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Design as a Change Agent towards Sustainability | Redefining Enlightenment’s Dominance over Nature (part 1 of 3)

This is part 1 (of 3) of an article on ‘design as a change agent’ that I wrote for the publication “Design for Biodiversity”. Part 1 covers the introduction, explores our ‘western’ enlightened world view, and the role of design within this framework. Part 2 discusses ‘new world views’, and elaborates on ‘ecologies thinking’. Part 3 redefines the role of design and the design professional as change agent, translates this specifically for architecture and the architect, and provides closing comments.

I hope you enjoy the read!

0. Introduction

In the last few decennia human kind is experiencing with increasing concern the effects that ‘our’ way of living has on the natural environment. We experience the pollution caused by our manufacturing processes, the depletion of a finite stock of fossil fuels, the limitless use of raw materials for making our products, the enormous waste issues we are facing as a result of our consumption society, and the whole debate regarding our melting ice caps and climate change.

While in some cases human kind is successful in mitigating some of these symptoms, by and large this has not resulted in any fundamental change in the way our society and means of production are functioning. The ‘solutions’ implemented are taking some aspects of our society for granted without fundamentally questioning the ‘causes’ of these symptoms. The globalization trend, resulting in more transportation and use of fossil fuels, the growing world population and the appeal of western culture, replacing traditional cultures, is only deepening the challenges we are facing.

For the purpose of this article I will assume that our current relationship with nature is not sustainable, and that a transition of our society and its relationship vis a vis nature is needed. This essay focuses on the question of ‘transition to what?’ and explores the role of design and the design profession as change agent within this transition.

In order to answer this question this essay will firstly elaborate the current interrelationship between human kind and nature, by briefly introducing the ideals of the Age of Reason (Enlightenment) as a basis for our modern western society. In the second paragraph I will describe the role of design and the designer within this framework. The third paragraph will discuss the outline of a new worldview, or better a rebalancing of Enlightenment. The forth paragraph discusses interrelationality by looking at notions of ecology. In light of this, the fifth paragraph strategically repositions the role of design and the designer as a change agent towards the transition to this new worldview. The sixth paragraph touches on the role of architecture within this redefined role of design. Lastly, the seventh paragraph will make some observations and closing comments.

1. Western ‘Enlightened’ Worldview

Looking at the impact of our way of inhabiting this planet, living with, off and by nature, the question begs: How come is it that we have such an effect on nature, and what is driving this? Critical in answering these questions is the understanding that how we act upon the world is a result of how we think about and view our world. So, how do we think about and view our world?

Taking the development of western society as a starting point, the dominant relationship of human kind over nature dates back as far as biblical times. In the book of Genesis God places man (Adam and Eve) above nature, by giving them responsibility vis a vis nature, to ‘eat the apple’ or not. While until the Middle Ages this read like a way for human improvement in relative harmony with nature, the Enlightenment Age or Age of Reason (1650 – 1800) moved human kind in the western world from a feudal society, based on a shared religious faith, into a modern society, based on individual equality, rational thought and science.

Some of the key characteristics of Enlightenment are a) a deep belief in reason and science to solve issues and provide control over nature, b) secularism, c) an active engagement of man in the public domain, d) human progress measured by increasing material wealth and civility, e) a belief in human ‘goodness’, f) the autonomy of the human will (Imannuel Kant), and g) human equality (1). A new culture of science based on reason, progress and change (for the betterment of all human kind), enabled technological innovation to gradually change the economic and societal principles of the 17th and 18th century. The freeing of the human individual mind and resulting institutional and economical changes can be seen as the enablers of Industrial Revolution (2), with profound changes in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, transportation, and technology.

At this point it is valuable to capture ‘all that has been created by man’ into one term, the ‘Technosphere’ (3). The Technosphere is everything man made, all tangible products, all cities, all artificial systems and structures that constitute our man made habitat. Our Enlightened western society, with an economy based on the assumption of perpetual growth, by (material) consumption, has resulted in the subordination of the Biosphere (the natural world encompassing the Technosphere) to economic development and to the development of the Technosphere.

2. Design as commodity, Designer as service provider

The current role of design in society is brought about by, what Mellick Lopes (4) calls, an ecology of image, and progress measured by growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), through (material) consumption. The ecology of image determines our view on and awareness of for instance new products or objects, by the way it is represented to us through images in the media, but also by means of our cultural symbols. Graphic design, for example, is utilized to promote the consumption of material goods, by creating ‘personal identity’ and emphasizing the positive qualities of a product and not mentioning the negative, destructive qualities.

Design in the minds of our citizens stands for ‘iconic design’ of objects (for example luxury brand products and signature buildings), and it’s role is limited to providing a service focused on aesthetics, image, and fashion (5). The conclusion can be that design itself has been commoditized, it is something to identify yourself with, to ‘need’, or not. In this sense the whole design industry has been commissioned to promote the consumption of material goods.

While designers (architects, industrial designers and other design professionals) are predominantly pre-occupied with creating (luxury) objects, the bigger questions, like sustainability receive still marginal attention. While the future shape of humanity is being determined within the next few decades, designers are working in, what Tim Brown calls, an “incremental” mode on the next neat looking object. He argues that design needs to be re-instituted as a profession, where an integrative systems approach prevails above a focus on the object. In this way design can play a critical role in addressing the more fundamental issues of our society.

Farson (6) argues along similar lines of thought that design has become too much ‘business’ and not enough profession. Architects and other design professionals have not created an ability to say “no”, and have adopted a vendor mentality to design and designing. In this ‘service oriented’ mode of operation, design cannot realise the potential that it has.

In effect, design and designers need to refocus from advancing material consumption (through the design of ‘appealing’ products) towards an ethical use of design as a force in realizing some of the other ideals of Enlightenment.

Before going into how design can influence the transition to sustainability we need to first understand what it is we are working towards. How would a sustainable society, economy, culture and ethics look like? This is the subject of the next paragraph.


1 Jonathan I. Israel, A revolution of the mind, Princeton University Press, 2010, p. vii-viii; Core Values Enlightenment: http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/%7Ejo52/POS254/index.html; Core Values Enlightenment: http://www.temple.edu/ih/Enlightenment/

2 The Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution (Richard K. Moore) http://www.serendipity.li/capitalism/enlightenment_and_industrial_revolution.htm

3 Industrial Ecology definition of natural systems and technological systems within it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Industrial_ecology

4 Mellick Lopes, A., An Ecology of Image, University of Sydney. Department of Art History and Theory, Sydney (Aus), 2006

5 Brown, T., Change by Design, Harper Collins, New York, 2009

6 Farson, R., The Power of Design: A Force for Transforming Everything, Greenway Communications, Atlanta (USA), 2008


– Brown, T., Change by Design, Harper Collins, New York, 2009

– Fry,T., Design Futuring, Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice, Berg Publishers, Oxford (UK), 2009

– Farson, R., The Power of Design: A Force for Transforming Everything, Greenway Communications, Atlanta (USA), 2008

– Israel, Jonathan I., A revolution of the mind, Princeton University Press, 2010, p. vii-viii

– Mellick Lopes, A., An Ecology of Image, University of Sydney. Department of Art History and Theory, Sydney (Aus), 2006

– Definition Industrial Ecology: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Industrial_ecology

Ideals of Enlightenment Age / Age of Reason:

– Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_Enlightenment

– Northern Arizona University: http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/%7Ejo52/POS254/index.html

– Temple University: http://www.temple.edu/ih/Enlightenment/

The Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution (Richard K. Moore)



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