Design for a Sustainable Future

Technology has hurled humanity into today’s high tech civilization. Yet all is not well aboard Spaceship Earth. How can we design technology that gives stagnant economies new impulses, bolster democracy, heal the planet, makes our civilization sustainable? In this USE line, you build the skills to translate ‘sustainability’ into measurable goals, to identify the right challenges and design strategies for developing technological solutions that work.

In the 19th and 20th century, successive waves of technological innovation and a turn to market economies enabled a sharp increase in living standards in the West and, from the 1990s, in the East as well, ultimately lifting two thirds of humanity out of subsistence.

This progress has come with a price, however. Humanity is facing grave, global challenges: halting environmental impacts like global warming, checking excessive inequality, reinvigorating a stagnant global economy. Addressing these challenges is key to new prosperity. Failure increases the risk of social upheaval or even war. 

Governments and businesses are placing a huge bet on technological innovation. If applied wisely, newly emerging technologies hold great promise for increasing productivity, improving decision making and strengthening inclusiveness. At the same time, they may kill jobs, increase inequality, and may carry nasty surprises. 

Making societies more sustainable is not easy, then. It involving many domains, many political stakeholders, uncertainties and fast change. Unlike ‘tame’ engineering problems, sustainability issues are complex, defying linear analysis and solutions that can be calculated. 

For young engineers, the key question is: how to innovate effectively and responsibly towards sustainable development? 

Two beliefs lie at the heart of Design for a Sustainable Future. One, to make sustainability operational, we must make it measurable. Two, complex problems can be managed through design thinking. Design thinking, as we define it, encompasses (i) framing the right challenge through structured diagnosis, (ii) visioning a desired future and paths leading up to that dot on the horizon, and (iii) imagining, experimenting and testing potential technological solutions that move the system in the right direction.

This course provides you with the mental tools to do that. In the explorative course we do the groundwork by exploring sustainability and complexity and providing tools to deal with both. The specializing courses focus on how to apply this knowledge in user situations, urban societies and business ecosystems. Finally, in the application part, you carry out a groupwise project addressing a real life challenge, emulating professional circumstances.


Here is an overview. All courses (including Application) counts for 5 ECTs.

  USE DSF Exploratory (7XEUA0) USE DSF Specializing (7XSUA0, 7XSUB0, 7XSUC0) USE DSF Project (7XAUA0)

You learn 

How to understand the global situation we find ourselves in;

Theories and concepts on complexity and sustainability;

Methods for sustainability analysis;

Methods for tackling wicked problems.

Making sense of wicked problems in different contexts (user/producer, city societies, businesses);

Designing sustainable solution strategies for real life issues.


Applying your skills and insights to a real life challenge.

We encourage

Critical thinking – systems thinking – design thinking – engineer thinking

Didactical format 

Lectures, assignments and exercises 

Lectures, assignments and exercises 

Project work with weekly tutoring 

Below we describe the course sequence in more detail. For further information check Osiris or contact coordinator Johan van Zoest

Exploratory (Q1)

In the exploratory course we explain sustainability within an evolutionary framework and we explore why societies and economies are complex and pose wicked problems. We supply you with a toolkit of methods for sustainability analysis, for tackling wicked problems, and for presenting your technological solutions convincingly. 

Key learning goals are:

-        Understand key concepts related to sustainability and characteristics of complex problems

-        Apply this knowledge in goal setting and problem diagnosis. 

Your assignment is to write an essay about a sustainability issue. Also you will do a multiple choice progression test and final exam.

Specializing (Q3)


The theme in brief

How to embed sustainability in the design process; 

in particular, how to involve users

Key learning goals 

You learn

-         To identify relevant users and involve them in the design process

-         Building a normative argumentation – a well-argued and critical position towards a sustainability issue, focusing on the user

Information presented


-         Importance of looking at users; methods of studying users in social sciences; why and how to involve users? Who is the expert? What is the role of women and non-users? 

-         How should we describe the user and his impact upon the environment? How should we place man in relation his environment from a design/user point of view?


Interactive lectures and group work

Assignments and test 

-         Write a position paper

-         Write a concept map

-         Written exam


Theme in brief

How to diagnose cities and design solution strategies

Key learning goals 

-         Apply systems thinking to apprise city strategies and visions 

-         Apply urban diagnostic tools to recognize and frame wicked urban problems regarding society, economy and governance

-         Apply Transition Management and Strategic Niche Management insights to devise collaborative strategies for managing wicked urban problems. 

Information presented

-         City strategies

-         Diagnosis and problem framing for cities 

-         Sustainability visions, foresight and scenarios 

-         The experimental city: insights from Strategic Niche Management 

-         Governing urban transitions: insights from Transitions Management 


Interactive lectures and independent group work, under guidance

Assignments and test 

Assess 5 city strategies (report and presentation)

Diagnose a focus city (report and presentation)

Develop a transition strategy for a chosen problem in your focus city (report)


Theme in brief

How to ‘green’ a company’s business model

Key learning goals 

You learn to apply methods for

-         mapping business ecosystems surrounding sustainable innovations 

-         designing innovative business models, including a sustainable energy business 

-         incorporating public regulations into the business model design

Information presented

-         Structure of a business model and ecosystem 

-         Business model innovation 

-         Different types of business models in general 

-         Patterns in green and sustainable business models 

-         The specific challenges for the sustainable (energy) businesses and the role of ecosystems and communities 

-         Effects of the governmental regulations in the energy sector on business model innovation 


Interactive lectures and group work

Your assignment 

Mapping business models of companies (individual, ecosystem); business modelling (report and presentation)

Application (all quartiles)

The Project offers a real life sustainability challenge, in which your mission is to diagnose the problem and develop actionable solutions. 

In the Project you improve your:

-        problem solving competence (exploration, analysis/framing, solutions strategies, solutions testing)

-        competence in applying technological solutions in a real life context, reflecting societal demands and interests.

-        reporting and presentation/communication skills.

Challenges are wide ranging. In the Freestyle project the challenge is tailored to the educational background of the group members. Past challenges included reducing waste production on building sites, designing a circular waste system for the Amsterdam region, mapping gentrification in Eindhoven, improving stormwater retention capacity in Amsterdam, improving first and last mile accessibility in Amsterdam, and various technical challenges in sustainable construction and architecture.

No lectures are given. The tutor will brief you during weekly tutorings.

You earn your grade based on product, presentation and process.

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More information

Want to know more? Contact drs. Zoest, Johan van via the contact form below.

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