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Design as a Change Agent towards Sustainability | Redefining Enlightenment’s Dominance over Nature (part 2 of 3)

This is part 2 (of 3) of an article on ‘design as a change agent’ that I wrote for the publication “Design for Biodiversity”. Part 1 covered 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 will redefine 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!

photo: Peter de Ruijter (2010)

(cont’d from part 1 on design2sustain.eu)

3. Towards a New Worldview

Our current western modern economy and society placed in light of sustainability raises three concerns. Firstly, human kind assumes a destructive dominant relationship vis a vis the Biosphere. Secondly, our economy assumes perpetual growth based on material consumption, and our individual identity and success is measured in terms of material wealth, i.e. how much we (can) consume. Thirdly, there is the concern that we are living the now at the cost of the future. The future as a survivalist concept is not sufficiently utilized and valued as a measure of progress for decisions taken in the now.

When looking at the ideals of Enlightenment one can conclude that our current economy and society, does not result or contribute in realizing some of the other ideals, of equality and progress for all, not in the present, but certainly not in the future. The balance between the ideals of Enlightenment has been skewed, and is in need of rebalancing.

In their cradle to cradle vision McDonough and Braungart (7) utilize the ‘waste equals food’ aspect from the natural ecology in an effort to ‘close’ the product / waste loop within the Technosphere. The Biosphere functions as an inspiration for closing life cycles of products, similar to how nature ‘recycles’ or re-uses organic waste. In this way the issues of waste are effectively addressed. C2C as a methodology questions and optimizes the way in which we produce, and does not ask the more philosophical questions of why are we consuming so much?

Coyle (8) confronts these issues, rather indirectly, by concluding that the notion of wellbeing needs to find its place in the measurement of GDP. Only measuring the wealth of a nation in terms of current income does not provide a good indication of the sustained wellbeing of a nation and it’s subjects, and is thus unsustainable. Coyle makes the argument for discouraging excess consumption, because it does not bring additional wellbeing, and reduces the burden on the environment as well as on society (by reducing inequality and improving trust). Coyle identifies redefinition of GDP (as a sign of comprehensive wealth), restoring morality and ethics within our institutions (markets, households, firms and political institutions), and the realignment of collective institutions with the changing societies and economic structures as key starting points for this change. Lastly, Coyle identifies education is as a key driver to reconcile the debate around happiness, wellbeing and economic growth.

A more direct approach is taken by Fry (9) when he argues that the act of design, the economy and society, need to be brought under the ‘hegemony of The Sustainment’, meaning that society and economy need to be focused on that what sustains the Self, the CommunityCulture and Ethics from the perspective of creating possible futures.

Fry takes the pessimistic anthropocentric view that human kind, as a creating species, is naturally destructive or ‘defuturing’. Human kind has a limited lifespan, but is, by it’s actions and what is being created, to a certain extent in charge of it’s own fate, of it’s own future. The Technosphere or Man Made World, as Fry calls it, is created by the act of design, and that is why he argues for the crucial role of design as a change agent, with futuring as well as defuturing capacities.

The definition of ‘wealth’ needs to be refocused from quantity towards quality, where the value of a product needs to include the cost of destruction, the cost of inequality, and it’s futuring potential. In effect Fry explicitly places the ideals of Enlightenment under the reign of The Sustainment, hereby also redefining the relationship of man and it’s Technosphere vis a vis the Biosphere.

For the economy this will mean letting go of the assumption of perpetual economic growth, a refocus from a product- towards a service based economy, with substantially increased cost of physical products, and placing production and technology under the rule of futuring capacity. Fry is not making a case against commercial interest nor is he making a case against the use of technology. His point is that these should be refocused in light of working towards a sustainable future.

In summary, the move towards a sustainable society is firstly characterized by considering a notion of future orientation in making decisions in the now. Secondly the issue of material consumption is addressed, either by reducing it’s waste impact (C2C) or by questioning it’s relevance in terms of excess, and by asking the question “do we really need this product?” instead of ‘wanting’ a product for the identity it establishes or confirms (through the ecology of image). Thirdly, by redefining the concept of ‘wealth’ and ‘success’ away from passive consumption towards active societal participation and revaluing the need to form communities. In his theory of Design Thinking Tim Brown (10) emphasizes this need for society to move from a mode of pacified consumption towards a mode of active participation, towards involvement on a community level. A notion of the reestablishment of the group or ‘the public man’ (11) alongside the private individual is part of this, emphasizing also the notion of ‘smallness’ and social cohesion in society.

The above considerations put the meaning of Enlightenment in light of a new relationship with the Biosphere. This relationship is no longer based on domination of the Technosphere over the Biosphere, but on a balanced co- existence of both. The transition will mean fundamental changes to our western societies, economies, cultures and ethics.

While C2C studies natural ecologies to optimize production processes and minimize waste, the next paragraph will show the value of thinking in terms of ecologies on a more fundamental level in relation to design.

4. Ecologies Thinking

Within the Biosphere all natural elements seem to function in a complex set of interrelationships and are in a state of constant change and exchange. Similarly one can also argue that an ‘ecology of things’ exists in the Technosphere, where the creation or design of a particular object is the result of the complex interrelationships of other particular objects already created. One specific object implies by nature another object with specific qualities.

This implies that ecologies (and design as a product of the ecology of mind) are relational in nature, both in the present time as well as in time.

This so-called interrelationality also applies to the realm of thought. One idea is interrelated to others by default, resulting in an ‘ecology of mind’, as identified by Gregory Bateson (12) in 1972. As mentioned earlier, Mellick Lopes (13) identifies a fourth ecology, namely that of ‘image’. The ecology of mind and image combined determine our interpretation, or view, on the natural and artificial ecologies, and how they interrelate.

Footnotes:

7 McDonough, W. and Braungart, M., Cradle to Cradle, Remaking the Way we Make Things, North Point Press, New York (USA), 2002

8 Coyle, D., The Economics of Enough: How to Run the Economy as If the Future Matters, Princeton University Press, Princeton (USA), 2011

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

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

11 Sennett, R., The Fall of Public Man, Cambridge University Press Archive, Cambridge (UK), 1977

12 Bateson, G., Steps to an Ecology of Mind, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1972

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

Bibliography:

– Bateson, G., Steps to an Ecology of Mind, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1972

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

– Coyle, D., The Economics of Enough: How to Run the Economy as If the Future Matters, Princeton University Press, Princeton (USA), 2011

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

– McDonough, W. and Braungart, M., Cradle to Cradle, Remaking the Way we Make Things, North Point Press, New York (USA), 2002

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

– Sennett, R., The Fall of Public Man, Cambridge University Press Archive, Cambridge (UK), 1977

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