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Facing Our Future Well, By Design

P1010089.JPGDavid Orr spoke recently at the University of Washington. His message: modern society is balanced on the edge of several trends (including fiscal irresponsibility, peak oil, and global climate destabilization) that threaten the continuity of human civilization. Responding adequately to the challenges this represents involves learning to view our predicament not as a constellation of liberal or conservative agenda items, but as a series of design problems.

For those familiar with Orr’s work, or the subject of ecological design, this is not a new idea. But his talk underscores an awakening that is taking place across the political spectrum, as many people recognize that our habitual stance toward our problems is actually impeding our ability to solve them. This habitual stance—rooted in a politicized approach to our social, economic and environmental problems--offers little in the way of possibility and frequently leaves us stuck in conflict, overwhelmed with what is wrong. In contrast, what does a design approach offer? Can design help us turn the ship of modern life away from the iceberg of economic and environmental disaster floating dead ahead?

Design, defined. There is no single definition of design: it can be viewed as a creative activity, a concern with how things should be, or, as design scholar Paul Churchman puts it, “a conscious attempt to create a better world.” Architect Sim Van Der Ryn notes that we are all designers, constantly making decisions that shape our futures and those of others. Regardless of definition, design scholars make an important distinction between science-based problem solving, and design problem solving: science attempts to solve problems by developing knowledge about what is, while designers solve problems by playing with possibility and testing the edges of  what could be.  Science explains. Design imagines. Where science breaks problems into smaller and smaller parts in an effort to understand, the primary effort in design is to open problems up, to see them from new and unusual angles, and in the best outcomes, to discover surprising and elegant solutions.  Architecture for Humanity and Auburn University’s Rural Studio  exemplify the attempt to use design in service to solving complex, systemic problems. 

Design, applied.  Embracing a design approach would give us a new collective repertoire to work with in our communities and in our systems of governance, a repertoire highly complementary to the scientific method.  Science tells us that our agriculture systems are destroying our topsoil. Rather than continuing partisan bickering about the meaning of this information, politicians and citizens well versed in design communication could devise myriad ways--unique to individual communities--to  farm sustainably at an appropriate scale. Science tells us that our building and manufacturing methods are environmentally disastrous:  better design can help us improve how we build, live in, and deconstruct our places, so that ultimately, we can adopt  a cradle to cradle orientation in manufacturing and production, eliminating the very concept of waste. Science tells us that climate is changing. Taking a design approach toward this problem could provide us with insight into how to stop contributing to the situation without destroying ourselves economically. At its best, design—particularly collaborative design--can offer us win/win solutions to what are currently viewed by many people as insoluble problems.

Design culture. Acknowledging that we are all designers is a hopeful first step toward better problem solving. But unleashing design’s full power requires awareness of, and fluency in, design culture. The cultures of science and design complement one another: understanding their differences can help us determine which to adopt, and when. Scientific culture is exemplified by competition, skepticism, a willingness to embrace argument, and an emphasis on expertise. Design culture is exemplified by collaboration, openness, a willingness to draw freely from many points of reference, and an emphasis on creativity. We are all conversant with the culture of science: woven into our institutions of learning and governance, it is part of the air we breathe, literally and figuratively. We are not so conversant with the culture of design. Fluency in both is necessary, especially when dealing with complex problems: to attempt design from within the framework of science, or to use design approaches when scientific expertise is needed, sets us up for failure. But understanding design culture is only the beginning: we also have to develop design literacy.

Design literacy. Communication and collaboration skills are the foundation of effective design work. These skills are not particularly valued in our current school systems, with their heavy emphasis on competition, status, and knowledge acquisition. This emphasis has fostered a two-tiered adult population, with one group believing they are unqualified to contribute to the solving of serious social problems, and a smaller group—the “experts”--taking on all the responsibility. (Both groups have a contribution to make.) It has also marginalized our schools, and deprived our most energetic and idealistic citizens--our youth—of the opportunity to work on real community issues. And it has helped us create large unwieldy corporations and bureaucracies incapable of learning. Developing design literacy does not involve replacing science or math classes with classes “about” design: it involves changing how we structure learning. By integrating the collaborative design practices of inquiry and solution-focused action into school culture, by placing community needs at the center of our schools, and by embracing the arts for their ability to develop the creativity, originality and lateral thinking ability crucial to generative design, we can develop design literacy economically and efficiently throughout our communities.

As David Orr pointed out in his recent talk, we are facing a crucial moment as a species: will we face the unintended consequences of our actions—the toxic emissions, the habitat destruction, the sprawl—and learn to design for better outcomes? Many in the scientific community believe we have little time left--10 years perhaps--before the destructive path we are on becomes irreversible. It is possible to design our way out of our problems, and in the process collapse upward into a sustainable future. But it is equally possible to continue arguing, and to collapse downward into a more chaotic, violent one. The future is coming: how will we choose to meet it?