I often think of the shift from unsustainable to sustainable systems as a leap (in fact that’s the title of my forthcoming book on the subject). The engine of this jump, though, isn’t any particular breakthrough technology; it’s a change in perspective, a way of reordering priorities such that what seemed like forbidding challenges come to resemble extraordinary opportunities.

I’ve been talking about Germany all last week here, and it provides the planet’s best case in point for the viability – and profitability – of making such a leap at the scale of a major industrial nation. Germany sized up the challenge to nuclear power’s future posed by the Fukushima meltdown as an opportunity to deepen its global pacesetting commitment to renewables. In other business sectors as well as at the regional and local government levels across Germany, the move to low-emissions, cleantech-powered living has also emerged as a fulcrum for renewal – in Hamburg, for example, where derelict harbor has been reconfigured as a world-class mixed-use brownfield re-development.

In my two-week tour of sustainability’s best practices across Germany, there were numerous other examples of German ingenuity and innovative zeal. (Several of these deserve posts of their own; I’ll come back to them in the coming months.)

In Berlin, for example, there was the brand-new and brilliantly conceived NeMona project, which is attempting to foster professional relationships between hip fashion designers and skilled immigrant seamstresses in the eclectic neighborhood of Neukölln.

At Berlin’s International Design Center, an exhibition of the city’s best next-generation design included a stunning new thin-film solar panel built by Inventux Technologies. Not only do they look great – thin as a tinted window, with no clunky metal frame – but the simple design means they install quicker than most solar panels, and their smaller cell size means they can be used to cover a greater range of rooftop shapes.

And I will most definitely need to come back to the stunning feats of repurposing and innovative design I found at Zollverein in Essen. The city itself was once the epicenter of Germany’s industrial heartland, the Ruhrgebiet. (My father, who was a fighter pilot in the Canadian Air Force stationed in Germany during the late 1960s, remembers a brown cloud of smog hanging over the region 24/7.) Zollverein itself was once the country’s largest coal mine and processing plant; it was nearly razed in the early 1990s until a state politician recognized its unique Bauhaus-inspired architectural design. It is now a UNESCO World Hertiage Site housing a stylish, bucolic cluster of museums and galleries including a design museum for the prestigious Red Dot Awards for product design. A new design institute will open this fall in a hyper-efficient marvel of a new building designed by Pritzker-winning Japanese architecture firm SANAA, which among other things uses the waste heat from the pumping system keeping water out of the old coal shafts to heat itself.

More than any single project, though, what’s most powerful about Germany’s sustainability push is the mood it has inspired among its young innovators. One stop on my tour was ESMOD, a Berlin fashion school. The school has incorporated sustainability principles into its core curriculum from first semester onward. One of its most celebrated graduates, Julia Knüpfer, explained her approach to sustainability in fashion.

Knüpfer’s label, ICA Watermelon, is a sustainable pioneer in the disposable culture of haute couture, abandoning the ephemeral, seasonal nature of high fashion in favor of longer lasting designs, local production and sustainable materials. In fashion circles moreso than most, the limits imposed by the sustainability creed – the need for durability and reuse, the emphasis on the carbon footprint and production conditions of a given fabric over its appearance and versatility – can seem antithetical to the project itself. Not so, for Knüpfer at least.

“I can live with the limitations,” she said. “Taking the limiations as the opportunity to find the solution – that can be very inspiring.”

This is a point worth underscoring. Every system imposes parameters, and every design brief has its limits. Our current system – fossil-fueled, nonrenewable, addicted to growth at all costs and openly hostile to its physical environment – has bumped hard against its own limitations in recent years. From within its walls, sustainability often appears, like environmental stewardship before it, to be an artificial limit, a braking system on a roaring engine.

Step off the runaway train for a moment, though, and you just might find vast new green fields of innovation. Just look at Germany. At the end of a very dark century clouded by the excesses of the First Industrial Age, it is building the template of the Second Industrial Revolution. And thriving.

To uncover design innovation 140 characters at a time, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.

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