The integration of human and natural systems is occurring right before our eyes.

Presenting “compostal” our thesis project to create a bike-powered compost pickup service in NYC. One example of an emerging sustainable trend.

I graduated with a masters in Design for Social Innovation a few months ago. There, I gained a systemic perspective to life. Imagine an architect walking into a room. She would see angles, dimensions, and spaces; an interior designer walking into the same room would see colors, mood lighting, and feng shui; and a DJ would be like, yeah sick, I can set up over there, put the speakers over here, and the dance floor here… Now, when I go inside a grocery store, I see a huge systems map of product lifecycles and stakeholders. Where did those bananas come from? Are they in season? How much water did it take to grow them, how much fuel to ship them? Is there palm oil in this cereal? Palm oil farming is the cause of insane deforestation in Indonesia, which is a huge contributor to climate change. If there’s palm oil in this I don’t want it. Okay, I want this cereal, but what the hell do I do with the plastic bag inside the box when I’m finished? It’s not compostable or recyclable. Thanks cereal company for just handing me something that’s inevitably going into a landfill. Waste shouldn’t be a default.

Now, it seems like a shoulder shrugging bummer. But I think we’ll find that there’s actually good news inside all of this. Because I’m not the only one thinking this way. Maybe not everyone is explicitly thinking in systems, but we’re learning that our product sourcing and disposal has an impact on us and the planet.

Everything is a series of systems with intervention points waiting to be innovated.

And from a systemic perspective, we can see, for example, that a paper towel label that reads “100% post consumer recycled paper” is not just a great social innovation, but is an indicator of emerging sustainable trends. Trends that are establishing themselves as new social norms. And that, my friend, is essentially the idea behind “Future Meets Present”.

#FutureMeetsPresent means this: when we visualize the future, we intuitively sense that things will be more streamlined, cleaner, greener, and sustainable. Rooftop gardens, solar panels, authentically organic foods, and little to no waste will be the norm. Human systems will behave like natural systems. Actually, this future that we visualize is expressing itself right now in the present.

If we take a step back and look at an anthropological timeline, from hunter-gather days till now, we see we’re living in a completely unprecedented time. Tens of thousands of years ago we were bands of nomadic hunters and gatherers wondering the land. Tribes were isolated and unaware of each other; Earth was uncharted, wild, and vast. We slowly established small settlements, then villages, towns, cities, and cultures. It seems coming together as one global village has been our natural destiny.

Now we’ve reached a threshold of connectivity. A threshold that brings higher levels of functioning.

As an international, intercommunicating village we’re looking to each other to learn about social and environmental innovations. Have you seen the bottle-recycling machines in Whole Foods? Those have been poppin in Europe for years. We’re constantly refining each other’s best practices, and as a result innovations are scaling at an exponential rate. We can see the emergence of sustainable trends like divestment from fossil fuels, investment in renewable energy, bans on single-use plastics, forest restorations, re-wilding, urban farming, and zero-waste cities. All in the efforts of achieving the most grandiose and critical goal our species has ever faced: net-zero emissions by 2050.

We’re experiencing the seedlings of culturally accepted systemic norms of sustainable practices.

People are working and designing with nature and this is good for both people and the planet. According to the principles of biophilic design, humans have a deep seeded connection to nature, because we are nature. It’s the reason we’re enchanted by the stars and drawn to the crackling of an open fire. It’s why we feel refreshed after spending time in the park and why we totally surrender to the sound of running water. The more that human systems and natural systems are soundly integrated the better we’ll be.

Self-sustaining living wall with an exterior dressing of charcoal concrete finish (Pandomo). One of 14 principals of biophilic design. Take a deep dive right here.

One of the most important steps in the integration between human and natural systems is to stop deteriorating the environment and stop creating so much waste.

Many cities in the US, like LA, San Diego, Austin, Seattle, and New York have stepped up and created plans to send zero waste to landfill as a means of addressing climate changing emissions. San Francisco, for example, has been called the “Silicon Valley of recycling” and currently diverts 80% of it’s waste away from landfills. They’re on track to hit 90% by 2020. Amazing composting systems, waste bin labeling, and a “unique social and political culture” where people behave as if reducing waste and recycling are important social norms, contribute largely to this success.

One thing I found on San Francisco’s zero waste site is the distinction between consumer responsibility and producer responsibility. In reality, no consumer intends on harming the environment or creating waste- all we want is to eat our lunch or buy our groceries, but most of our stuff comes in packaging that will be thrown away. Producers have a responsibility to design for the end of product life by using less materials, compostable/biodegradable packaging, and/or creating take-back systems (think milk-man of the 80s). Meanwhile, consumers have a responsibility to avoid creating waste when possible. Do we need a bag for one item? Can we buy bulk instead of packaged? Can we bring our own cup instead of throwing one away? Our dollar is our vote and companies are totally paying attention.

Dude, there has never been gluten in butter.
Cups never used to say this!

Each of these, and everything you’ll find in #futuremeetspresent is an indicator of systemic shifts towards sustainability.

Wrote this while listening to: Joey Alexander