Frugal Rules: Sustainability at Dundee Design Festival

Our regular design correspondent Stacey Hunter is the Creative Director of Dundee Design Festival – this month she sets out her ambition for Dundee to deliver one of the world’s most sustainable design festivals

Feature by Stacey Hunter | 13 May 2024
  • Dundee Design Festival

Our society’s attitude to waste is changing and Scotland’s designers have an advantage. Our characteristic resourcefulness – once a stereotype – has transformed into a true asset in a world where sustainability is at the top of most agendas. At Dundee Design Festival (DDF), it's not only designers who are reevaluating how they use materials and resources – cultural organisations are also proactively demonstrating how they are responding to the climate crisis.

As DDF celebrates its fifth edition with an ambitious programme occupying over 10,000sq m of space, the collective commitment to sustainability is much more than a theme. Rather, it’s an approach and a set of values. Every festival action and decision is assessed on a festival sustainability matrix and applied to new partnerships being developed in renewable energy, transport and exhibition staging. For example, the team has committed to achieving a goal of less than 30% of virgin materials being used to produce the festival. Over time strategies have developed about how to keep the festival as low impact as possible from simple things like only offering beverages in cans (they will be recycled on site and turned into steam that provides heat for buildings around the festival site) to simplifying sustainable transport routes for visitors.

The festival venue is a vast site that has been transformed into the Michelin Scotland Innovation Parc (MSIP) and is now powered by green, and sustainable energy. The former factory will be home to work by over 100 designers, celebrating local, national and international design talent. Showcasing the diversity of design, the festival will recognise the multiplicity of ways that designers and makers contribute to our world.

Festivals are notoriously wasteful, and design festivals can be particularly culpable. With their temporary nature, it’s become normal to see acres of MDF being used to construct false walls and plinths and for signage to be made using acrylic, vinyl and plastic. Food and drink packaging is usually only nominally sorted and recycled, and infrastructure is rarely reused in any meaningful way.

At DDF, the mission is to radically shake up the status quo and to ask how the processes that lead into temporary events can be analysed through a design process; to not only eliminate waste, but to strengthen local ties and share assets. For example, V&A Dundee and Bard have generously donated high quality structural materials from their exhibitions Tartan and The Grit and the Glamour, significantly contributing to DDF meeting its target of using no more than 30% of new materials in the festival build.

In many respects, this can be seen as a natural way of doing things in Scotland. We are a close-knit community and any kind of waste is something that most people working in design are always keen to eliminate. By mapping potential materials and manufacturers in, or close to Dundee, we can determine the lowest carbon options for constructing our festival infrastructure. Transforming low value but readily available materials into something beautiful sometimes takes longer, but thanks to our partnership with MSIP, DDF has a very long lead-in time in comparison with other national events. Our materials palette also guides the festival’s overall aesthetic with items that can be borrowed or reused.

Ultimately the beauty and the challenge at MSIP is the scale of the spaces. All of the available infrastructure and lighting conditions have to be used to their best advantage to achieve a harmonious and exciting balance of dark and light, height, density, volume, massing and porosity.
By working with lighting designer Emma Jones, DDF will use lighting to demarcate vantage points, cluster areas and quiet zones which will enhance visitor experience and encourage a sense of anticipation, hospitality and conviviality. These are all techniques that are regularly employed by interior designers and demonstrate how you can design a space with far less consumables like paint, MDF or acrylic.

“Developing partnerships with a variety of organisations who share our values around sustainability and the value of design has been a really exciting phase,” explains Annie Marrs, Lead Officer at UNESCO City of Design Dundee. “There is lots of great work being done in this field, but the impact of temporary festivals can be significantly negative on our environment. I believe that DDF 24 can be a case study in how cultural organisations and businesses can collaborate to lower their collective carbon footprint. Everything we do is shaped by the values of the UNESCO Creative Cities mission statement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Whenever we embark on a project, we ask ourselves ‘What difference will this make?’ and we consider how what we do locally helps to achieve a global impact.”

“We’re delighted that the exhibition materials will now have a second home at this year’s Dundee Design Festival less than five miles away from the museum, and we can support the festival team in achieving their sustainability goals of using less than 30% new materials” says V&A Dundee’s Director of Programme, Caroline Grewar. Even the festival’s transport partner Ember is a beacon of sustainability. An all-electric public bus, their services will be the most convenient way to reach the festival from all across Scotland, with services running direct to MSIP from Dundee City Centre, as well as from cities across the Central Belt including Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling, and more.

One of the biggest insights gained from working with designers who are tackling sustainability through all sorts of lenses – from toxicity to circularity – is that sustainability is a journey. Eco-shaming is said to be holding people back from trying to improve. DDF is working with designers who are pushing the boundaries of their own practice and through conversations with them about their work the festival is able to strengthen its knowledge base in the longer term. I feel confident that our visitors will fully support the decisions we are making as a team and will hopefully feel empowered to make more sustainable choices for themselves whether it's DIY at home or a gardening project.

Dundee Design Festival 2024, Michelin Scotland Innovation Parc, 23-29 Sep;

The full programme of free events and exhibitions will be announced in July