Urge is a new creative collective formed to help organisations “create and enact radical responses to the climate emergency”. Its founders include designers Ella Doran and Harry Pearce, creative director Faizia Khan, architect Michael Pawlyn, filmmaker Dougal Wilson, and ex-CR editor Patrick Burgoyne.
CR spoke to three more of the founders – designer Sophie Thomas and strategists Federico Gaggio and John Grant – about the aims of the group and the parallels between redirecting a business to become sustainable and the process of digital transformation.
CR: What’s the idea behind Urge, and how did the group come together?
John Grant: I think we’re at something of a tipping point where organisations of all sizes have woken up to a climate and ecological emergency and are making quite ambitious and proportionate commitments to science-based targets or to becoming net zero. I see Urge as a kind of creative Avengers Assemble! That’s the premise for me. Individually, I have a consulting practice just as some of the others have, but the Avengers Assemble notion is that this is too big and too urgent to keep fiddling in the margins. By coming together we can achieve more than we could as individuals. We don’t want to be a think tank. We want to be contributing to efforts which move the needle in this crisis.
Sophie Thomas: John and I have been talking about design’s response to sustainability and to climate change for a good decade, but I think the kind of tipping point for Urge was the calls for action from people like Greta Thunberg and the declarations of a climate emergency that were coming out. Lots of people are waking up to the fact that this stuff is happening now and we are hitting certain points of no return. The question was, how do we use our creativity and imagination to really change the way we live and change our planetary behaviour, to give agency to us as designers to be able to make effective change?
By coming together we can achieve more than we could as individuals. We don’t want to be a think tank. We want to be contributing to efforts which move the needle
Federico Gaggio: I met John much more recently, at an event at the RSA around purpose. The conversation was the usual one about the role of purpose in brands and strategies and John and I were both frustrated that these debates don’t really look at the systemic nature of these issues. That was around the time when Extinction Rebellion wrote their letter to the advertising industry and so we were talking about the fact that well, they’re absolutely right, we have, as communicators, the power to inspire people and to shift mindsets in significant ways.
So Urge is a way to join forces around a common vision that will allow us to work in a way that individually we cannot do. We will leverage creativity and design to develop radical responses to the climate emergency. As thinkers, designers and creators, we take responsibility for what we put into the world and are putting our talent and expertise at the service of communities, businesses and organisations who take responsibility for their impact and choose to align their actions with their beliefs, aligning sustainability commitments with business strategies and practices.
ST: We must all become active and activists – we’ve done enough talking. We have a core founders group right now, but we will be building out the collective to include people with the diverse range of experiences and backgrounds that we will need in order to create the responses required for climate action.
Documentary on waste by director Paul Wyatt
FG: And I think that’s what is also exciting about bringing a diverse group together like this because we can bring new perspectives and ways of inventing new solutions to organisations, and then prototype solutions, work together with the people within the industry and within their organisations. We are not about talking, we’re about doing. It’s no longer about raising the alarm – the alarm is already ringing loudly. Now it’s about translating things into actual change.
JG: I think there are quite a lot of consultants in the world that can tell you what your sustainability problems are, but are not necessarily going to help with the creative leaps needed in order to find a solution or to make that solution work in practice. That’s the gap that we are addressing.
CR: What kind of projects do you see Urge working on?
ST: One thing we’re definitely not going to accept are greenwash projects which just fiddle around the edges. We’re looking for companies which have signed up to, say, becoming zero carbon, and we’ll help them understand how that’s done in practical terms. We’ll take you through the steps and work with your teams to help you do it. We want to set up a space where we can bring teams in from different businesses to help them really unpack some of the big problems and help them with new ideas or help them understand where the hotspots in their businesses are.
JG: I think where we can have the most impact is either in huge organisations that have made commitments and are saying, ‘well, what now?’, and helping them find the pathway forward, or working with the disruptors who might displace those businesses and who need to grow as quickly as possible.
CR: You’ve said you want Urge to play a role in design education – in what way?
ST: I’m seriously concerned about the state of the design education sector at the moment, partly because of funding and the impact of Covid and partly because even though there are many pushing for it, we are still not seeing design for sustainability embedded into every single design school curriculum. Our ambition is to be open source and share our experience with the education sector through briefs and action. Our first move will be to build an advisory board solely with the generation still at school who are interested in design and passionate about the planet. Young people have strong moral compasses and we want to help to give them agency to be able to take this into their future career.
FG: It’s about learning how to question and how to ask better questions and find better answers. That’s part of the shift that, I think, the education side of Urge needs to look for: how do you shift the mindset around education? Ken Robinson was famous for saying that education takes the creativity out of you.
We are not about talking, we’re about doing. It’s no longer about raising the alarm – the alarm is already ringing loudly. It’s about translating things into actual change
ST: A discussion in a recent panel debate around designed-in contamination brought up the issue of how parts of a brand’s logo or marketing can often be detrimental to how the packaging will get recycled or repurposed at the end-of-life stage. These ‘brand critical’ elements which include foil blocking, colour in material or plastic wraps are often cited as non-negotiable and vital to the brand. I wonder when this will be flipped around so that a designer could override such decisions with an option that is ‘planet critical’. This whole debate is about the way that we prioritise product sales over and above planetary health, and ultimately our health. This is not how it should be, to me it is a failure of the imagination. Waste is a design flaw.
JG: The phrase ‘paradigm shift’ comes from a book by Thomas Kuhn. It studied the structure of scientific revolutions and he makes the point that all paradigm shifters historically have tended to be young or new to a field or both: the old game becomes untenable and unplayable. But the old professors will keep playing it just as the old designers will keep churning out plastic shampoo bottles because tradition and culture are inherently conservative and people that have succeeded within the rules of the old game will carry on playing it. The new generation does have the opportunity to accelerate change and we’ve seen in all the social values surveys around the world that the young generation are extremely motivated, not only on climate change but diversity and other issues and you see that right across the world. But they are vulnerable, going through an education system and a set of institutions that often tell them to put aside their ‘childish, naïve’ political views and conform in order to get a job.
CR: What are the conditions that need to exist within an organisation to make a genuine change when it comes to sustainability – to really address these issues at more than just a very superficial, greenwashing level?
JG: I think the word often used to describe those conditions is ‘realisation’. Somebody – sometimes the CEO, sometimes the sustainability director – somebody with a lot of influence in the organisation has grasped the situation and realises what needs to change. That’s exactly what happened with digital – a new generation of leadership came through in the 90s who saw that the world was going to be digital, that every business was going to be a software business. They realised that there would be an inevitable transition to a new digital economy and the choice was whether to be a leader within that or to stand like King Canute against the tide and see how that goes. Now the same is happening with sustainability.
Urge member Michael Pawlyn on designing the Eden Project
This is also happening within a context where major investors are telling every organisation to attend to this and telling them that there are huge negative consequences if they don’t decarbonise their balance sheets and they don’t move into green and thriving future markets. That pressure has been building over 20 years, but it does seem right now to have reached a tipping point.
The other thing that’s changed is in public attitudes. Fifteen years ago, nearly as many people were concerned or very concerned globally about climate change as they are today, but we’ve seen a doubling of the number of people who say this affects me personally. For instance, if you live within 60 miles of an American coast you’re extremely like to say this affects me personally because you’ve seen cities inundated and forests on fire and it is really quite hard to ignore.
The other thing that’s changed is in public attitudes … we’ve seen a doubling of the number of people who say this affects me personally
The three of us went to meet the CEO of a FTSE 250 company recently. I was slightly puzzled why he wanted to meet us because this was a large, traditional agri-business. He said, “Well, I’ve got two Gretas living at home – my daughters – and they ask me every day what I’m doing on this.” So I think that realisation is coming through those kinds of sources too. But usually, when you see an organisation moving fast in a really good way, it can’t all be down to one leader – there has to be a culture in place that can drive this.
ST: It’s like a sandwich of leaders and people who work in the organisation who also really want to do something. When the two forces come together in a kind of perfect storm you can get action. An example from a materials perspective, we know that there are certain materials that are under strain in that we have an increasing demand for them, but we have limited resource supply. If you carry on as business as usual with these raw materials going into your product, you’re going to end up just having absolutely no profit left because they are going to become so expensive and so in demand in the market. So from a business perspective, there’s an added realisation that things can’t continue as they are. And more and more employees want to work in places which consider and act to reduce planetary impact. Add in new regulations that are increasingly coming into play, this all pulls and pushes a company towards more resilient and therefore more sustainable business.
FG: I think it really is a question of leadership – you need someone at the top who really makes a commitment. And then you need the whole organisation to get involved. In that sense, the parallel with digital transformation makes sense because it is an organisation-wide effort, and it does go through a series of changes in behaviours and changes in culture. We want to apply the methodology of digital transformation to sustainability.