In the Shadow of Schumacher

Dartington Hall, Devonshire, UK

Last month I spent a few days at Schumacher College to participate in a short course in Transition Design taught by CMU faculty members Terry Irwin, Gideon Kossoff and Cheryl Dahle (with an unofficial assist from Cameron Tonkinwise).

The experience of studying at Schumacher feels like something between a semester at Hogwarts and an ashram retreat. Amid medieval gables and limestone walls you’ll find an organic vegetable farm, meditation room, and people folks striking yoga poses on the carefully manicured Great Lawn.

Schumacher College sits on the Dartington Estate in the town of Totnes. Built in the 14th century by John Holand, the place had fallen into disrepair until the American heiress Dorothy Elmhirst bought and rejuvenated the place in the 1930s, transforming it into a kind of proto-counterculture think tank that attracted the likes of Aldous Huxley, Igor Stravinsky, Ravi Shankar, T.E. Lawrence (a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia), James Lovelock (of Gaia theory fame), George Bernard Shaw, and H.G. Wells, to name a few.

In 1990, a group of forward-thinking academics established Schumacher College on the estate, naming it after the famed alternative economist E.F. Schumacher, in hopes of creating a home for holistic, transdisciplinary studies with a strong focus on ecological thinking.

The school’s focus on experiential learning makes it a powerful setting for an intensive residential course. Each study group takes responsibility for its collective well-being, preparing meals and cleaning up together, holding regular community meetings (complete with poetry readings and movement exercises), and engaging with the physical place itself through guided walks and a range of different outdoor activities.

The class environment felt simultaneously intense — often running from 8am to 10pm—and relaxed, with lots of slack and flow in the planned schedule for tea and conversation, and time for reading, walking around, or joining classmates for a pint in the pub.

This intertwining of study and practice felt particularly conducive to Transition Design, an approach to design thinking rooted in ecological thinking, personal reflection, and evolving the practices of our everyday lives.

Over the ten day course, most of our days were divided into morning lectures and afternoon studio workshop sessions, divided by community-prepared meals and ample time for reflection.

As engaging as the class material itself was, the moments that really stuck with me sprang more from the experience of engaging with the place itself:

  • A first-day tour with Mary Bartlett, longtime staffer and master bookbinder with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Dartington
  • A “Deep Time Walk” with Stephan Harding, genius environmental scientist (and protege of James Lovelock) with a powerful shamanic presence
  • Late night conversations with the class on everything from UX process to Goethian Science and holistic ecology in the Dartington Library
  • A surprisingly delicious Sunday night group-cooked vegetarian Mexican dinner for 40 in the Old Postern

The felt experience of everyday life at Schumacher created a powerful environmental spell for studying Transition Design, rooted as it is in an understanding of how everyday practices become deeply intertwined with our world view and professional work.

As Tonkinwise puts it:

“The interface between everyday habitual practices and the unsustainable economies and infrastructures that resource them are designed artifacts, environments and systems; socio-ecologically exploitative industries manifest as clothes I wear while accessing my bank through an app on my cell phone as I sit in a car at traffic lights with the air conditioning on…”

By taking a more holistic, ecologically-minded approach to design that’s rooted in a deep understanding of the role of everyday life practices in effecting long-term change (cf. Kossoff), we can begin to see the kinds of shifts in mindset and problem structuring that could lead to long-term transformation.

As Tonkinwise argues, “the professional practice of design today has a strong counter-tendency to abdicate from futuring... Consequently, the job of commercial design, especially in the realm of digital platforms, has become to remain agile, constantly building alternatives in response realtime analytics, rather than to pursue a vision.”

Or as Terry Irwin put it in one of her talks: “Cartesian, reductionism of system blinds us to the dynamics of living systems.”

The job of Transition Design, then, is to elevate our focus beyond the level of the artifact, and towards the broader, systems-level landscape of the future we are trying to design. This is no easy task, since wicked problems by their nature are unsolvable. But that’s no excuse for not trying. As Cheryle Dahle memorably put it at one point: “You’re not in this to win.”

Looking back, my ten days at Schumacher have stuck with me in a way much more akin to a meditation retreat than a for-credit class. My past engagement with the theory of Transition Design often felt too abstract and ethereal, and difficult to put into practice. Schumacher afforded me the chance to bridge practice and study (alongside a cohort of brilliant and passionate fellow travelers), and gain a brief but potent glimpse of what a meaningful life might look like in an age of transition.

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