Design’s relationship with nature

Separation from nature is our inheritance

Dear Marc,
I have heard that in the United States, when people hear the word “HCD,” there are some who associate the human-centeredness with being in conflict with nature, and fear that this concept will lead to the destruction of the nature around us. The Japanese, on the other hand, have always considered humans as part of nature, from our most early days — the Jomon era. And so, we take nature and the environment into account whatever we do, as prerequisites. What are your thoughts on these ways of thinking?

Shinohara-san,
Two years ago I received a collection of Kenji Miyazawa’s stories as a gift. I read it almost every day, sitting in a turquoise chair in the corner of my house. Each morning I would turn on a little lamp beside the chair and read one of these tales out loud to myself. This was so delightful that I did it again the next year. I went through the whole book one story at a time, saying the language and the magic aloud into the room.

This is the memory that first came to mind when I read your question. In many of Miyazawa’s stories, it seems to me, there is no distinction between people and nature. People are one species in the world’s great population of equals. Beautiful.

In 2008 I developed a desire to learn about change. I wanted to learn how people change. Especially in groups—how do organizations, cultures, systems and societies become the next version of themselves? I had almost thirty years of experience in industry. It seemed to me that none of the leaders I had worked with or teachers I had learned from knew very much about those questions.

I began to look for other teachers, and quickly found them. Three of the first were biologist Fritjof Capra, leadership and change theorist Otto Scharmer, and Joanna Macy, an environmental activist, Buddhist scholar, and systems teacher. All three, and many others, say that maturing our way of working in the world requires a shift how we see the world. In different but compatible language they offer an integrated, holistic, systemic view of the world and our place in it. I’ve turned to others for approaches and methods. But the stream of thought these three represent has become my home. It is from this home that I get to my real answer to your question.

Human-centered design isn’t the problem. The problem is a deep-seated, unconscious, unquestioned way of seeing the world that soaks industrial society. Human-centered design is wholly an idea of the industrial era — both the “human-centered” part and the “design” part.

The dis-ease of the Western mind

I think of Ervin Laszlo, the systems theorist and philosopher of science, who wrote a beautifully direct criticism of the habits of mind we in the “Western traditions” (the birth-home of the industrial revolution) have all inherited through generations. His essay is called, “The dis-ease of the western mind.” (In English this is a play on words. Spelled “dis-ease” it means “discomfort.” Spelled “disease” it means sickness.) I know that Japan has a different heritage of stories about our place in the world. But here we are, talking between your country and mine about this idea of “HCD management.” I take this as evidence that this uncomfortable sickness is also present in Japan.

Here is Laszlo’s list of characteristics or habitual ways of seeing the world, quoted from his essay.

“[These] traits are typically those of the Western mind: of the civilization created by the Western mind.

  • it sees things as separate, each thing on its own, connected merely by mechanistic relations of cause and effect;
  • it’s competitive: each individual is on his or her own, making his or her way in an impersonal and indifferent world;
  • it disconnects the mind from the body: the mind only “drives” or “manages” the body as it would a car or an organization;
  • it best understands the things it creates as artificial, synthetic things that can be readily and unambiguously manipulated;
  • it disconnects the human from the natural; nature itself becomes the “environment” that humans can manage and manipulate to serve their interests;
  • it categorizes, schematizes people and things, viewing them as abstract entities rather than as existing, living realities;
  • it deals with the representations of people and things rather than with our living experience of people and things;

and it views all things, nature included, as mechanistic kinds of systems, put together from their parts and capable of being manipulated by acting on their parts.”

When I invite graduate students in design to read Laszlo’s article, and when I re-read this list myself, the experience is often like looking in a mirror and being shocked by what they see. I still fall into these habits every day. They were the air I breathed and the food I ate all my life, and so I am deeply programmed to see the world this way. I am learning, I am practicing, and will do so for the rest of my life.

In my experience, Laszlo’s list accurately describes the mindset of every team, leader and organization I’ve seen.

I don’t know how this connects to Japan. I appreciate it when you say that Japanese people have always considered humans as part of nature. What a wonderful core of your culture! Also, I wonder if someone transported from the Jomon era to today would recognize the same spirit. I am from the US, very much a gaijin, so forgive me if that last sentence is impolite. I do not mean to offend. Even so, I have visited your cities, I have read materials from your “Society 5.0.” And I wonder what you would say about the relevance of Laszlo’s list to Japanese business, education and governance.

How to change our cultural habit of “other?”

The issue is deeper than our personal and cultural relationship to nature. We each carry a sense of separation between ourselves and “other”—other species, places other than our places, people whose appearance or experience is unlike our own. It even includes a kind of inner separation between our day-to-day transactional self and our own emotions and spiritual longings.

We’ve told the story of “Other” so long that we no longer notice we are telling it. But it is only a story. I believe the story of “All together in a much bigger thing” is much closer to the truth of reality.

I don’t know how to change something so deeply embedded in the soil of our culture. There is no single global answer to this challenge. But there are many tens of thousands of local efforts, which add up to a global movement of reconnection across all the divides I just mentioned. Some of these efforts include a remembering and re-integration of indigenous, pre-industrial ways of seeing the world—the colonists’ equivalent of the Jomon era.

The tool in our hand: participation

All I know how to do is to participate as best I can: to continue inviting people to see the world and their own community and organization as a flowing weave of relationships and conversations, a web of connection. To see that these connections include all kinds of people, as well as places, other species, soil, water, and air.

Each of us can only do our part, but it is key that we see ourselves as doing it together. There is more hope in “together,” and more momentum.

Is human-centered design helping? Is it part of the problem? To the extent that design is practiced as an expression of a deep creative and collaborative process, I have faith that it is helpful. As it is commonly practiced in industry, it is only a tool for continuing business as usual—the business of “other.”

I know that design is attracting many people who care about these questions, who care about “other,” and who are looking for channels to be of service in shifting the deep patterns of society. This is wonderful. Here in the US we can see the topics of design and research conferences increasingly shift to include ethics, emotion, equity, oppression and trauma, habits, social patterns, and more. (But not a lot about nature!) This is the necessary work of reconnecting across these divides.

An invitation

Lastly, I would offer an invitation. In many industrial cultures, the US included, talking about separation from nature and its harm raises a negative reaction from people. They may become defensive. Many people avoid these topics because they would rather not feel the discomfort of shame, or the discomfort of not knowing how to change. These topics are overwhelming.

This is a place where a larger view of design can be tremendously helpful. If we see this situation as a “problem,” and use design to look for “solutions,” we work in direct contact with people’s impulse to avoid, to preserve the comfort of the status quo. But if we see design as a way to create attractors, to activate possibilities that already lie waiting in our communities and organizations, then we are partnering with the forces of life.

Attraction is a much sharper tool than persuasion. Connecting to something that’s already happening is much easier than creating something new.

So, my invitation to the world of Design:

  • Nurture an ecological, connected view of every situation you encounter.
  • Focus on social conditions rather than surface artifacts.
  • Look for ways to activate the possibilities already present in the community.
  • Create attractors to new patterns of relationship and behavior.

Some of Miyazawa’s tales, such as The Bears of Mount Nametoko (Nametokoyama no kuma) or The First Deer Dance, describe an attractive connection between humans and nature. I want to live in that world!

Well, there is still a troubling disconnection in the Nametokoyama story, but it is between the hunter and the businessmen who buy his wares. In the story people are connected with nature, but the social divide remains.

What stories can we write today about a world of connection and belonging that might feed people’s imagination? What experiments can we design that might give people a vivid experience about the world we know is possible?

Banner image: Marc Rettig in conversation with MidJourney.com.

This is part of a collection called Hello Shino: Short essays on design management. You can learn more about the author, Marc Rettig, from his personal web site and his place of work: Fit Associates.

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Marc Rettig

Marc Rettig

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Fit Associates, SVA Design for Social Innovation, Carnegie Mellon School of Design