magazine: Are there limits here? Who does greenlab not cooperate with? I ask because the market is predominantly unsustainable.

Barbara Schmidt: Of course, there are boundaries. We would not enter into collaborations with players who violate sustainability standards. Basically, the students have to make their own experi­ences. We support them on their way. And it’s not just about the classic career path – we develop strategies not just for the market, but for life. We always try to train a critical awareness so that our students do not unconditionally submit to market logic. This does not mean, of course, that you should not be able to live from your own work afterwards.

CCB Magazin: How does greenlab manage to stay afloat? In Germany, federal spending on research and development increased from € 9.0 billion in 2005 to € 18.7 billion in 2019. Research and development spending has more than doubled in 14 years. In the area of sustainability, however, there is still no nationwide programme for the cultural and creative industries. How is greenlab financed?

Zane Berzina: We are a part of the weis­sensee school of art and design and of course financed by it – that means all staff positions are financed. But we also need to look for additional funding from our external partners to make ends meet.

Heike Selmer: “localinternational °4”, for example, was financed by the Goethe­ Institut Bangladesh with funds from the German Foreign Office. greenlab delivers forward­looking studies, and alumni have won awards. But as successful as that sounds, we have no back office, no rooms of our own, and hardly any research fund­ing. greenlab projects consist primarily of heart and soul. Of course, we would like to have long­term funding so that we can plan and involve alumni in our projects as researchers and teachers in the longer term.

Cladophora, bioplastic in stripe pattern (Photo: © Malu Lücking)

CCB Magazine: In the corona pandemic, we are currently witnessing how politicians listen to research with an almost scientific faith. In the area of sustainability, on the other hand, the signals have been ignored for years. What would you like to see from policymakers in the future?

Barbara Schmidt: We hope that the signals will be heard in the same way in the field of sustainability research – in our case, design. It’s high time. The energy transition, the agricultural transition, the mobility transition, the construction tran­sition, a materials turnaround if you will, and the fundamental changes regarding the way we access resources urgently need to be implemented. But I am hopeful here: the new perspectives we can show with the means of design open up space for changes where they are so obviously urgently needed. With the greenlab pro­jects, we are trying to make tangible what could be – so that we don’t wait until there is an acute shortage of raw materi­als to act.

CCB Magazine: Finally, a look into the crystal ball, please: Where will greenlab be in 10 years?

Zane Berzina: I hope that in 10 years greenlab will have its own working space with a sustainable materials library and some dedicated research assistants working there.

Heike Selmer: ... and we hope that we will be able to offer a practice­based PHD qualification. 

greenlab founders (f.l.t.r.): Zane Berzina, Lucy Norris, Barbara Schmidt, Heike Selmer

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