03 February 2021

His own experiences growing up in Wuhan in China and case studies of astronauts and exchange students form the basis of Chu Wanjun’s doctoral thesis. The central question: how can design best make it easier for people to live in a sustainable manner?

Room for change. The microwave ovens in studenthuset at Campus Valla. Anna Nilsen

Moved with family

In the introduction to the thesis, Chu Wanjun describes how his family moved in the 1990s from the suburbs of Wuhan, a city with 11 million inhabitants, to a residential area close to the centre. Their standard of living improved, but they started to live in a less sustainable manner. Previously, all food had been used, whereas they now often threw away any leftovers.

Chu Wanjun.Chu Wanjun.

“And then my parents bought a car and started to drive everywhere. They took me to school every morning, for example, and collected me in the afternoon”, Chu Wanjun remembers.

Twenty years later, these experiences became the starting point for his thesis: On the other side of change: Exploring the role that design can play in retaining sustainable doing. A central conclusion is that it is just as important to retain a sustainable lifestyle as it is to change actions that conflict with sustainability. And that changing people’s behaviour, both positive and negative, often occurs during periods of major change in life in general (such as the family changing its residence, or increasing its standard of living).

“Previous design research has focussed mainly on change, which is partially due to most researchers being based in the western world and taking the requirements there as their starting point. While it is true that the standard of living is lower in developing countries, the way of life is often more sustainable, and in such cases it is just as important to retain a sustainable way of life”, says Chu Wanjun, and gives the example of choosing to cycle or walk, rather than travel by car.

Astronauts and students

The thesis presents six case studies that include the food consumption of astronauts on the International Space Station (from studying their published diaries), food consumption in China during the corona pandemic, and how exchange students in Linköping purchase, prepare and consume food. The general themes are food, sustainability, and how design can make desirable behaviour easier.

Astronaut in space station ISS:Space station ISS.

Chu Wanjun investigated in one study how students used the microwave ovens in Studenthuset. Even though the building had just been built and awarded prizes for sustainability, the investigation revealed large opportunities for improvement. It is, for example, often difficult to see which microwaves are free, and the way they are placed means that several of them are seldom used.

“Designing something to ensure that it is used in a particular manner is one thing, but the way people use it in practice is another. Good design should take this into consideration, and then follow up how things function in practice”, says Chu Wanjun.

And food consumption during the corona pandemic – was it more or less sustainable than before?

“It’s difficult to say. On the one hand it was common that people bought large amounts of food to store at the start of the pandemic, but on the other hand many people became better at using leftovers, and throwing away less food”, says Chu Wanjun, who asked his friends in Wuhan to keep a diary during the lockdown in the winter and spring of 2020.

Framework for design

The empirical parts of the thesis lead to a theoretical framework for how researchers and those working with these issues in practice can approach design with a sustainability perspective. Chu Wanjun uses the framework to develop in turn a practical toolbox to use when working with sustainable design. One of the tools is a list of important questions about sustainability when introducing new design.

The thesis contains several creative and possibly controversial parts, such as the emphasis on maintaining sustainable behaviour, and the use of activity theory as a basis of the theoretical framework. Chu Wanjun has been asked about this extensively at scientific conferences, and is expecting that this will be discussed in depth during the thesis defence.

“But I like challenges and I’m not afraid of the risk of failure. My thesis is just the first step on my research path.”

Translated by George Farrants


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