Culture Design Labs — Evolving the Future

Patterns always build on what came before. This is true for patterns of culture as well.

The world is getting to be pretty f*cked up now and something needs to be done about it. Humanity is heading toward a future that nobody wants because the cultural systems we are living within have become profoundly disconnected from ecological, political, and economic reality.

The current trajectory of our civilization is overshoot and collapse. We have already passed at least four of the nine “planetary boundaries” that define a safe operating range for the global economy. This truth is frightening. It induces deep-seated anxiety and fear, compelling many of us fully into denial — just when we most need to get our collective act together.

We see it in our political systems. Here in the United States, the two major political parties are so broken that each has elevated its most disliked candidate to run for president. Many factors give rise to this thoroughly inadequate outcome. I’ve written about a few of them here. Relevant for this discussion is the fact that our political systems at present all but guarantee collapse.

It is like being on Easter Island and watching the last tree cut down. Those of us who study ecological patterns can see the writing is already on the wall. Continue on the current path and kiss the amazing advances of technology and science goodbye. All the progress we’ve made in fields like medicine, energy, communications, and manufacturing can quickly come to a halt with the next wave of terrorist attacks and natural disasters, or worse if the speculative bubble in the financial system finally bursts.

I recently asked the provocative question Can we design the future we want? to frame the need for systemic design thinking capable of guiding cultural and institutional change. The key to tackling this convergence of crises is culture — the ideas, social norms, values, beliefs, tools and technologies, relationship patterns, and organizational forms that constitute human cultures around the world.

My collaborators at the Evolution Institute,, and Smart Ecologies are laying the groundwork for a design science of intentional social change to rapidly evolve our systems of government, the practices and structures of market economies, pathways through educational institutions, and journalism models in the media. In short, we are preparing the platforms for collaboration through which millions of people will be able to participate in the wholesale redesign of our civilization.

Nothing less will save us. There are no “silver bullets” here. It is going to be difficult. Many hardships are already unavoidable because it is so late in the game. Hundreds of millions of people will be caught up in the turmoil of cascading systemic collapse and transformation. It will be a very difficult transition and those of us who intend to lead as visionaries, healers, and builders will need a lot of training for what lies ahead.

This is where Culture Design Labs come into the picture.

The emerging field of culture design brings together the many scientific disciplines relevant to establishing an integrative science of social change. Imagine when every community that seeks to guide its own development is able to set up field sites for cultural evolution research. Bringing together researchers with change practitioners — orchestrated and funded by philanthropic institutions and government agencies that provide financial support for applied research and social programs — these field sites will gather data on the cultural patterns driving the evolutionary change process. This knowledge will be essential for practitioners as they guide the change process in their communities.

A few concepts may help you visualize what the Culture Design Labs can do:

  • Cultural “traits” that undergo selection. Every social niche has environmental factors that select for the spread of some ideas and practices, while creating barriers or resistance for others. Learning to analyze these traits will enable communities to become wise managers of their own evolutionary change process.
  • System “logics” seen by pattern analysis. Create an economy around the patterns of growth at all costs and you’ll see it begin to behave like a cancer that threatens its host. Every story has structure. So too with cultural systems. It is simply a matter of learning how to read them.
  • Forget theories of change, create scientific models instead! Few change practitioners treat social change with methodological rigor. They don’t study past behaviors to develop theoretical models about future change. Nor do they formulate questions and gather data to test their understandings. Great strides can be made by simply behaving like scientists.

Already we can begin to see a way forward. Treat culture as a complex system that can be rigorously studied and conscientiously guided using the tools of social science where they are needed most.

There is now so much abundance of knowledge in the world — just pick any field of study and think about how far it has advanced in the last 3o years. Sociology has become married to data science, helping us see ourselves as part of larger social systems. History now archives digital data to track patterns across great spans of time. Urban planning uses high-performance computing to simulate and model changes in ebbs and flows.

In every field (including hundreds more I could mention) we now have very sophisticated tools, advanced communities of practice, and mature institutions. This is true across the social and behavioral sciences, engineering and management, data analytics and technology, and more. What we lack is the vision for how all the pieces fit together.

This is where the Cultural Evolution Society comes in. We have been carefully mapping out the grand challenges for cultural evolution among more than 1500 founding members of this fledgling society — people who engage in education and research initiatives at more than 400 universities in 54 countries. With seed funding from the John Templeton Foundation, we are preparing to launch its first conference in 2017, along with an ambitious agenda to synthesize the biological and social sciences with the humanities so these grand challenges can be tackled in the turbulent decades ahead.

A mission like this will take many years to complete. Humanity doesn’t have that long. Which brings us back to the Culture Design Labs… this is the timeline we are developing for full-scale launch of them around the world.

Launch timeline for Culture Design Labs to assist with the great transition of humanity.

Our foundational assumption is that the planet must be brought back within safe operating range by the end of this century. According to the best science available today, we are already beyond the tipping point for at least four of the Earth’s planetary boundaries (see link above).

This means we need to transition every social institution on Earth from deterioration to regeneration — taking guidance and inspiration from nature by using the principles of biomimicry. Simply stated, it will take at least three to four decades to fully transition the infrastructure for transportation, urban buildings, supply chains, and business models for revenue that provide the financial life blood of transformation.

Making a butterfly from the body of caterpillars takes a few weeks. Doing the same thing for planetary civilization will take much longer.

So we have to start now.

The plan is to launch a series of Culture Design Labs between now and 2020. These projects will become demonstration projects for case studies and best practices — which will need to spread across every conceivable field of knowledge for advanced training in the decade culminating in 2030. This means integration of teaching, research, and practice across academic institutions worldwide.

Why 2030? Because it is widely known that large-scale infrastructure projects can take twenty years from start to finish. If we want to have all infrastructure built for ecological and social regeneration by 2050, we’ll need the designers, planners, and builders to be trained sufficiently that all new projects started in 2030 fit the bill.

And this is why time is precious now. We cannot wait for elected leaders to do the job. They are too busy swindling their constituencies in desperate attempts to remain in power. This is a call-to-action for the rest of us. We are going to need an educated workforce numbering in the tens to hundreds of millions doing this work for their entire lives.

Let’s get started.

For our part, my partners and I are in the process of formulating the research agenda for the first Culture Design Labs — the launch series to be run in the next few years as demonstration projects. Each will target a strategic challenge that has local dimensions yet global implications. A backbone will be needed in the form of a research foundation that maintains the open access databases for social analytics and visualization. A network of funders is being cultivated to provide the endowment for this foundational work. The research community is being organized around platforms for collaboration that can be self-organized by their members.

What you can do is spread the word, then get involved yourself. This means doing the soul searching to find your calling to service in this epic time of need. How will you be part of the Great Transition Beyond Empires that brings an end to global poverty, wealth inequality, and ecological destruction? What will you do to help dismantle the global architecture of wealth extraction?

Sit deeply with these questions. Then prepare yourself for action. Because you will be needed as humanity navigates itself through an endless wave of crises in the next several decades

Onward, fellow humans.

Want to support my work? Appreciate my writings? Make a contribution here.