Despite its recent origins in the mid- to late twentieth century, discourses around professional design, its identity and expectations, are relatively consistent across the globe, particularly with regard to industrial design. Various methods for sustainable design, including product-service system design, have also evolved, increasingly acknowledged in public discourse, such as in EU and UNEP publications. However, the very concept of PSS still allows for various interpretations depending on the socio-economic context. For example, in some pedagogical contexts, the concept of a ‘sharing economy’ may be seen as more engaging or understandable for design students than ‘user-oriented PSS’. Moreover, when relatively broad concepts such as Distributed Economies are introduced into sustainable design teaching, interpretations can vary significantly with regard to focus and expectations.
Design activities have gradually extended further from the studio and the factory line. Currently, design connects with various domains of interest, with products and services, but also systems innovation; with organizations and business, but also societal change-making. Designers work with diverse professionals and experts, as well as laypeople and public media. This diversity extends the area where such interpretations can be trialled.
In this section, we reflect on how S.PSS and DE as concepts can be introduced into different geographical, socio-cultural and educational contexts, and we examine some of the choices and emphases in developing two rounds of pilot courses during the project. We also address the variety in which the DE focus can be adjusted and look into the role of the university in contemporary knowledge building for transdisciplinary sustainability.
One integral aspect in the LeNSin project has been in sharing experiences on teaching and in developing new educational content. The main strength has been the strong network, which has helped to overcome practical difficulties, and to balance course expectations and institutional constraints in developing new teaching contents.
2.1 Experiences from Regional Pilot Courses: An Overview
Sustainable design has gradually become a highly promoted strategy linking industrial developments, consumer domain actions and policymaking. In sustainable design, as often in complex problem-solving processes, several actors from different fields need to work towards a shared goal, and a more detailed discussion on the driving values and goals pursued is needed. The challenge of sustainability lies in connecting not only scientific research and politics, but also the perceptions and actions of professionals and laypeople. In this sense, design for sustainability can be understood by its very nature also as transdisciplinary, drawing together considerations from ecological, societal and economic domains into a shared process of mediation and making.
Contemporary design activities in various regions are in many ways still based on the educational programme of the Bauhaus school, where architects, painters, and sculptors combined multiple perspectives with an emphasis on workshop or studio work . In the last few decades, however, the role of design has gradually shifted towards higher levels of focus, from the crafts studio and factory line towards society at large and towards broader socio-technical systems . Today, design has been noted as a possible catalyst for social innovation  and sustainability transitions . Consequently, the potential of design has been increasingly noted also in relation to transdisciplinary activities in education and in sustainability at large ([5, 8, 14]).
Design schools around the world share similarities in both the challenges they face, as well as the potential that the discipline itself allows. As a discipline in higher education, design often connects with engineering and business, but also media and art. Earlier, it has acted as a bridge between the producer and consumer world. Particularly now, with new phenomena heralding new agency and competencies for users and consumers—as seen in the spread and promotion of social innovation, the influence of the internet and peer networks, and the DIY, amateur design ‘maker movement’—these roles have also become increasingly mixed .
2.1.1 Developing Teaching in Two LeNSin Pilot Rounds
The LeNSin project focused on developing new teaching contents on S.PSS and DE, but also on expanding the network of partners, to gather an understanding of various DE related actors in different contexts and countries. This was taken forward in the form of case studies, new tools and methods, local seminars to gather insight, and in consecutive pilot courses in which various DE topics were taken under study with students (DE topics are discussed in Chap. 2). The seminars gathered local actors that shared an interest in the topics, but also linked to already existing networks and projects. The consecutive pilot collaborations took place with design students from various fields, ranging from media and graphic design to industrial and service design, and to engineering and architecture.
To understand what impact the project has had, we look into the interactions in developing these collaborations and reflect on the preparation process, the emphases taken in the actual pilot courses, as well as their outcomes. Our reflections are grounded on the course materials (syllabuses, teachers’ course reports), our own experiences and insights from interviews with the teachers involved.
Overall, five seminars and ten pilot courses were organized in five countries, with two main partners from each country and additional associate partners around the region. This interaction also constituted one main part of the whole project, where theoretical contents, design methods practice and real case studies came together. Initially, in each country the two partners came together to host a seminar, in which the main topics of S.PSS and DE were discussed from the regional perspective. Later the pilot courses were conducted, which aimed at examining and designing for DE in the various contexts in student case work. Teachers refined their understanding of the connection between S.PSS and DE during the courses, as well as tested and refined design tools. In China, the focus in the first pilot course was on lighting and 3D printing, in both commercial contexts and marginalized communities, and in the second pilot on regional food culture. In India, the focus of the first pilot was to help a local NGO actor boosting regional health, well-being and resilience and the second was on developing the local silk weaving industry. In South Africa, the focus was first on developing distributed health solutions and information and then on developing a supporting app for deaf people. In Brazil, the case work in the first pilot focused on the local fashion cluster and the second one on local mobility. And lastly, in Mexico, the first pilot focused on a local book club programme and then the second pilot on the university payment service system for students. Finally, besides access to a gradually extending case study library and improved revisions of toolsets, student teams also had an opportunity to submit their solution to the LeNSin student competition, and eventually six national winners were selected (including Europe), and four honourable mentions were given .
Overall, the themes in the regional educational activities progressed in different directions. However, the predefined structure of interaction and thematic content helped to keep a relatively coherent whole. Regional seminars and the following pilot courses called for a cumulative amount of preparation, but also ensured that the network of actors was gradually formalizing and roles became clear. In the end, the teaching activities involved an extended number of educators, both from the local region as well as internationally, and they attracted local attention.
During the teaching collaborations, in many locations, there were also unexpected local events—natural or societal—that led to additional challenges in preparations (for example, employee union strikes, student strikes, political instability and natural disasters such as earthquakes). The strong network allowed the necessary reflexivity that helped to overcome these obstacles.
Although each pilot comprised introduction to S.PSS theory and tools and an introduction to DE topics, the structure of the pilots varied. As the participating teachers visited several locations, and experiences were shared across, the teaching as a whole nevertheless remained rather coherent in relation to its main topics. Additionally, various experiences with tools and methods for teaching were exchanged during the pilots, but also informally across the network via email conversations or face-to-face meetings.
The structure of the seminars and two consecutive pilot courses held in each region provided the possibility to have ‘rounds of iteration’. Each pilot also had visiting teaching partners from another university, as well as observers from a third one. Experiences were then gathered in reports and exchanged in project meetings. This material also allows for subsequent academic communications and reflections in various forms.
Although it was challenging to insert an intensive, short course within most of the institutions involved (see Sect. 6), many of the teachers later reported that the very intensity was beneficial to the students’ learning. Many things about the pilot course were ‘new’ for both students and teachers: the diversity of didactic approaches (from theoretical lectures to active teamwork and fieldwork); the diversity of the student body (e.g. coming from all over the country, see Sect. 5, or from different departments, see Sects. 3 and 4); and the diversity of perspectives represented (teachers from other countries, stakeholders from companies or NGOs, and so on). Teachers quickly learned to improvise and take advantage of each other’s expertise, while needing to create a learning structure that did not lose students through the gaps. Teachers later appreciated how these opportunities and challenges helped create courses that managed to avoid “superficial sustainability” or “sustainability-as-usual”, as a kind of green paint splashed onto design education. Students were rather pushed to improve their abilities in systems thinking and to imagine and aim for new paradigms beyond business-as-usual: the territory of Distributed Economies where locally relevant solutions with greater sustainability potential are identified and fostered or designed anew and gradually embedded within the existing culture. S.PSS and DE were unquestionably often problematic concepts, but both teachers and students worked on translating the terms literally and culturally: reframing, re-coding and re-interpreting them. In some cases, the internationality of the work helped to raise the profile of sustainable design education in the institution and lend it further legitimacy, in a global context of tight budgets and instrumentalist learning objectives.
2.2 Reflections: Teaching S.PSS and DE Design
The concept of S.PSS is rather established in both design teaching and industry in many regions, and as a concept, it also acts as a suitable basis to develop a new understanding on DE. DE as a thematic area of focus, however, introduces very different interpretations in different contexts, regarding expectations, mode of work and developed outcomes. One important outcome is, in this sense, also in being able to discuss these views and to spread it forward to new actors. Getting to grips with what Distributed Economies actually means and why it is a beneficial umbrella concept requires much discussion among teachers and students on what kind of industrialized or post-industrial context they exist within and how it compares to others. It is pedagogically useful to make the concept familiar, to bring it ‘home’, by identifying local case studies that can be classified as various DE cases, whether distributed manufacturing or distributed renewable energy. This, in turn, helps identify the case’s sustainability benefits and threats, as a locally relevant system with cultural, social, technical and economic aspects. Teaching and learning DE is therefore not a case of importing a European concept into a non-European socio-technical environment, nor is the intent to design a solution that imitates solutions from the global North. Instead, what is important is to define ‘sustainability’ in dialogue and according to what is locally appropriate.
Adams et al.  promote developing education based on a “sustainability culture conceptual framework”, which connects people, teachers to other staff to students to external stakeholders, and that entails organizational transformation: building systems that support dialogues on both visible artefacts and activities and invisible values. Consequently, when we introduce design collaboration into the context of sustainability, its driving values are challenged, and responsibility and ethics come into play. To overcome these obstacles, collaboration is needed across continents and disciplinary sectors. In this process, projects as arenas to facilitate these discussions have high impact—and an open and supportive network helps.
Sustainability and ‘sustainable development’, in the end, are wedded to (global) equality, equity and justice, roles, access to participation and transparency. To this end, if design practitioners have a role in promoting collaborative mediation for sustainability or even further—to promote democratic assessment of heterogeneous perspectives for sustainable innovation —this also calls for fundamental changes in how to approach design education and its processes of teaching and learning.
And yet, design activities around the world are fundamentally grounded on iterative development. Design thinking acts in bridging problem and solution spaces , and its activities proceed by default through trial and error. Design as a discipline remains a developing field, continually producing new methods and collaborations in various contexts, in between and in connection to multiple domains and discourses. And finally, at best, teaching design involves an open and expansive process. Contemporary design activities involve several emphases on inducing and promoting collaboration and shared mediation. Collaborative, participatory design processes can support shared knowledge building and development of practice. Such interaction can also connect with local and tacit understanding, to be adapted and better applied in new contexts.
2.2.1 Discussion: The Changing Role of (Design) Academia
When design educators are networking globally and bringing local actors into dialogues to promote sustainability in various contexts, conventional industrial collaborations can expand further into new networks (see Sect. 3). S.PSS and DE as concepts allow such expansion and extend these networks further.
In developing new international collaboration on teaching and making, interaction needs to be embedded in a shared and reflexive process. In support of this, design remains an open field for education and action, linking various local and global inquiries across several professional domains. And as a result, design for sustainability as an aim and agenda can support a transformation in contemporary practices of making and learning; design acts as one key focus for developing policies and action, attracting interest in developing new ideas for societal sense-making.
Today, universities are adopting a new role, to establish their position in the political and economic structures of an increasingly knowledge-driven society. This new role emphasizes knowledge production for society and societal benefit, calling for stronger connections between research, education and everyday practices to expand participation to the outside world. For contemporary universities, this call moves the emphasis on how students and other stakeholders in the processes of learning are taken into account when joining up the fundamental orientations for any action.
As a mode of interaction and collaboration—and shared development of learning content—the LeNSin pilot course interactions provided a valuable opportunity to develop new tools and methods to implement sustainable design, and to share and connect the topics further. In parallel with the pilot courses, other curricular courses and collaborations with stakeholders (NGOs, municipal authorities, companies and so on) furthered the lessons learned. In the following sections, we will describe further how collaboration particularly with external stakeholders in the courses is carried out, from fieldwork involving regional industry clusters to small NGO partners in a long-term partnership in education.