DEFRA's new framework paves the way for sustainable design

A group of environmentally-conscious designers at the Department of Environmental and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) have created a set of principles aimed at delivering lower environmentally-impacting services across government. 

Over the last six months, the Planet-centred Design Working Group has drafted nine core principles and 24 guidelines for being planet-centric in the design of services. The new framework, which is aimed at designers and researchers within government, includes a range of recommendations, such as using lightweight screens that minimise processor usage and displaying carbon usage on pages and apps where appropriate.

"Despite growing concerns about the consumption of energy in the use of digital services, there is still no mention of environmental impact, and how to mitigate it, in the current Service Standard," says Ned Gartside, Senior Service Designer at DEFRA, and member of the Planet-centred Design Working Group.

This is something that the group aspires to change, starting with this new set of principles, and by working in greater collaboration with the Centre for Digital and Data Office (CDDO) and other government departments.

Sustainability in the spotlight

The Planet-centred Design Working Group was formed in 2021 as a place for designers and researchers across DEFRA to educate themselves on sustainable design, and to create opportunities for others to join the conversation.

“We were encountering calls for design aid to the transition to circular economies and net-zero. Our problem was that we didn’t understand where our work, as designers and researchers in the digital sphere, practically fitted in,” Gartside said. 1585166535108[70] (1)

“When we want to talk to our project managers, or colleagues who are in data or system architecture about sustainable design, it is very difficult to know where to begin that conversation. It became clear that we needed some kind of principles to follow. When you design a website, there's a lot of detailed guidance on how to make it more accessible for people, so we felt like we needed something similar for sustainability.” 

The ‘fourth lens’ of design

The traditional paradigm in design is user-centricity, meaning focusing on user needs, and balancing those against organisational goals and technical feasibility. Gartside explains that the new set of principles are designed to broaden this scope to include a "fourth lens": sustainability. 

The first draft of the nine core principles are as follows:

  1. Understand what the current impacts are in terms of energy and material use
  2. Be smart with data by only asking users to input information that there is a
    clear need for, and that has not been captured elsewhere.
  3. Learn from each other’s services (good and bad)
  4. Design to help users have a low impact on the environment
  5. Show users how actions can impact the environment (good and bad)
  6. Design for easy service journeys
  7. Care for content, through its whole life-cycle
  8. Design simple flows and navigation on digital interfaces
  9. Design for lightweight screens that have minimal energy usage 

While the principles are focused primarily on environmental impacts, it is worth noting that most of the principles are equally beneficial when it comes to usability, accessibility, inclusivity and cost. 

A ‘one stop shop’

Having drafted this first set of principles, the Planet-centred Design Working Group has joined the Sustainable Technology Advice and Reporting (STAR) team, led by Adam Turner, Head of Sustainable Digital and ICT for the UK Government and Public Sector.

Turner and his team at DEFRA have authored detailed guidance on areas including sustainable architecture, development, managing datasets and team practices contained in the Technology Code of Practice and the Digital Data & Technology Playbook, and are currently working with the Cabinet Office to update the Service Standard to include environmental sustainability. 

Gartside said key to enabling government-wide uptake of the sustainable design principles will be working with Turner to find a way to measure their effectiveness. “This will allow organisations to prioritise their impact hotspots. We’d like to do more work on guidance for how to map a specific service ‘ecosystem’ and identify the likely impact areas.”

Next steps are for the Planet-centred Design Working Group to lead iterations of the principles for design and research, and to help integrate these into the existing guidance. The ultimate goal will be the creation of a ‘one stop shop’, a single place where all disciplines working on digital projects can go to find info on how we can collaborate towards the goal of low-impacting services. 

To that end, cross-departmental collaboration has begun between Defra, NHS Digital and DWP, with the formation of a working group. NHS digital recently launched a tenth principle to its own set of Design Principles, entitled ‘Design to protect the environment’. 

“Our intention is to start collaborating and see how we can begin  to work out how, practically, considerations of sustainability can be balanced against the other project priorities,” Gartside says. 

The principles are a positive step in the right direction, but there is still a limit to how much impact they can have when they are not legally mandated. “Until this happens, it’s probably going to be quite low on the list of priorities for most project managers...if it even features at all," Gartside notes. "It is largely a question of systemic change and how we can move sustainability further up the agenda.” 

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