Design for Life

by Terence Jeyaretnam

Recently, in the Spanish island of Minorca, palaeontologists named a new species Nuralagus Rex or N Rex, a large 12 kg bunny that couldn’t hop, which had joined the slow lane due to a lack of predators, and not needing to run.  Ironically, it was first thought to be an extinct tortoise, as it was found to be living among tortoises, giving new meaning to the children’s fable The Hare and the Tortoise.

Are humans heading towards becoming like N Rex?  Over the past 10,000 years we have reversed our risk from predators to the point where, now, every other species, other than our pets, should be more fearful of us of all their predators.  But, unlike N Rex, human innovation has gradually made us slower, fatter and larger too.  World average food consumption per person has risen by almost a fifth, from 2,360 kcal per person per day in the mid-1960s to 2,800 kcal per person per day today. In Australia, the 20 per cent increase in calorie intake has happened over a shorter time, since 1980, and at the same time technological revolution is draining more and more activity out of our daily lives.

Recently, after surveying a broad spectrum of international genetic data, a group of American biologists and anthropologists concluded that human evolution continues to gather speed, moving up to 100 times faster than it was when our hominid ancestors were foraging on the African savannah.  Food, lifestyles and technology are the likely leading causes for continuing decline in muscle tissue, increase in obesity (over two-thirds of us a battling the bulge) and the increase in diseases such as type II diabetes, heart disease and cancers.

What’s the role of engineers in designing lifestyles, technology and food that optimizes life?  For me, an added ethical imperative is to also design for the environment. Interestingly, there is a strong synergy between designing for the environment and for optimizing life – often the less energy a product uses, the more manual (muscle-building, calorie shaving) it is.  From brooms to vacuum cleaners and now to automated roaming sweepers, from bicycles to cars that almost drive themselves, from hanging out washing to driers, activities that only a few decades back needed physical effort with very little greenhouse impact have reversed their roles in society to becoming more polluting as well as contributing to unhealthy lifestyles – in the name of progress.  Can engineers re-think their role in tomorrow’s society on design to take on board much broader issues than convenience, price, comfort and time saving so that we move out of the slow lane?

Terence Jeyaretnam is a Director of Net Balance (terence@netbalance.com), 
one of the world’s leading sustainability advisory firms.
Terence is based in Melbourne