Sustainability in design: control versus assurance

UQ graduate Julian Tonino - (Bachelor of Engineering (Honours)'14) is a transport infrastructure engineer for international consultancy firm ARUP. He was awarded UQ Graduate of the Year and Engineering Valedictorian for 2014, and currently sits on the UQ Young Alumni Advisory Board (YAAB), focusing on strategic outcomes. Currently based in Brisbane, and moving to the UK in August, Julian continues to develop his passion for clever design and has a focus in design strategy and process. Julian likes to share his growing awareness for how a change in professional mindset can have a large-scale and compounding impact on worldwide sustainability and growth. 

Earlier this year, I was told a staggering statistic:

Almost one billion disposable coffee cups are sent to landfill by Australians each year.

To put that into perspective – five million Australians each disposing of 200 coffee cups per year – and in five years having enough cups to fill the volume of the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

While the majority of disposable cups are labelled as recyclable, many have plastic linings that limit reuse, and recyclability can vary from plant to plant. Unfortunately, I believe this reflects a growing trend of socially-mandated consumerism; of the kind where it’s thought to be acceptable to re-print 100-page reports, as long as they are printed on recycled paper.

In recent months, I have spent time trying to unravel this dichotomy in sustainable design: why we change our bulbs to fluorescent while keeping the TV on in the background. At its core, it seems to be a reflection of design in haste: it doesn’t matter how we are fixing it, as long as we (appear to) fix it now.

This trend extends into economics and sociology, and can be seen in both people and governments. It is why countries like New Zealand are trying to cut their annual CO2 emissions by 30 per cent, despite China producing more CO2 in two days than New Zealand does annually.

This “unsustainable design” is a reactive rather than proactive mindset that seems to motivate us to act impulsively, but as a result we lose perspective of the actual issue at hand.

Julian ToninoAt the heart of the problem, though, I think is a solution: design control versus design assurance. That is, adopting an unwavering state of mind to not try to mitigate the effects of a problem, but rather mitigate the problem itself.

Try solving the issue of the disposable cup.

Design control would be to ensure that all your coffee cups were 100% recyclable. Then confirming that your local recycling plants could recycle them. Then being vigilant that all coffee cups you use as a consumer from that point onwards were put into a recycle bin.


Design assurance would be drinking your coffee in a mug.

This a very simplified example, but it identifies a common gap in the design and decision-making process. Why do we use keys if we are able to lose them? Why do we summarise reports when we can reduce the word count? Why do we develop national solutions to global problems?

I share with you the assurance-versus-control ideology so it can help establish a point of re-evaluation. Unsustainable design is a function of complexity and haste, and thus sustainable design must come from simplicity and reflection – and it could be for our diet or our work, or our climate.

The process is not easy, and is not supposed to be. The important thing is that we solve the problem, particularly the big problems.

Perhaps it’s ironic that I preach sustainability, yet design highways. But I like to think that if I can build a better road layout instead of better speed bumps – great. If I can add more trains instead of more highways – even better. Impact is not defined by your role, but your effectiveness.

I’m leaving you with a challenge: re-evaluate the next time you dispose of something or try to fix something – do not control it... assure it.

And sit down to drink your coffee for a change.

Last updated:
21 July 2016