Modern Mythology

Three little lies that undermine resilient design

Z. Bryant
Z. Bryant
Apr 7, 2020 · 5 min read

There’s understandably lots of talk about resilience during a pandemic, but unfortunately it’s too late. Resilience is something you do every day. We’re already seeing advocates in every sphere call for lasting change in the aftermath of this novel Coronavirus. These appeals take a variety of shapes, but they are always an expression of our deeply held—and often invisible—beliefs about humans and the world in which we live.

My hope is that many of the latent design conversations about which I’m so passionate—new urbanism, food, land care, and integrated “whole system” practices—will come into better focus because of this frightening reminder that we are, in fact, all connected and, as such, design is a moral act.

Many people love seeing photos of clear water in Venetian canals and a (relatively) smog-free Los Angeles. On the other hand, we’re only just beginning to come to terms with the social and economic implications of our collective work to flatten the curve. One thing we all seem to agree on: we ought to be looking for silver linings.

As ideas for a better-designed tomorrow start flowing, it may be useful to identify a few of the false narratives that creep into our world and into our work. Particularly when we are afraid, we humans tend to wrap ourselves in ancient stories that make us feel safe. I certainly understand that instinct. But, if we let it, this is also a perfect season in which to evaluate the underlying belief structures that shape our design thinking—and perhaps bust a few of our most enduring myths.

#1: The myth of fixed self

Remember when we were kids and they taught us about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? It had self-esteem and self-actualization right there at the top. And remember how your teacher gazed into your little eyes and told you that you were perfect and that your job as you grew up was to stay true to yourself? To listen to that inner voice? To become the fullest, most unique, and fully-expressed version of you? Well, it turns out that was terrible advice.

The entire point of being alive is to change! Adults I know who took that teacher at her word and haven’t changed are the worst adults I know. Change daily, weekly, hourly if possible. Do not ask “Will this career suit me for the next 30 years?” or “Will this person still be my soul mate when I’m 80?” Those are dumb questions! You will be formed and reformed in deep and mysterious ways by your job and by your friends. You have no idea what you’ll be like, because (hopefully!) you’ll be nothing like you are today.

We have allowed this myth to become a cornerstone of our culture and it shows. The myth of fixed self asserts that right now is always the best time to make decisions that will help you live your best life. YOLO, you know? In purely materialistic terms, we are designing and producing the most ephemeral products and services the world has ever known precisely because we are trying to maximize instant gratification for the individual of this moment (and this moment only). Basically, we’re cooking crack for mayflies.

Imagine yourself five years from now. You’re a different person, but are you using the same phone and driving the same car? Wearing the same clothes and living in the same house? Of course not! How can I balance my ability to dial-in and acquire exactly what the me of now wants with the incredible waste produced by the me of tomorrow doing the exact same thing? We’ve allowed the line between planned obsolescence and mindless consumption to get pretty blurry. As such, any serious conversation about sustainability starts with our own appetites, patterns of use, and a little whole-cost accounting.

#2: The myth of pristine nature

Humans have long loved the idea that Mother Nature, like its popular denizen “the noble savage,” is at her best when unspoiled by the likes of us. In fact, designers have done untold damage in recent decades working as if this myth were true—but it’s not!

It’s sadly ironic that designers around the world passionately believe that the best thing for our planet would be for humans to move to densely populated cities, stop having children, and let Mother Nature start living her best life—without us. Ask anyone who’s been involved in actual land care for even one season, and they’ll tell you that the careful activities of human beings lead to explosions in fertility and biodiversity within every ecosystem on Earth.

We are (understandably) overreacting to the breathtaking damage done first by colonial abuse and then by industrial excess. The truth is that Nature and human beings go together like peas and carrots. The agrarian activities undertaken by indigenous peoples in every inhabitable place—things like controlled burns, domesticating and grazing animals, and hunting the prize specimens of various fish, fowl, and beast—are exactly what Mother Earth needs.

Don’t worry—you can still frame that handwritten John Muir quote that speaks to your soul, but when you sit down to design the stories and systems of tomorrow, encourage the thoughtful interaction between humans and the land they live on.

#3: The myth of lossless transfer

It’s been fascinating to watch this myth at work as we scramble as a species to figure out the best response to COVID-19. Within days, the best minds on the planet went to work to help delay the deaths of untold thousands. It’s been totally inspiring. But if you listen carefully, a big part of the problem we’re collectively solving is that a sick elderly Italian woman is very different from a sick middle-aged man in South Korea. And both have little in common with an asymptomatic teen in Seattle.

Part of what is happening right now all over the world, is that we are trying to discern which solutions scale and transfer, and what is lost in that process. I learned recently that folks in Minneapolis add antifreeze to their gasoline in the winter to keep it from turning into gasoline ice. Setting aside how upsetting I find the necessity of this practice from a freezing-your-ass-off standpoint, it evidently creates a whole host of automotive design challenges that no one living in other climates would know a thing about.

The comments sections of DIY videos are teeming with examples of the utter failure of design transfer. A backyard water catchment system that works beautifully in Belize evidently causes great misfortune in Belarus. And so on. A huge part of the work of a designer is understanding a place so as to be an interpreter of great ideas for local communities. What a privilege to be the Belarusian who gets to respond to the ancient human challenge of capturing water for her neighbors.

In summary: You are constantly changing. The world you inhabit desperately needs you in it. And no one else someplace else can design it for you. May these truths permeate the terrific work that is beginning—and indeed has already begun—to design a more resilient world comprised entirely of small and well-loved places.

Journey Group

Pondering the practical questions of design for institutions.