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NI consortium secures over £4.5M to shape eco-friendly waste management culture through design

Rathlin West Lighthouse.

Rathlin West Lighthouse. (Image: Tom McDonnell)


A consortium led by Ulster University, in partnership with Queen’s University Belfast, has secured £4.625m in funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for one of four new ‘Green Transition Ecosystems’ across the UK.

 

The Ulster University-led ‘Future Island-Island’ project aims to bolster awareness and improve engagement with the public towards an intuitive, eco-friendly waste management culture.

 


From September 2023, the project will use co-design, applied design, knowledge exchange and worldbuilding using 3D immersive technology, to shape new design-led green economies over a 24-month period focusing on six challenge-based objectives: 


  1. Protect rivers, loughs, and seacoast from plastic littering;

  2. Rethink product and plastics waste management by upcycling, recycling and reuse;

  3. Rethink organic waste for textiles and composite fibre applications;

  4. Redesign more sustainable food, water and landscape solutions;

  5. Improve municipal waste management systems and performance;

  6. Protect Northern Ireland’s only offshore inhabited island, Rathlin, from any negative impacts of tourism and sustainably manage island resources, while boosting innovation through a digital design transformation.

 


Rathlin Island, County Antrim.

Green Transition Ecosystems (GTEs) are large-scale projects that focus on translating the best design-led research into real-world benefits. Capitalising on clusters of design excellence, GTEs will address distinct challenges posed by the climate crisis including, but not limited to, realising net zero goals.


GTEs are the flagship funding strand of the £25m Future Observatory: Design the Green Transition programme, funded by the AHRC with support from the UK Government, and delivered in partnership with the Design Museum.

 

Minister for Energy Efficiency and Green Finance Lord Callanan said: 


“From helping to protect natural habitats from plastic pollution to improving waste management, the Future Island-Island project – backed by £4.6 million Government funding – will further support our ambitious action on climate change.

 


“And by working closely with the community, the project will also help ensure that local views and experiences are front and centre in our transition to a cleaner, more secure energy system.”

 

The project will extend Ulster University's close working relations with Queen’s University Belfast, while integrating expertise from The Glasgow School of Art and University of the Arts London.

 

The programme aims to provide a greatly strengthened, more visible design research and innovation national ecosystem, supporting UK design’s vital role in a sustainable, regenerative future.


Green wheelbarrow filled with electronic rubbish collected from Rathlin Island, County Antrim.


Welcoming news of the funding, Professor Justin Magee, Principal Investigator and Research Director for Art and Design at Ulster University, said:


“We are delighted to secure this funding for Northern Ireland, and excited to begin work with our dynamic team of designers, multi-disciplinary academics, and partner organisations.



"This is a significant opportunity for the design community to demonstrate inventive propositions to stimulate change around key global challenges.


"Our Future Island-Island project is bidimensional with the small island of Rathlin, offshore of the small island of Ireland. We aim to exemplify how these small rural islands, under the correct conditions, can deliver high level innovation to drive prosperity and enable change. Our work will result in applied design outcomes and policy design, as we navigate a series of challenging deliverables that will affect change and shape our futures.”

 

Co-Investigator, Professor Greg Keeffe from Queen’s School of Natural and Built Environment, added:


“This exciting and innovative project that has huge potential to improve how we live, both here in Northern Ireland and further afield.  The project will bring together a unique group of researchers, experts with the community at the heart to bring about systemic change in a bid to protecting our environment.”   

 


On Rathlin Island, the Future Island-Island project will work closely with the local community there, co-designing with them as an innovation testbed, and will support the Rathlin Development Community Association (RCDA) to advance its current Net Zero 2030 strategy. The focus will be on managing their specific waste types alongside the development of digital heritage and sustainable tourism applications. Working with RSPB NI, the project will generate biodiversity worldbuilding environments, significantly expanding the activities of its LIFE Raft project.


The learnings and benefits to Rathlin will be upscaled across Northern Ireland, then extended to other parts of the Island of Ireland and the UK, and shared internationally.


Man sitting working at computer looking at graph image on monitor.

 

Speaking about the project and its impact on the island, David Quinney Mee of the Rathlin Development and Community Association added:


"The newly developing partnership with Ulster University and the Future Island-Island project is of value beyond current measure. We are ready for the engagement with Rathlin to become something of a sensitively respected test bed that can bear valuable fruit for the benefit of islanders and partners and may become a best practice model for the interest of others.”

 

Earlier this year, Ulster University established a Rathlin Island working group to strengthen and coordinate island relations, appointing Dr Jessica Bates, a senior lecturer within the university and a Rathlin Island resident, as ‘Island Champion’, who added:


“This is hugely significant for Rathlin Island and I am delighted to be part of the research team. ‘Future Island-Island’ will lead to community-led, innovative and creative design solutions to pressing environmental and ecological challenges in a way that is sustainable and scalable. Living on Rathlin Island myself, I know the island provides a unique opportunity to explore, engage and enact a design-led green transition, and this project paired with support through RCDA and Rathlin Island Policy, will bring us closer to reaching our ambitious goal to be carbon neutral by 2030.”

 


The design deliverables directly relate to two Belfast Regional City Deals, the Ulster University-led Studio Ulster,and Queen’s University Belfast-led Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre (AMIC). The generation of digital assets and world building, for sustainable tourism and biodiversity content, links directly to Studio Ulster’s virtual production strategy, while a focus on circular 3D print material ecosystems and composites from waste textiles builds on AMIC capabilities and business links in sustainable composites and polymers.

 

In addition to academic partnerships, the project will include 12 company co-investigators and 18 third party companies providing in-kind support of over £4.1m. The company co-investigators include Big Small Design, Big Motive, The B!G Idea, Department of Finance’s The Innovation Lab, CARD Group, National Museums NI, Rathlin Development and Community Association (RDCA), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), The Odyssey W5, Todd Architects and Yellow Design.

 

This award is part of the Future Observatory: Design the Green Transition programme, the largest publicly-funded design research and innovation programme in the UK. Funded by AHRC in partnership with the Design Museum, this £25m multimodal investment aims to bring design researchers, universities, and businesses together to catalyse the transition to net zero and a green economy. 

 

Professor Christopher Smith, Executive Chair of the Arts and Humanities Research Council said:


“Design is a critical bridge between research and innovation. Placing the individual act of production or consumption within the context of an wider system of social and economic behaviour is critical to productivity, development and sustainability. 

 

“That’s why design is the essential tool for us to confront and chart a path through our current global and local predicaments, and that’s why AHRC has placed design at the heart of its strategy for collaboration within UKRI.


“From health systems to energy efficiency to sustainability, these four Green Transition Ecosystem projects the UK are at the cutting edge of design, offering models for problem solving, and will touch on lives right across the UK.”

 


Dr Allan Sudlow, Directors of Partnerships and Engagement at Arts and Humanities Research Council added:


“Design innovation is crucial to the mission of decarbonising our economy and society by 2050, and it is via exceptional design thinking that we can bring human, social and scientific research and innovation together to achieve this.”

 

The AHRC Design the Green Transition programme delivered in partnership with the Design Museum, is already showing how communities, researchers and regional partnerships can work together through ecosystems design to address the climate crisis. Each of these four new Green Transition Ecosystem projects are the next steps on that journey. They will deliver significant and measurable environmental, cultural, social and commercial benefit in relation to their chosen challenge across the UK.

 

Justin McGuirk, Director of Future Observatory at the Design Museum said:


“We are delighted to be supporting and collaborating with these four centres of research excellence, on themes ranging from housing and waste to sustainability across the NHS. Over the next two years, these projects will demonstrate how design research can yield positive real-world impact”.

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