Design education enables cultural transformation

“Our eyes do not divide us from the world, but they unite us to it. Let this be known to be true. Let us abandon the simplicity of separation and give unity its due. Let us abandon the self-mutilation that has been our way […].” — Ian L. McHarg in Design with Nature (1969: 5)

“What we need is an education for collective living rather than for individual success. The collective to which we need to pay more attention includes all the other species of this planet.” — Brian Goodwin (2001)

In 2001, after an unsuccessful attempt to create a sustainability education centre and ecovillage in Southern Spain, I enrolled in the Masters in Holistic Science at Schumacher College. At the time the word ‘sustainability’ had not yet entered the vocabulary of the vast majority of industrial designers and academic design educators. My own contact with ‘designing’ until then had been through the study and application of Bill Mollison’s Permaculture — A Designer’s Manual (1988) and a series of courses and internships at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, where I had learned about the design of timber frame structures, basic ecological sewage treatment systems, compost toilets and off-the-grid photovoltaic, micro-wind and micro-hydro systems.

At Schumacher College I had the good fortune to attend a course with John Todd and Nancy Jack-Todd, two elders of the ecological design field and co-founders of the New Alchemy Institute in 1969, and David Orr, the USA’s foremost environmental educator. After spending 3 weeks with them in the unique ‘small is beautiful’ environment of the enchanting Old Postern that houses the college, the importance and transformative agency of design suddenly struck me.

I understood that the practice end of the emerging worldview we were exploring in holistic science (complexity theory, chaos theory, Goethean science, Gaia theory, deep ecology and eco-psychology) was in fact design. I realized that the overarching shift from, as Brian Goodwin put it, prediction and control of nature to appropriate participation in nature, would have to be implemented in our ways of living by and through design. As David Orr explains:

“The problem is simply how a species pleased to call itself Homo sapiens fits on a planet with a biosphere. This is a design problem and requires a design philosophy. The very idea that we need to build a sustainable civilization needs to be invented or rediscovered, then widely disseminated, and put into practice quickly.” — David W. Orr (2002: 50)

In my Master’s thesis I argued that “ecological design is a participatory, interdisciplinary, community-based process that takes place, scale and appropriateness seriously and considers potential solutions within a holistic context” (Wahl, 2002: 58) and suggested that all design should aim to increase diversity and resilience as a means to increasing whole-systems health.

During my time at Schumacher College I met Professor Seaton Baxter who turned out to be one of the most influential mentors and helpful supporters I was to encounter on my path of learning so far. After reading my dissertation, he suggested that I might want to deepen my research during a PhD in Design. He had recently created the Centre for the Study of Natural Design at the University of Dundee. In 2003, Seaton helped me win a full scholarship to support my doctoral research and in January 2006 I received my PhD for a thesis entitled Design for human and planetary health — a holistic/integral approach to complexity and sustainability (Wahl, 2006b), which informs many aspects of this book.

This graphic is from Designing Regenerative Cultures, the book I published ten years after my PhD in which I explore the importance of the scales of design and scale-linking design in some detail.

In 2008, Seaton and I co-authored a paper in Design Issues in which we suggested that integral theory (Wilber, 2001), spiral dynamics (Beck & Cowan, 1996) and integral ecology (Esbjörn-Hargen, 2005; Zimmerman, 2005) offered designers a framework for facilitating multi-stakeholder dialogue and the integration of diverse perspectives in support of more sustainable and culturally transformative solutions:

“Designing for sustainability not only requires the redesign of our habits, lifestyles, and practices, but also of the way we think about design. Sustainability is a process of coevolution and co-design that involves diverse communities in making flexible and adaptable design decisions on local, regional, and global scales. The transition towards sustainability is about co- creating a human civilization that flourishes within the ecological limits of the planetary life support system […] Design plays a central role in shaping a sustainable civilization. It does so in the material dimensions of product design, architecture, industrial design, and town and regional planning, as well as in the immaterial dimension of the metadesign of concepts and inclusive multiperspectives from which a holistic/integral worldview can emerge.” — Daniel Wahl & Seaton Baxter (2008: 72–74)

The application of integral theory to design has since been taken up by a number of design practitioners and academics. In Design Education for a Sustainable Future, Rob Fleming (2013) applied Ken Wilber’s integral framework (2001) and Mark DeKay’s methodology for Integral Sustainable Design (2011) to reframing the role of design educators. Fleming argues that we need to reconsider design education “as an essential tool in the larger societal movement towards a sustainable future” (p.xxv) and asks the important question:

Q How can design educators better reflect the zeitgeist of the new century by moving from well-intentioned but lightweight ‘greening’ to deeper and more impactful ideals of sustainability and resilience? (p.1)

Fleming stresses that “evolving the design professions to higher states of consciousness does not demand a paradigm shift so much as it does the transcendence to a new more integrated worldview, and the inclusion of all preceding worldviews”; and says that “the approach of ‘both and’ or ‘transcend and include’ recognizes the continuing value of all previous world views and plays an essential role in the establishment of new design consciousness not as a choice between the past and the present, but rather as an additional motivation to pursue sustainability” (p.4).

At a time when we are drowning in information and knowledge, while thirsting for meaning and wisdom, we need new pathways towards synthesis and integration. Fleming points to the fact that “design education, especially the studio, is one of the most powerfully effective vehicles for learning across the entire spectrum of higher education” (p.7). I agree with his conviction that “design educators hold the promise of a sustainable future in the hearts and minds of the students they teach”. His book offers a wealth of useful frameworks and methodologies for students and educators alike. It will contribute further to the silent (r)evolution that is currently changing design education to serve the transition towards a regenerative human presence on Earth.

Gideon Kossoff (2011a) has recently articulated a framework for the emerging field of transition design. He explores the implications of a holistic participatory worldview for a design-led transition towards a more sustainable society through the reinvention of the domains of everyday life by design.

“The transition to a sustainable society will require the reconstitution and reinvention of households, villages, neighbourhoods, towns, cities and regions everywhere on the planet as interdependent, nested, self-organized, participatory and diversified wholes. […] The result will be a decentralized and diversified structure of everyday life which is in contrast to the centralized and increasingly homogenized structures that we have become accustomed to. […] Reconstituting the Domains is an inherently transdisciplinary and grassroots process that represents an opportunity to reintegrate and recontextualize knowledge, embedding it in both community and everyday life. It calls for the intentional, or designed, reintegration of all facets of everyday life in place, and suggests that a new kind of designer is needed, a transition designer.” — Gideon Kossoff (2011b: 22–23)

In collaboration with Terry Irwin and Cameron Tonkinwise, Gideon has helped to establish a PhD programme in transition design and a professional doctorate (DDes) programme that includes transition design at Carnegie Mellon University’s prestigious School of Design. They define transition design as “design-led, systems-level societal change towards a more sustainable future” and suggest “transition designers will use the tools and processes of design to re-conceive whole lifestyles and develop infrastructures, policies, systems (food, healthcare, education) and energy resources to support a more sustainable society” (Carnegie Mellon Design, 2015).

The approaches to transformative innovation and design for regenerative cultures explored in this book are transition approaches. They recognize that solutions are moving targets rather than fixed states. The community-based practice of living the questions is an invitation to take the design conversations about how to support the transition to a more sustainable future and regenerative culture beyond the academic environment and into the heart of communities, businesses and governance everywhere.

Design education will be a critical enabler of the transition ahead. Well-facilitated design conversations can invite all of us to explore the transition within our communities, to collaborate with and learn from each other so we all become more effective in our role as transition designers. Design education can enable cooperative cultural transformation. We have to create a new kind of partnership between universities, civil society, the private sector, and governance by initiating integrative design conversations.

“Transition designers deploy a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of social and natural systems and conceive solutions that leverage the power of interdependency and symbiosis. We explore the role of design in negotiating between the transition our society is undergoing and the transition that it needs to make.” — Carnegie Mellon Design (2015)

Terry Irwin writes: “Until designers shift to a more holistic worldview, design will continue to be part of the problem, not the solution” (2012); and elsewhere: “One of the most fundamental changes for designers and design process will be a shift in focus from objects to relationship […] An organic model of society and environment will replace the dominant, mechanistic one and this in turn will suggest a more respectful, iterative and inclusive process for designing solutions” (Irwin, 2011).

The number of design-focused programmes that share the transition perspective is growing steadily. Among them are Gaia University’s programme in ‘Integrative eco-social design’, Gaia Education’s ‘Design for Sustainability’, the Environmental Studies program at Oberlin College and the postgraduate programme in ‘Ecological Design Thinking’ at Schumacher College. Other aligned programmes include Cornell University’s programme in Sustainable and Regenerative Design; Regenerative Ecological Design at Prescott College, and the Sustainable Design programme at Philadelphia University.

Ezio Manzini’s work at the Interdepartmental Centre for Research on Innovation for Sustainability at Milan Polytechnic has played a pivotal role in transforming the design community from within. He and François Jégou (2004) invite designers to ask important questions and to take an active role in envisioning and shaping a sustainable future:

Q What might everyday life be like in a sustainable society?

Q How will you take care of yourself and other people?

Q How will you work, study and move around?

Q How will you cultivate a network of personal and social relationships and create an undistorted relationship with the environment?

Q What do the sustainable societies we are able to imagine today have in common?

Q How wide a range of options do we have open to us on the basis of these common elements?

Manzini and Jégou have created the Sustainable Everyday Project as an open web platform to stimulate social conversation on possible sustainable futures. Manzini is also president of the ‘Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability’ (DESIS) Network, which works “with local, regional, and global partners to promote and support social change towards sustainability”. The network’s vision statement highlights that “social innovation is spreading and its potential, as a driver of sustainable change, is increasing. To facilitate this process, the design community, in general, and design schools, in particular, can play a pivotal role” (DESIS, 2015).

At Griffith University, Tony Fry, who created the EcoDesign Foundation in 1991, leads a Design Futures programme that aims to “better educate designers […] to become change agents, research based practitioners, critics, entrepreneurs, theorists, strategist and practical intellectuals” (Design Futures, 2015). Stuart Walker directs a research group in sustainable design at Imagination Lancaster. Bill Reed teaches integrative design at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard and the University of British Columbia [and the Regenesis Group offers The Regenerative Practitioner course]. Alastair Fuad-Luke explores design as ‘co-futuring’ as Professor for Emerging Design Practices at Aalto University and Martin Charter directs the Centre for Sustainable Design at University College for the Creative Arts (UCCA).

By no means is this list exhaustive and there are many more design programmes worth mentioning, but the people and programmes mentioned here have all made an important contribution to taking the dialogue about the sustainability transition into design academia and professional design practice. They share an understanding of the central role of design and design education in cultural transformation towards sustainability. As such they are catalyst for the emergence of regenerative cultures.

Last but not least I would like to mention Gonzalo Salazar, at the Universidad Católica de Chile, who is working along similar lines. He also received his PhD at the Centre for the Study of Natural Design. I am indebted to Gonzalo for helping me appreciate more deeply how central conversation is to design. In a poetic language that carries the imprint of his native Chile, the land of Pablo Neruda, Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela and Manfred Max-Neef, Gonzalo’s doctorate concludes:

“Design is a human conversation about facilitating our existence in conversation […] design only becomes ecological when it is mainly guided by the emotion of loving through the ongoing process of creating and cultivating our (sense of) being at home in the world. […] attentive listening is the first and most important action of ecological design. […] ecological design is fundamentally cooperative. It is co-creation, co-facilitation; it is co-designing in love.” -Gonzalo Salazar-Preece (2011: 398–401)

[This subchapter is an excerpt from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press in May 2016. You can find reviews of the book here.]

A simple design intervention in a favela in Brazil