One way to change the world through design

Kode21 is a Dutch design agency that might just change the world, one step at a time.

The guiding principle of Kode21 is simple and genius: measures to combat climate change must be attractive. Or rather: we have to take these measures but it’s easier if they are attractive. In addition to having a positive effect on the climate, they can also be financially profitable, benefit society, build a more comfortable local environment and improve quality of life. This can be achieved through design.

One of the founders of Kode21, Michiel Cornelissen, was a speaker at the Design Forum Talk <3 Circular Economy event in September. We interviewed Michiel in late September.

“With Kode21 we want to see how much design can contribute to solve some of the big problems of the 21st century. And right at the top of that list we have the climate change. At the moment that’s what we are focusing on, the intersection between design and climate solutions,” Michiel Cornelissen says.

The Business of Climate Solutions tool is at the core of Kode21: “We try to come up with methods that are not just philantrophy or doing a little bit of good. We try to find activities and decisions for companies that are really core to their strategy,” Cornelissen says. “Climate solutions have an immense potential for business,” he reminds us. “Climate solutions are not only required by the client or the environment, they are also profitable business opportunities. And this is not about benefits that can only be proven over a long period of time,” Cornelissen continues. “The results can be nearly immediate – lower energy costs and healthier environments, for example.”


One of Kode21’s great inspirers (and now a co-partner, too) is Project Drawdown, a non-profit organisation established in 2014. Its objective is to achieve ‘drawdown’ as quickly as possible: the point when the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stops increasing and starts decreasing. The organisation, operating on donated funds, is one of the leading operators disseminating information about climate solutions.

The Business of Climate Solutions tool is essentially a collection of practices and techniques that can be used to achieve zero emissions and bring about other benefits. “We have been using a lot of research from Project Drawdown, added some bits and pieces from circular economy practices, and that’s how we came up with this board,” Cornelissen says. “It has around 70 climate solutions on it, in 8 sectors. In a way those climate solutions are descriptions of what we hope the world will be made of in 10 or 20 years from now. We consider climate solutions as building blocks of a climate-positive future.”

Kode21 first examines its client company, its goals, customers and resources, and then proposes measures to reach the desired goal – in a climate-positive and financially profitable way. The gist is to find the connection between the company’s strengths, strategy and climate goals.

The measure can be something as simple as tailoring the use of energy (heating or lighting, as an example) according to each patient, as not everyone needs the maximum, while at the same time making energy sources more eco-friendly. Or using bio-based materials in hospital spaces: e.g. cork, wood, biochar and bioplastics, which are carbon-neutral but often also antibacterial, easy to clean and first and foremost pleasant to touch and look at.


The results may also be new ways of developing the operation of a company or organisation or even creating ideas for new business models. “Maybe a hospital becomes a health centre instead of a sick centre,” Cornelissen says. “Suddenly you are moving to this higher conceptual level of what a hospital can be. It started with climate solutions but it’s more than them… It’s building blocks for a better future, as I said.”

Attitudes are also changing, Cornelissen continues. Customers are increasingly aware of the need for climate-positive options and demand more. This forces companies to become interested in environmental and responsibility issues. Different regulations and stipulations also have an increasing effect on operations.

But things are getting urgent, Cornelissen reminds us. Small actions may no longer be enough. We must also think of the entire lifecycle and subcontracting chain of a product or service – they cannot be deemed the responsibility of others. Kode21 has a holistic approach: it is not trying to just solve a specific problem its client has, but rather view the company as a whole and take its connections to the world around it into consideration.

According to Cornelissen, design serves three important climate change mitigating functions in the activities of Kode21. The first is connected to adapting climate solutions to suit people better. “Use design to make climate solutions better, nicer, more beautiful and hopefully get them to be adopted more rapidly that way,” Cornelissen sums up. “How could we change them so that people would actually be happy with them?”


The second task is to raise awareness of the climate and environmental impact of design solutions within the agency and amongst the designers: to create products with a low or even negative carbon footprint. Here, the Business of Climate Solutions tool offers some help: designers will find its tested solutions easier to apply. The third is integrating climate solutions into company strategies and making them profitable forms of business through design, thus aiding businesses in adapting their value propositions and business model to a climate-positive future. Giving awareness to these three possibilities with businesses and designers might be a fourth task, Cornelissen adds.

Michiel Cornelissen says that this work is ongoing and each project is moving things along. And the goal – stopping climate change – affects more and more people. Cornelissen emphasises the importance of cooperation. “I realized that this isn’t about winning, that one company is the best in sustainability. We only win if everybody figures this out and all the companies do it. The spirit of cooperation, it’s really amazing in this world.”


Anne Veinola
Communications Specialist
Design Forum Finland

Photos: Kode21