A Circular Future

Malls might be making a comeback. Gen Z — people from the ages of 16 to 26 — enjoy in-person browsing as much as online shopping, if not more, according to a 2023 report by the International Council of Shopping Centers. The idea of “mall culture” dates back to the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s when huge complexes like Mall of America, the largest in the US, dominated retail. You just need to watch a film from this time period for evidence. But, with the advent of online shopping, high maintenance costs and abandoned shopfronts, its popularity began to wane. Yet in the face of empty high streets, the idea of a possible “retail renaissance” – foregrounding sustainability, community and culture – is just one of the topics up for discussion at Sustainable Design China Summit 2024. The three-day event, running in tandem with Design Shanghai for the first time, aims to carve out a path to a circular future, where reuse is the order of the day. From 19 – 21 June, more than 60 thought leaders and creatives will share actionable solutions for a greener and more ethical future. Why now? “As the parameters of design are shifting rapidly towards a planet-first approach, we are being led to question what we make and what we do. We are living beyond our planetary boundaries; to re-stabilise our planet’s finely tuned eco-system, we need to be guided by nature,” says Orianna Fielding, the Summit’s Chief Sustainability and Content Director.

Beyond mall culture, other pertinent areas of discussion include low-impact eco-travel and the economics of climate change. The summit sees speakers from the likes of Condé Nast Traveller and Marriott International coming together to share their perspectives. In so doing, Sustainable Design China Summit 2024 shows that it is not only for creatives; it unites the worlds of business, journalism and hospitality to encourage cross-disciplinary debate. In terms of manufacturing, attention will be drawn to the impact of 3D printing technology, as well as how AI-human relationships will affect architecture and design.

Alongside talks and panels, the summit presents a series of interactive exhibits designed to prompt thought and action. There will be a screening of world-renowned Italian pianist Ludovico Einaudi’s Elegy for the Arctic, which plays out against the backdrop of the Wahlenbergbreen glacier at Svalbard. Moreover, audiences can explore a curated display of 100 new materials, with live demonstrations asking us to think about waste and circularity differently. It’s a call for industry to take materials seriously and consider them at every stage of the design process. There’s also the exhibition Near and Distant, which shines a light on how young Chinese talents are stepping up in the face of today’s ever-evolving challenges.

Most of what we see and do – especially in cities – has been designed and produced somewhere, by someone. Humans are always making, and that is unlikely to stop, so it’s crucial that we look at architecture and design as key areas of change. This is the message behind Sustainable Design China Summit. What we bring into the world must contribute to circularity. It is a big conversation, and the past three decades have seen an array of summits, most notably the United Nations Climate Change Conferences, lay out plans for how we can reach net-Zero or turn the tide on global warming. But, sometimes, it can be hard to see these changes actually happening in real time. So what has Sustainable Design China Summit achieved in the three years since it began? Zhuo Tan, Event Director, sees the event as a hotbed for tangible action: “We’ve seen our platform significantly benefit the design industry, connecting companies with real projects … the summit has become the perfect bridge between suppliers and those in need of sustainable solutions.”

19-21 June, Shanghai World Expo Exhibition & Convention Center


Image Credits:
1. Materials First
2. Easyhome Huanggang Vertical Forest City Complex, Stefano Boeri Architetti China
3. Qingdao Future City, Clou Architects