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

This is part 3 (of 3) of an article on ‘design as a change agent’ that I wrote for the publication “Design for Biodiversity”. 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. Part 1 covered the introduction, explores our ‘western’ enlightened world view, and the role of design within this framework. Part 2 discussed ‘new world views’, and elaborates on ‘ecologies thinking’.

I hope you enjoy the read!

(cont’d from part 2 on design2sustain.eu)

5. Design as Change Agent

In understanding the true potential of design, and the design professional, we need to firstly acknowledge that design implies the conception, the thinking, of all man made objects. Secondly, design is not an autonomous entity; it influences, and is influenced by culture, society, ethics, and economy, it is interrelational. Thirdly, design is directional (14). Design is not neutral, even highly political, as it opens and closes paths for future development.

Design as an activity can be defined as (15): 1. to work out the structure or form of (something), as by making a sketch, outline, pattern, or plans 2. to plan and make (something) artistically or skilfully 3. to form or conceive in the mind; invent 4. to intend, as for a specific purpose; plan 5. Obsolete to mark out or designate.

In light of the notion of ecologies, this general definition gets a whole new meaning. The Technosphere is the physical outcome of design and designing, it is created by design and through the act of designing. Designing as an activity is closely linked to the ecology of the artificial and of the mind, and can direct and redirect the future development of material objects. The object, the way it is used, and in combination with other objects pre-conceives the coming into being of another object, through the ecology of ‘things’ and the ecology of ‘mind’. Central to any design assignment would be the question of ‘what has to be designed and what it, in turn, will design’ (16).

In other words, design goes on designing, which is maybe best illustrated by an example. The design of the internet, once a military communication conduit, has had a fundamental impact on our society, culture and economy. The design choices made in building the internet, combined with the fact that this technology has been made available for public use, has resulted in massive changes in how and what we communicate, how and what products and services we buy, how we define our identities, and even what constitutes the public domain. It has opened unimagined possibilities for further design and development. The internet has also brought about a whole new industry, with its own need for infrastructure, like server capacity and fiber glass wiring. In short, bringing about the ‘internet’ directs a certain development of society, culture, and economy as a result.

Pointing to the role of design in forming the Technosphere (the ecology of ‘things’) and hence the interrelationship with the Biosphere shows the potential for design to bring about change towards sustainability. Fry argues that design rethought as an interrelational discipline, future oriented, and futuring, can be employed towards sustaining the Self and the Community, and bring about the move from passive consumption to active participation. Positioned in this way the power of design can be utilized as a redirective(17) practise towards sustainability.

Farson (18) calls for the design professional to become a meta-professional, to transcend the boundaries of the profession and find new ways to use the knowledge that we have to address the challenges we face. Given the importance of design in creating a future sustainable society, designers need to move away from being service providers to becoming leaders. Designers need to establish themselves alongside politicians, policy makers and corporate leaders to establish future agenda’s and set directions for future development (19).

Is the point here that politicians, policy makers and corporate leaders are wilfully being unsustainable? No, of course not. The point to make here is that the mentioned potential of design (1, everything human is designed, 2, design is interrelational, and 3, design directs) can be employed to gradually move modern western society, economy and culture onto a sustainable path of developed, as described earlier. Designers will need to lead this transition, by using design within the ecology of mind (the conception of an object) to act as a change agent on the ecology of things (the making of objects) and the ecology of image (how we perceive the world).

The following paragraph will elaborate on some of the options of how this can be done.

Redirective Design Strategies In employing design as a redirective change agent there are no quick fixes, there is no ‘spark of insight’ curing humanity, and there is no single path to sustainability. The transition to a sustainable society will need to be the result of the cumulative influence of small and big changes, in objects, in policies, in structures, in laws.

Fry (20) identifies elimination design and recoding as key design strategies. The former contains strategies like exposing the perceived ‘need’ for a product as a fabricated ‘want’, substituting complex technology with simple technology, product multipurposing, product de-materialization or re-materialization, symbolic devaluation and destruction of sign value (through the ecology of image), and plain prohibition by law. The latter exposes the unsustainable and declares the means of sustainment, the way in which something can gain futuring agency.

Any design assignment will need to start with a relational analysis, which will reveal what type of expertise is needed, while a detailed consideration of future positive or negative effects or possibilities would be required. The question needs to be asked, what can realistically be foreseen? Multidisciplinary design teams and designing in time are important design tools to be employed.

6. So what does it all mean for Architecture and Architects?

Can architecture, as a spatial design discipline, take a redirective approach towards sustainment? Can architecture have futuring agency?

In terms of result I think it can by focusing on two main areas of design, one being spatial design directed towards nurturing active participation, community building, and social networking. Secondly, architecture, as the creator of habitat, can contribute to project the new worldvision, in which the interrelationships or interfaces between Biosphere / Technosphere is explored and redefined from “destructive dominance” to some form of co-development.

Sensorial experience, awareness and education are key design elements, where spaces seduce people to imagine alternate ways of relating to nature, by combining natural elements and man made elements. The vision would need to revolve around a permeable, adaptive, more fluent interface between the Biosphere and the Man Made World, in which both benefit of each other, and are in a positive state of exchange and creation.

In architectural terms, the ‘parti’, or the chief organizing thought (21), of a design would need to be informed by these two design principles.

7. Observations and Closing Comments

Enlightenment as a world forming ideology has resulted in a destructive dominant relationship of the man made Technosphere over the natural world, the Biosphere. A rebalancing of the ideals of the Age of Reason is needed in order to provide human kind with viable futures as a species on this world. The standpoint of dominance over the Biosphere needs to transition into a relationship of co-development with it.

This would involve refocusing society towards a different concept of ‘wealth’, progress and identity, not (or minimally) driven by material consumption and economic growth, but by our ability to sustain ourselves and by the value of community and social relations. Design, as a creator of Technosphere, is ideally positioned to facilitate this transition. Architecture, as a spatial design principle, should be employed in the strengthening of community, and seduce or educate people to envision a different Technosphere / Biosphere interrelationship.

A number of authors identify design and the design profession as a key change agent. In his book Design Futuring, Fry specifically links this quality specifically to the need to transition towards The Sustainment. Fry articulates strongly and comprehensively the need for fundamental changes in society, culture and economy, under the reign of The Sustainment, of creating futuring potential, instead of working towards unsustainability and defuturing. In acknowledging the destructive impact human kind by default has on it’s own future, in my view he underplays the potential for creating a Technosphere / Biosphere interrelationship which is mutually beneficial and nurture a co- development.

Designers need to refocus the design profession and utilize the identified potentials of design towards the transition to a sustainable society. Design, wielded as a change agent, impacts both the ecology of things as well as the ecology of image.

Lastly, the concept of dominance, in my view, can be explained in two ways. One is technological dominance, the second is dominance by sheer quantity. The question of ‘how many people can this earth support?’ is rarely asked, nor answered. The answer is, of course, very difficult to provide, and is dependent on technology and the Enlightened ideal of equality for all humans.


15 http://www.thefreedictionary.com/design

16 Fry,T., Design Futuring, Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice, Berg Publishers, Oxford (UK), 2009, Chapter 8

17 Fry,T., Design Futuring, Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice, Berg Publishers, Oxford (UK), 2009, Chapters 3/4

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

19 Fry,T., Design Futuring, Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice, Berg Publishers, Oxford (UK), 2009, p.150

20 Fry,T., Design Futuring, Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice, Berg Publishers, Oxford (UK), 2009, Chapter 5

21 Ching, Francis D. K., A Visual Dictionary of Architecture, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, New York (USA), 1995, p. 53


– Ching, Francis D. K., A Visual Dictionary of Architecture, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, New York (USA), 1995, p. 53

– 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



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