Festival and Electronics Waste, Meat Processing, Saving Bees and Coral Reefs Among Sustainability Issues Tackled by RCA Graduates

Among the huge variety of work you’ll see at Show RCA 2014, sustainability – consideration of environmental and social equality and balance to sustain future generations – is a major theme. 

Graduates this year have tackled issues including: electronics waste and the circular economy; the plight of coral reefs and bees; air pollution; the impact of nuclear fallout on civilians; animal welfare and meat processing; preserving heritage and craft skills through new industries; the use of synthetic biology technologies for food production; transparency in supply chains; community energy crowd-funding and much more.

The Decline of Bee Populations

The rapid decline of bee populations and the subsequent impact on pollination has drawn a number of responses from across design, jewellery and printmaking. Julia Johnson’s Plan Bee (Innovation Design Engineering) is a self-monitoring bee hive that detects unusual activity in the breeding patterns to help prevent Colony Collapse Disorder. Max Danger’s Let it Bee (GSM&J) is a witty installation comprising graphics, comic-style drawings and a series of pendants speculating on the future of bees. And, Gabriel Dini’s Swarm's Scale (Printmaking) – a giant honeycomb installation – explores the collective behaviour of natural and artificial decentralised phenomena of swarm intelligence.

Coral Reefs

Both Nell Bennett (Innovation Design Engineering) and Monette Larson (Ceramics & Glass) have explored coral, though in very different ways. Bennett's Coral3 proposes an immediate way of mitigating the loss of coral reefs from ocean acidification. The Coral3 sacrificial, alkaline structure dissolves with the currents and water acidity. The replaceable structures allow divers to become part of saving reefs, and offers potential as an income-generating enterprise. Larson, meanwhile, has focused the underlying structure of corals bringing out this beauty in her glass installations.

Democracy, Politics and a New Economic Paradigm

The role of democracy and politics in environmental and social equality is another theme. Pierre Paslier’s Advanced Activism is a playful toolkit aimed at supporting creative resistance against consumerist culture, while Mohammed Ali’s A New Enlightenment is a blueprint for a new economic paradigm based on sharing energy, goods, services and information, rather than the accumulation of capital in an independent Scotland.

‘Sustainability is about more than just trying to save energy or making our products or our houses more environmentally friendly. It's a question of looking at what makes human society function, then working out what we need to do to continue living our lives in a way that doesn't destroy our planet or ourselves. This means looking at the economic structures of our world because most of the harm we cause is a result of this. If we don't address the economic factors underpinning our civilisations, any other changes we try to make can just have a temporary superficiality to them, ‘ Design Interactions graduate Mohammed Ali said.

Circular Economy and Materials Recovery

Other graduates have explored innovations in the circular economy and product lifecycle. Paul Stawenow’s Project Phoenix offers a ritualistic way of recovering critical raw materials through consumer electrical waste, while Tim Sadler’s Vibe is a groundbreaking computer interface that uses a single sheet of material and vibration analysis to transfer information to digital output. The radical simplification of the computer has potential to eliminate waste streams, and the need to recover critical raw materials. Sol Lee’s Smart Festivals is an intelligent platform for a sleeping equipment rental system, which helps festival goers be organised and reduces waste for festival organisers. 

Waste as a Resource

From across the School of Material, there is a much greater presence than in previous years. Inspired by Japanese Ikat fabrics, Hana Mitsui (Textiles), has developed a new weaving process that transforms discarded cloth into new, luxurious material. Neha Lad has also found waste as a resource, developing new uses for expanding waste streams such as paper and copper waste using traditional Indian weaving.

Textiles graduate Neha Lad said: ‘Sustainability to me is ethical and human-centric practices. It is the most fulfilling when you work towards providing not just a livelihood, but a means of personal growth to young, talented and skilled people. Hand weaving used to be the second largest occupation in India after agriculture. Having worked very closely with the weaving communities all over India during my design practice before the RCA, I connect with the need to diversify and grow the traditional handloom industry to fit in today's global scenario. I have been intrigued by the junkyards in my hometown and also feel the need to link this with the issue of expanding waste streams across the globe.’

In Ceramics & Glass, Tana West has explored London's disused waterways, collecting clays and materials for glazes. Louise Bennett (Womenswear) shows that high-end collections made from irreverent, ethically sourced materials, need not compromise aesthetic. Natural fabrics such as canvas, horsehair, cork and off-cut denim are treated in such a way that they appear unexpectedly luxurious. 

Bennett said: ‘In the context of my work, sustainability means endurance. I'm interested in how I can create clothing that is ostensibly 'new' but which carries an existing sense of narrative, of how it came to be and how it might adapt and endure in the future. I'm interested in disrupting the high-speed fashion cycle, and the behavioural patterns of how fashion is bought, sparsely worn, and discarded. I'm interested in creating investment pieces, which the customer can both buy and buy into, understanding how the piece was conceived of, and created, and thus want to keep, maintain and cherish. I'm interested in how these stories can be communicated to the customer, how they can come to understand the story of how the piece they are buying came to be, that they will want to continue and develop that narrative. Sustainability in fashion might not be glamorous, yet good design always will be – my intention is to bring ethically sourced materials and clothing designed to last via emotional durability into the high-fashion market.’

Across the School of Fine Art, Vesta Kroese (Sculpture) has created playful architectural and spacial interventions using failed artworks retrieved from skips. 

Making the Intangible Tangible

Projects such as Peter Shenai’s Change Ringing or Tino Seubert’s The Colour of Air occupy a more poetic category as they seek to make tangible climate change and air pollution data through experience and sensing.

A Sense of Dystopia

Projects such as Felicity Hammond's (Photography) Restore to Factory Settings and Isobel Davies (Architecture) State of Emergency both evoke a sense of dystopia. Hammond explores sustainability in a social and economic sense through the interplay between past and future industries in London. She depicts a city in transformation through gentrification, progression – and error. Davies, meanwhile, proposes a strategic infrastructure that can mitigate damage to civilians and the English countryside from a nuclear disaster.

‘Sustainability means something selfless that is considerate of the needs of the future in terms of resources and people, ensuring longevity of a product or building. It is important, firstly, because it makes common sense to be sustainable and not wasteful with things. Secondly, I think we have a moral responsibility to future generations to learn lessons from generations gone by to attempt to take increasingly better care of our planet and people,’ Architecture graduate Isobel Davies said.

Transparency in Production Processes

Janice Lau's Atrocity Exhibition – a Public Abattoir responds to issues within the food chain, such as the discovery of waste leather in pork dumplings in China or horsemeat in British beef lasagnes, introducing the notion of a public abattoir to increase greater transparency in meat processes.

Graduating students who have demonstrated excellence in sustainability will go through to the Sustain Show and Awards 2014 in September, competing for £5,000 bursaries across four categories. See further details here. 

Clare Brass, head of SustainRCA, whose department supports RCA students in developing work around sustainability, said: 'The diversity of work and range of issues that RCA graduates have tackled this year really shows how sustainability underpins day-to-day living and will impact our future. It's great to see how students from across the School of Material this year are really using their disciplines to engage with sustainability, exploring their environments or creating local economies.'