Design and How it Matters

From Gaia Education Newsletter ‘Geese in Formation’ (2011/12)

Design can most broadly be defined as intentionality expressed through interactions and relationships. Our worldview and value systems shape the way we relate to each other and the rest of the community of life. Out of these relationships arise a series of needs which shape our intentions — the way we aim to meet these needs. These intentions and the worldview and value system that underlies them define how, why and what we choose to design.

As Winston Churchill once said “first we shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us”. The same holds true for the design of our communities, our patterns of resource use, our education systems, our monetary and economic systems and our systems of governance. Design goes on designing! For example, some Japanese city environments are so devoid of trees and plants that the phobia of having leaves fall on one’s head is now a recognized psychological condition among Japanese teenagers.

Design is fundamentally worldview dependent, and the design decisions of previous and present generations have, at least in part, shaped and continue to shape our worldview and value systems. This cyclical relationship between worldview and design and the structure of the curriculum designed by Gaia Education — based on the four dimensions of Social Design, Economic Design, Ecological Design and Worldview — can be explained by analogy to the hydrological cycle, as I have tried to show in the image below.

Imagine The River of Design! Way up in the mountains, where rain and snow feed the ground with the water of life, lies the spring of the river of design. The level of consciousness from which we choose to engage and experience the coming into being of the relationship between self and world begins to shape our worldview and value systems.

Sketch of the metaphor of the ‘river of design’ (D.C. Wahl 2011)

As the stream flows down the mountain what we value shapes our perceived and real needs, and in turn, our intentions and therefore the how, what and why we design. As the little stream turns into a big river, our designs express themselves in the ways we interact with each other and the relationships we form, as well as through the material objects and physical structures we create.

The river of design could now be thought of as three separate but interconnected streams: social design, ecological design and economic design. As these streams feed the sea of possibilities we live our daily lives in, the structures and process we co-created or adopted (often without questioning) from previous generations, in turn, shape the way we see ourselves, our relationship to the world and what we value. Water vapour rises from the sea of possibilities and forms clouds that shed their water as they hit the mountains, feeding the springs at the source of the river of design with new ways of seeing and being.

Consciousness, worldviews and intentionality manifest through design, and the designs thus created in turn shape the way we see the world, what we value, our needs, and thus our intentions.

Donella Meadows famously suggested that “the most effective place to intervene in a system is at the paradigm level”. If we can change the way we see the world — the explanatory maps and models we employ and the value systems we base our intentions and decision-making processes on — we are affecting change at the up-stream end of the river of design. Such subtle culture changes are fundamentally unpredictable and uncontrollable as they percolate through culture, giving rise to new and alternative structures and processes. Influencing the river of design up-stream is design at the worldview and value system level.

Education, in general, and specifically the curriculum and courses created by Gaia Education, are powerful and effective examples of design at the worldview level (up-stream).

Daniel Wahl teaching on the Ecovillage Design Education course at Son Rullan (Mallorca) in 2011

Both the EDE and the GEDS programs empower people to question and re-examine their own worldview and value systems. People are enabled to become more conscious co-designers and co-creators of the world we all share in via the way we shape our participation and design our social, ecological and economic decisions. Buckminster Fuller put it well: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.” Design is the way by which we are co-creating this new model.

Images from the EDE in Son Rullan (Mallorca, 2011) and Wongsanith Ashram (Thailand, 2007) which Daniel Wahl helped to organize and facilitate

For the complete article, Design and How it Matters, by Daniel Christian Wahl please visit

[Note: First published in Gaia Educations international newsletter ‘Geese in Formation’ in 2011 (link)]

Daniel Christian Wahl works internationally as a consultant and educator in regenerative development, whole systems design, and transformative innovation. He holds degrees in biology (Univ. of Edinburgh), and holistic science (Schumacher College), and his 2006 doctoral thesis (Univ. of Dundee) was on Design for Human and Planetary Health.

He was director of Findhorn College between 2007 and 2010, and is a member of the International Futures Forum since 2009 and Gaia Educationsince 2007. He has collaborated with UNITAR and UNESCO, many large NGO, and as a consultant he has worked with companies such as Camper, Ecover and Lush, as well as, with UK Foresight and the Commonwealth Secretariat.

Daniel is a fellow of the RSA, a Findhorn Foundation Fellow, on the advisory council of the Ojai Foundation and the research group of the Global Ecovillage Network. He is co-founder of Biomimicry Iberia (2012), and has been collaborating with ‘SmartUIB’ at the University of the Balearic Islands since 2014. Daniel currently also works part-time as Gaia Education’s head of innovation and programme design.

His first book Designing Regenerative Cultures was published in 2016 by Triarchy Press and has already reached international acclaim. The ‘SDG Community Implementation Flashcards’ he developed for Gaia Education have been taken up enthusiastically by UNESCO and are being translated into the 5 official UN languages.

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