Beyond Green: How can sustainable design transform our lives?

“We need to transition from thinking that sustainable design is just part of good design to a new paradigm where great design is an integral part of a sustainable future.” – Rob Fleming

Rob Fleming in the classroom. photo by Gene Smirnov A recent presentation at the Academy of Sciences highlighted the green design wisdom of Philadelphia University’s Director of Sustainable Design Program, Rob Fleming. The presentation, Beyond Green, focused on the formative yet formidable prompt—how do we transition from the current sustainable mentality of “doing less bad” to an approach where designers, business leaders, and consumers “do more good.”

This transition is captured in Fleming’s term “regenerative design,” a phrase that is gaining popularity among innovative designers as a meaningful alternative to the platitudinous “sustainability.” Regenerative design recognizes the current challenge for humans to revive the well-being of cohabitated ecosystems through the design process. Its mission has become the cornerstone of Fleming’s Sustainable Design Masters Program at Philadelphia University.

Moving beyond the current state of greening towards regenerative design means that our culture must stop patting ourselves on the back for embedding the word "sustainability" in everything we conceivably do. Fleming calls this current stage of consumerism, "The Green Plateau."  He explains that we have become complacent, self-satisfied—we believe we have done everything we can to be more efficient with our resources.

Fleming and his students are aggressively challenging this notion, working collaboratively to design a better scenario for the future. In their efforts to challenge the consumerism and design status quo, Fleming’s students are changing the traditional independent approach to design. They’re fostering partnerships from the beginning stages of the creative process between architects, contractors, landscape architects, and engineers. The emerging design collective of students is focusing their energies on answering the tough questions, creating holistic solutions that account for current and future needs.

Fleming, who explores these ideas in depth in his crtitcally acclaimed new book, Design Education for a Sustainable Future, believes that if we are to move past our current green plateau towards the next chapter of regenerative sustainability, we must integrate a new design approach into our culture. This approach must push the envelop of what our buildings and landscapes are capable of achieving. To make the shift, young and innovative design professional must effectively influence their perspective career fields. Current design professionals must also adopt pioneering initiatives like the Living Building Challenge. In the end, Fleming is optimistic that our culture will move beyond green towards a transformative and regenerative design future. In fact, he believes that the next great design revolution is just beginning to unfold.


ANDREW SCHLESINGER is a passionate environmental thinker and designer. He can be contacted at