Ecological Design as a Large Concept: The Emergence of Salutogenic Design

First published by the Scottish Ecological Design Association in 2007

In March 2007, I gave a talk to the Scottish Ecological Design Association (SEDA) at the University of Dundee. The Occasion was the launch of the Krystina Johnson Travel Award 2007. I had the privilege of receiving this award in August 2005, but had been unable to complete the proposed journey until December 2006 since I was busy finishing my PhD at the Centre for the Study of Natural Design.

The person I had proposed to visit, Prof. David W. Orr from Oberlin College, ended up being my external examiner and some SEDA members will remember his inspiring presentation in May 2006. David spoke primarily about the Adam Joseph Lewis Building, which he co-designed with students, staff and a whole range of experts including William McDonough Architects, John Todd, and John Tillman Lyle. The building was effectively the first college building constructed to LEED Platinum standard of the UC Green Building Council and embodied David’s idea of sustainable architecture as pedagogy.

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Much information is available on the web about this building and David gave the inside story in his talk, so I decided to zoom out and focus my presentation and this brief article on a much wider question about the definitions and boundaries we us to define the field of ecological design. According to Prof. Orr:

“Ecological design is a large concept that joins science and the practical arts with ethics, politics and economics;” to him ecological design “is not so much about how we make things as about how we make things that fit gracefully over long periods of time in a particular ecological, social, and cultural context.”
— David W. Orr (The Nature of Design, p.4 & p.27).

Indeed, if I dared to play the role of ‘agent provocateur’ within SEDA, I would claim that SEDA has been dominated by an architectural focus on ecological design and rarely ventured beyond dealing with the built environment. Our remit and vision could be so much bigger!

The creative challenge and invitation to our ingenuity to envision what John Todd calls “elegant solutions premeditated by the uniqueness of place” goes well beyond creating environmentally sensitive buildings, it dares us to engage with local communities everywhere in a process of catalysing the transition towards a sustainable human civilization. This is a monumental challenge of unprecedented scale and significance in the history of our species.

Ecological design is a large concept because it calls for an integration of the way we meet human needs — for shelter, food, education, community, clean air & water, transport, energy and a meaningful life — into the opportunities and limits set by local and regional ecosystems as well as the biosphere as a whole.

This is a brief excerpt of Chris Zelov’s excellent documentary ‘Ecological Design’

The growing attention given to issues such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, national and international inequity, peak oil and resource depletion is strengthening the calls for a truly transdisciplinary and participatory approach to ecologically, economically and socially literate design for sustainability.

My talk in March included a series of interviews with some of the people who have dedicated their life’s work to offering tentative solutions to these complex design challenges. Apart from David Orr, I highlighted the pioneering ecological design work of John and Nancy Todd since their founding of the New Alchemy Institute in 1969, and Robert Costanza’s work on ecological economics.

Costanza was among the first to raise awareness of the value of social and natural capital, as well as economic capital in decision-making processes. We need to value the ‘ecosystems services’ that healthy and resilient ecosystems contribute to our economies free of charge, and reconsider the importance of social ties and healthy, cooperative community exchange structures in an increasingly individualized society.

Making globalization sustainable requires us to bring it into balance with a simultaneous process of sustainable regionalization and localization. In my own research I have referred to this as scale-linking design for sustainability and systemic health.

To respond to the challenges and boundless opportunities of ecological design creatively we need to climb out of the silos of our individual disciplines. We need to explore the synergies between product design, architecture, construction ecology, community design, industrial ecology, urban design, bioregional planning, and national and international cooperative networks.

Sustainability is not an endpoint we can ever reach and then maintain indefinitely, rather, it is a community based process of learning how to respond creatively to a continuously shifting complex dynamic system in which we are participants and co-designers.

The promise of ecological design is that if we learn how to engage cooperatively in a new way of joined-up thinking that honours the wisdom of many mind, worldviews, and disciplines we may just be able to create a healthier, more desirable, and more meaningful world for all of humanity. We may just be able to reintegrate humanity as a co-creative participant into the natural cycles of local ecosystems and the planetary biosphere which ultimate sustain life on Earth, and thus the health of individuals, communities and ecosystems.

In order to do this, David Orr suggests, we may have to initially put aside the question of how to design a more sustainable human presence in the world and begin by turning to a much deeper question of why humanity should be sustained. What is our unique contribution to the evolution of life on Earth that is worth sustaining not only for our sake but for the benefit of the whole community of life of which we are co-creative participants?

If design is most broadly defined as the expression of human intentionality through interactions and relationships, maybe we need to get much clearer about the underlying intentionality behind all acts of design in order to design truly sustainable systems and processes?

My humble suggestion is that all ecological and sustainable design will ultimately have to sustain the health of the whole — the complex social, ecological, economic and psychological interactions in which we participate. Together with my mentor [and former PhD supervisor], Prof. Seaton Baxter, OBE, I have come to call this approach health-generating or salutogenic design.

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 / Univ. of California) 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, a fellow of the RSA, a Findhorn Foundation Fellow and on the advisory council of the Ojai Foundation and the Ecosystem Restoration Camps Foundation. Daniel’s clients have included UNITAR (with CIFAL Scotland), UK Foresight (with Decision Integrity Ltd), Ecover (with Forum for the Future), Bioneers (with the Progressio Foundation, and with the Findhorn Foundation), the Dubai Futures Foundation (with Tellart), The Commonwealth Secretariat (with Cloudburst Foundation), Gaia Education, the Global Ecovillage Network, the State of the World Forum, Balears.t, Camper, LUSH and many educational NGOs, universities, and design schools. He is co-founder of Biomimicry Iberia (2012), and has been collaborating with ‘SmartUIB’ at the University of the Balearic Islands since 2014, and works part-time as Gaia Education’s ‘Head of Design & Innovation’ since 2015. His recent book Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press in the UK in May 2016, has already gained international acclaim, and his blog on Medium has a large international following.