NYC Design
Published in

NYC Design

From my 2016 book ‘Designing Regenerative Cultures

Introduction to ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health’

from ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health’ D.C. Wahl 2006

Can we move nations and people in the direction of sustainability? Such a move would be a modification of society comparable in scale to only two other changes: The Agricultural revolution of the late Neolithic and the Industrial Revolution of the past two centuries. Those revolutions were gradual, spontaneous, and largely unconscious. This one will have to be a fully conscious operation…. If we actually do it, the undertaking will be absolutely unique in humanity’s stay on the Earth.

— William D. Ruckelshaus (in Meadows et al., 2005, p.265, my emphasis)

This is where design comes in — a lightly regarded word with artistic overtones that has emerged as the leading integrating concept for preventing environmental damage. … Design is the only term we have to indicate that our plans, purposes and projects must now take into account several disciplines, rather than one or two.

— Paul Hawken (in Wann, 1996, p.xi)

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 (Orr, 2002, p.50).

Design is an expression of intention in and through relationships and interactions. The basic intention behind the sustainability revolution is to provide a meaningful and humane existence for every local and global citizen within the limits set by the natural processes that maintain the health of ecosystems and the biosphere for this and future generations of life on earth.

Ultimately, sustainable design has to be health generating, salutogenic design across all scales. The health of human individuals and their communities depends crucially upon the health of the ecosystems, societies and communities in which they participate. Sustainability is not a fixed state to work towards and ultimately achieve, it is rather the continuous process of learning by which local, regional, national and international communities learn to participate appropriately and therefore sustainably in natural process — both at the local and the global scale.

How to provide for the real material and immaterial needs of Earth’s current population without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs is a central question in the discourse about sustainability. This is fundamentally a question of design! For the sake of future humanity and the community of all life it is the question of design.

The revolution or transformation towards sustainable societies will be much more fundamental than both the Agricultural and the Industrial Revolution. As a matter of fact, it will require “a new industrial revolution” (Hawken, Lovins & Lovins, 1999, p.1; McDonough & Braungart, 2002, p.6) with all its implications for architecture, product and industrial design, as well as urban and regional planning (e.g. Todd & Todd, 1993; Van der Ryn & Cowan, 1996; Orr, 2002; Kibert, 2005).

Beyond that, the creation of a sustainable human civilization will require a fundamental change in current agricultural practices (e.g. Pretty, 1998; Waltner-Toews & Lang, 2000; Norberg-Hodge et al., 2001), a re-design of current education systems (e.g. Orr, 1992; O’ Sullivan, 1999; Sterling, 2001) and health care systems (Wilkinson, 1996; Stott, 2000; Waltner- Toews, 2004), and a drastic change towards a political system built on subsidiarity as well as national and international cooperation (e.g. Plant & Plant, 1992; Coleman, 1993; Shuman, 1998; Hines 2000).

All these changes require a shift towards a more humane, holistic and quality-based economic system (e.g. Schumacher, 1973; Costanza et al., 1991; Douthwaite, 1996; Henderson, 1999). The recent Design & Sustainability report by the UK Design Council highlighted the important fact that “sustainable design is not a specialist area of design, but rather an attribute of good design” (Richardson, Irwin & Sherwin, 2005, p.7).

First and foremost, the sustainability revolution is about being more conscious of and responsible to the effects of our actions. It will also require us to go even further up stream and pay attention to the way that our actions are the direct results of our attitudes and intentions resulting in design decisions. The way we design is based on the fundamental beliefs and values that shape our dominant worldview. Design is fundamentally worldview dependent!

There is an ontological source of our worldview, the root assumptions that define being and existence: What is that which is? A designer’s attitude and the product of his/er creativity will be very different if s/he regards culture as detached from nature and nature as a biological and physical resource in a universe of dead matter marching towards maximum entropy, than if s/he regards nature as sacred — as the primary ground of existence — and her/himself as a participant in and expression of this natural process, variously referred to as universe, Kosmos, or the divine or the mystery.

This directly links to the epistemological source of our worldview, the root assumptions, which define what is valid knowledge and how we can attain it. How can we, and do we know? Our epistemology, or way of knowing the world and ourselves in relationship to natural process is a root cause of our worldview, and the designs we create based on this worldview. Considering sustainability from a holistic and integral perspective will require us to develop sensitivity about the particular epistemological assumptions that lead to a particular worldview and transcend and include it in a more comprehensive and complementary meta-perspective.

Fundamentally the questions we need to ask are:

What kind of epistemology can guide us to sustainable design decisions?

How can we integrate the wisdom of many minds and diverse epistemological and ontological positions?

Can we reach a collective consensus on certain aspects of our worldviews that ensure we act in an appropriate and a sustainable manner?

If our worldview influences our perception of, and participation in, natural process, then the potentially most effective catalyst for the transformation towards a more sustainable society is shifting our worldview. This highlights the importance of education as the means of re- integrating cultural and natural processes.

Education for sustainability needs to provide basic ecological and social literacy. An increase in the ability of every global citizen to make informed and responsible decisions about his/er participation in natural and social process is a key factor in facilitating the transformation towards sustainability. The ability to take decisions from a more holistic perspective and the skill to design, create, and act in accordance with those decisions is a crucial prerequisite for design in the 21st century.

One of the central roles of education is to increase our understanding of the processes by which nature and culture interact. Natural and cultural processes form such an intricate web of complex relationships that it would be purely theoretical and rather impractical to consider them as mutually exclusive categories.

Culture emerges from the relationships and interactions of biological organisms — in particular human beings — with each other and their wider material environment. As such, culture is best regarded as an expression — an epiphenomenon, or an emergent property — of nature and not as an epistemologically created antipode to nature. Design in its widest sense is the material and immaterial expression of a culture’s underlying intentions through interaction and relationship.

Education is a powerful facilitator of cultural change. Education can change our intentions. It affects the up-stream end of the design process — its source. Eco-literacy enables us to participate more appropriately in natural process. Eco-literacy allows people to develop a new kind of design intelligence that increases their ability and intention to meet their needs within the limits of local ecosystems and the biosphere as a whole. Education for ecological and social literacy is a form of meta-design or design at the paradigm level aimed towards a sustainable re-integration of cultural into natural processes (see Wahl, 2005b).

The assertion that the terms ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ are themselves humanly constructed abstractions in language, is a common academic critique of the kind of argument I am trying to build. While rightfully highlighting the difficulties inherent in the use of language, such constructivist intellectual masturbation has little survival value for the human species in the face of the current crisis. It shows how deeply ingrained the Cartesian separation between mind and body is in Western thought.

Such arguments take place exclusively in an intellectual space that is severed from its biological and physical basis. I would urge anybody inclined to build his/her critique on this approach to simply hold his/her breath for two minutes. In doing so, you will be reminded of your own existence as a biological organism and a participant in natural processes like an aerobic metabolism and its photosynthesis dependent need for sufficient oxygen in the atmosphere.

Professor David Orr, who coined the term eco-literacy (Orr, 1992), and heads the Environmental Studies Programme at Oberlin College, has been a long time advocate of design along ecological principles. His notion of ecological design extends far beyond the creation of sustainable buildings and products. He speaks of “remaking the human presence in the world in a way that honours life and protects human dignity” and defines ecological design as “a large concept that joins science and the practical arts with ethics, politics, and economics” (Orr, 2002, p.4). Orr emphasizes:

Ecological design … is not so much about how to make things as about how to make things that fit gracefully over long periods of time in a particular ecological, social and cultural context. … Ecological design is not just a smarter way to do the same old thing or a way to rationalize and sustain rapacious, demoralizing, and unjust consumer culture. The problem is not how to produce ecologically benign products for the consumer economy, but how to make decent communities in which people grow to be responsible citizens and whole people who do not confuse what they have with who they are. The largest design challenge is to transform a wasteful society into one that meets human needs with elegant simplicity.

— Orr, 2002, p.27

This thesis takes Orr’s greatly expanded notion of ecological design as its point of departure and explores how the conceptual basis provided by the so-called “new science”(Wheatly, 1999) or “holistic science” (Goodwin, 1999a, Harding, 2001) may inform sustainable design from a more holistic perspective. Insights from quantum physics, relativity theory, biocybernetics, chaos theory, fractal geometry, earth systems science, community ecology, and the theory of complex dynamic systems, as well as a renewed interest in the scientific methodology of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1754–1832) have all contributed to the emergence of a new holistic science, described by Goodwin as a participatory science of qualities (e.g. Goodwin, 2000 & 2001).

Such a quality-focussed approach to science pays attention to the lessons of complexity as well as to the limits of the biosphere. Holistic science shifts the goal of the scientific enterprise from the control, manipulation and prediction of nature to aiming for long-term sustainability through appropriate participation in natural process (Wahl, 2003).

Holistic science and the even more encompassing holistic perspective to which it contributes can inform sustainable design in the 21st century. Professor Goodwin, initiator of the Masters programme in Holistic Science at Schumacher College and member of the Santa Fe Institute for the Study of Complex Dynamic Systems, explains:

A participatory approach to the life support system of the planet means that we must become more sensitive and responsive to the subtle creativity of natural processes so that we do not destroy them through our actions. Developing a science of qualities will help to cultivate that sensitivity while preserving the best aspects of science as a cooperative, open, and democratic approach to understanding and living within Nature.

— Brian Goodwin, 1999a, p.9

This thesis defines natural design as design that ultimately aims towards humanity’s appropriate and sustainable participation in natural process. Natural design’s underlying motivation is the maintenance or improvement of health as an emergent property of whole systems at the scale of individuals, local communities and eco-systems as well as on a planetary scale.

Furthermore, the thesis introduces the concept of an emerging natural design movement. It suggests that the greatest synergistic effect on the transformation of human society towards more sustainable practices will occur when the diverse, already existing sustainable design solutions are integrated into a coherent movement towards sustainability that is engaged in trans-disciplinary dialogue about how to create designs that will prove sustainable in the long-term.

Such a movement is beginning to coalesce around a common aim, which can be described as the intention to achieve humanity’s appropriate participation in natural process as a precondition for a sustainable human civilization. Design in its role as interdisciplinary integrator and facilitator can provide the framework for a continuous dialogue that serves to integrate sustainable modes of participation across all scales.

A system wide shift out of the strange attractor of unsustainability into the strange attractor of sustainability requires scale-linking (Van der Ryn & Cowan, 1996, p.34) design solutions. There is a need to integrate the diverse range of individual sustainable design strategies into a mutually supportive movement. This integration has to span the scales of product design, architecture, community design, sustainable construction, urban design, and industrial ecology, to bioregional planning, and national and international co-operation in the creation of sustainable health-care, education-systems, food-systems, political systems and transport solutions.

In practice, such integration will only become possible if outmoded attitudes of national competition and anachronistic striving for individual advantage are displaced by a co-operative trans -disciplinary and trans -national collaboration in the creation of synergistic win -win situations for all people and the planet.

The implementation of the vast majority of solutions will have to occur from the ground up and include the full participation of an informed citizenry. To achieve such participation people have to be empowered at the local level to take part in the decision-making process and their access to education for sustainability will have to be ensured. People need a meaningful and desirable vision of sustainability in order to actively engage in sustainable design.

Naturally, in a sustainable society or civilization by far the vast majority of the population will have to follow a sustainable life-style. In the language of complexity science, it turns out that sustainability may be an emergent, system-wide property that depends on the behaviour and interactions of all the diverse agents that participate in the dynamic system as a whole.

The most promising road map towards a more sustainable civilization lies in the linking of sustainable design solutions across scales, and in emulating nature’s own design patterns of networks within networks, along with increasing ecological literacy and citizen participation.

In a sustainable civilization every citizen will be educated and empowered to be an ecologically and socially literate designer of his/er uniquely creative way of participating appropriately in natural and social process. In a sustainable society, the ability to create designs that are health-generating throughout the whole system will reside with the majority of citizens.

In a paper presented at the European Academy of Design conference in 2005, entitled ‘Holistic-Ecological Culture Design’, the Israeli Designer Victor Frostig speaks of a “change of perception of design as a process that focuses on technologies and fields of application and as such deals mainly with ‘possibilities,’ to a process that focuses on the sociocultural context, and as such deals mainly with ‘meanings.’” Frostig explains “Design is regarded here as a value-driven activity, designers creating practices, experiences, and meaning for people”(Frostig, 2005, p.1).

This potential of design can be, and has been, abused to manipulate consumer society into ever faster and more wasteful patterns of consumption. On the other hand, when it is based on ecologically literate design principles and a bio-centric ethic, the power of design can be a catalyst in the shift towards sustainability.

John Wood, of Goldsmith’s College at University of London, has initiated a design think tank, with the name Attainable Utopias, whose participants are exploring the potential role of designers in the visioning of more sustainable and humane futures. He emphasizes the need for designers to engage in cross-disciplinary co-operation and a “professional discourse that acknowledges the complexity of wholeness.” According to Wood, designers “will alternatively need to ‘step further back’ in order to acknowledge the ‘bigger picture’ whilst engaging self- reflectively in the system itself”(Wood, 2005, p.1).

While engaging in the design of individual products, we have to be simultaneously aware of the kind of ‘meta-design’ these products effect in human culture and how they affect the ways we relate to our social and ecological context. What kind of society uses such products and how?

Chapter One introduces the theoretical framework within which this thesis is anchored. Design is defined as intentionality expressed through interaction and relationship; and complexity, fundamental interconnectedness, and unpredictability are discussed within the context of ‘wicked problems in design’. An emerging holistic worldview is introduced and contextualized.

Spiral Dynamics is explored as a dynamic map of worldviews and values systems, and as a tool for the facilitation of trans-disciplinary design dialogue. The integrative framework of Integral Theory is summarized and the emerging concepts of integral ecology and integral design are discussed. The chapter defines sustainability as a continuous process of community based learning of how to participate appropriately in natural process.

Chapter Two begins by introducing a holistic understanding of health across all scales of an interconnected whole. Salutogenesis is proposed as a guiding intentionality behind all sustainable design. Various maps of the complexity of health are introduced to establish the link between human, societal, ecosystem and planetary health. Tools for salutogenic decision-making and design are explored; as well as the notion of salutogenic meta-design; and the role of the designer as a systemic health practitioner is discussed.

Chapter Three describes the emergence of what I have called the Natural Design Movement, as the confluence of all historic and contemporary attempts to engage in appropriate participation in natural process — and thus live and meet human needs sustainably. The chapter explores the historical context of ecologically conscious design. It discusses the humanity- nature dichotomy and the epistemological pluralism of the natural design movement.

Ecoliteracy, Ethics, and Aesthetics are explored as closely related issues within the philosophical foundations of the natural design movement. Biological and ecological design, biomimicry, biomimetics, and bionics are introduced as design oriented ways of learning from nature. The chapter introduces the challenge of co-designing complex dynamic systems as active participants in them. Salutogenic, symbiotic, synergistic, scale-linking design can guide such responsible co-design within natural process.

Chapter Four focuses on the notion of scales of sustainable and ecological design. It introduces the concept of scale linking design and explores the complex relationships between temporal and spatial scales in salutogenic design. The following scales of design are covered in detail: product design ecology; sustainable architecture, sustainable construction industry; sustainable community design; industrial ecology; sustainable urban ecosystems; bioregional design; and networks of national and international cooperation.

Chapter Five highlights ten important scale-linking design issues and explores them in the context of the transition towards a sustainable human civilization. It begins by discussing the crucial role of education and ecological literacy in cultural change towards sustainable lifestyle practices. Sustainable food systems and the creation of locally and regionally based food economies are introduced as powerful catalysts in the creation of a more sustainable society. The creation of appropriately scale -linked economic systems, as well as a wide variety of design tools for the creation of complementary currencies and monetary systems are explored.

Taking the ‘Soft Energy Path’ towards decentralized renewable energy based systems is presented as a necessary u-turn away from fossil fuel and nuclear energy based systems. Further issues that are explored in this chapter are: sustainable consumption; natural capitalism; sustainable transport; the hydrogen economy; appropriate water care; and the central role of Earth restoration.

Chapter Six explores the notion of design as a process to generate visions. It emphasizes the importance of locally adapted, community-based visions in the process of actively engaging citizens to participate in the shift towards sustainability. The emergence of ancie nt and new meaning is discussed within the context of the evolution of human consciousness.

The role of spirituality and sacred design in the sustainability transition is addressed. The chapter explores the relationship between biophilia and sustainable design, and calls for increased bioregional sensitivity and a cosmopolitan bioregionalism. It ends with a closer look at the role of sustainable design in the increase of quality of life, equality, cooperation, community and health.

Professor Seaton Baxter, head of the Centre for the Study of Natural Design at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, proposes:

Designers and engineers need to learn and participate, at the highest level, in future state visioning, to practice ecological design and to do so with a new ecologically ethical position. All three together are a truly Gaian strategy, and what some are now calling — natural design.

— Seaton Baxter, 2005, p.5

[This is the introduction to my 2006 PhD Thesis in ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health: A Holistic/Integral Approach to Complexity and Sustainability’. This research and 10 years of experience as an educator, consultant, activist, and expert in whole systems design and transformative innovation have led me to publish Designing Regenerative Cultures in May 2016.]

Recently the Rockefeller Foundation has started a programme on Humand and Planetary Health. This image is taken form a publication in The Lancet (Source)



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store