Meta-Design for whole systems health
“Design can most broadly be defined as the expression of intentionality through interactions and relationships. At the downstream end of this process our cultural artifacts, institutions, patterns of production, and consumption express intentionality materially. Upstream, in the immaterial dimension, the “metadesign” of our conscious awareness, value systems, worldviews, and aspirations defines the intentionality behind materialized design.
Here, the term “metadesign” refers to the concepts and onto-epistemological assumptions we employ to define ourselves, and to make sense of experiencing our participatory involvement in complex ecological, cultural, and social processes. The perspectives of different cultural worldviews, and of different academic and professional disciplines, all are shaped by the metadesign of the intentions, aspirations, and basic assumptions that inform them.
Each of these different perspectives generates different specialized knowledge about certain aspects of perceived reality. Appropriate decision-making, within complex eco-social dynamics, requires us to consider insights generated by a diverse range of perspectives and disciplines.”-- Daniel Wahl & Seaton Baxter, 2008
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.
[This article is an excerpt from the Worldview Dimension of Gaia Education´s online programme in Design for Sustainability. The course is based on four dimensions plus a design studio. I wrote this course for Gaia Education in 2012 and revised and updated this dimension in 2016.]
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 generations, as well as, the present generation have, at least in part, shaped our worldview and value systems.
There is a cyclical relationship between worldview and design, whereby we design solutions, objects, and processes based on our dominant worldviews and value systems, and the world we create around us through our design decisions, in turn, also shapes our worldview. Meta-design consciously creates design solutions or education processes that cause a deeper questioning and a possible shift in worldview or value systems (Wahl, 2006).
One example of effective meta-design is the curriculum that underlies this course Gaia Education Design for Sustainability. Why this course is based on the four dimensions of Social Design, Economic Design, Ecological Design, and Worldview, can be explained by analogy to the hydrological cycle, as Daniel Wahl has tried to do in the image below.
Imagine ‘The River of Design’ — way up in the mountains, where rain and snow have fed the ground with the water of life, lies the spring of this river: the level of consciousness (worldview) 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.
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 of the river of design with new ways of seeing and being.
Consciousness, worldviews, and intentionality manifest through design. 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 “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 (more).
Education, visioning, and effective communication can be examples of such meta-design (Wahl & Baxter, 2008). Appropriate meta-design is about providing a meaningful story that can guide appropriate participation and thus lead towards increased sustainability.
“Culture is not about what is absolute, real or true. It is about what a group of people get together and agree to believe”, suggests Thom Hartmann. He adds: “Culture can be healthy or toxic, nurturing or murderous. Culture is made of stories, and these stories can be changed for the better” (Hartmann, 1999, p.141).
Designing Regenerative Culture (Wahl, 2016) explores how transformative innovation, systems and resilience thinking, a design-based approach and learning from natural systems can all help to inform urgently needed culturally creative conversations about how to co-create regenerative communities, regenerative economies, and a wide diversity of regenerative cultures elegantly adapted to the bio-cultural uniqueness of the places they inhabit. These diverse cultures will be globally interconnected by solidarity and collaboration — bringing about the transition to a regenerative human presence on earth.
Daniel Wahl has worked with Gaia Education since 2007 and is a co-author of all four dimensions of the GEDS curriculum. Many of the meta-design changes of scale-linking, salutogenic design for whole systems health which he explored in depth in his PhD on Design for Human and Planetary Health (2006) are woven throughout Gaia Education’s online programme in Design for Sustainability.
Note: This is an excerpt from the Worldview Dimension of Gaia Education’s online course in Design for Sustainability. In 2012 I was asked to rewrite this dimension as part of a collaboration between Gaia Education and the Open University of Catalunya (UOC) and in 2016 I revised it again into this current version. The next opportunity to join the course is with the start of the Worldview Dimension on June 1st, 2020.
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Daniel Christian Wahl — Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on regenerative whole systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development and bioregional regeneration.
Author of the internationally acclaimed book Designing Regenerative Cultures