Should Change be Radical?
EcoLabs at the Sustainable Innovation 07 conference.
This paper describes how new design models characterized by systems thinking & the democratisation of design have the capacity for radical change. Three contemporary projects; the Open Architecture Network, Massive Change, and Transition Towns are all very different but potentially significant examples of this new design model in action.
We are accustomed to assuming that we have control over the future we build, and so when we ask if change should be radical, what we mean is; 'should we instigate radical reforms and policies?' The word radical comes from the Latin rādīcālis meaning 'having roots'. Radical change generally refers to drastic political, economic and social reforms. But radical change can also happen as a result of dramatic environmental factors. Scientists are now unanimous: "Warming of the climate system is unequivocal" (IPCC 2007). Unprecedented change in the ecosystem is happening now. These changes are the result of the products and systems we have designed in the past and continue to design. So fundamental change is happening irrespective of our belief in radical change. The question we face today is whether we will pro-actively create the kinds of systems that will mitigate the radical change now already happening.
Climate scientists warn that carbon concentrations in the atmosphere are already damaging the ability of the ecosystem to maintain homeostasis. James Hansen, Director of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, claims 'recent greenhouse gas emissions place the Earth perilously close to dramatic climate change that could run out of our control, with great dangers for humans and other creatures' (Hansen 2007:1925). The trajectory of emissions levels is vital: we urgently need to stabilize emissions if we hope to avoid a tipping point when feedback loops take effect. Dramatic environmental danger demands a major response, and nothing short of radical and systemic change will achieve the necessary reductions in carbon emissions.
An awareness of systemic and ecological principles engages a holistic approach to design which understands that all the properties of a given system (whether biological, social, economic, mental, linguistic, etc.) cannot be determined or explained by the sum of its component parts alone. Instead, the system as a whole determines how the parts behave. Systems thinking change the manner in which designers function, and requires an interdisciplinary approach to education, research and practice in design.
Systems thinking is fundamental to the most exciting advances in design today that look to nature for inspiration. Recognizing that all systems in the natural world must be a closed loop, architect William McDonald and chemist Michael Braungart's 'Cradle to Cradle' approach suggests a new industrial revolution will be founded on Nature's effective design principles. The related field of biomimicry models design on the complex waste-free processes of Nature.
Manifestations of Radical Change
The first Massive Change project was responsible for documenting innovations & bringing them into the public domain in an original fashion1 - but not actually creating the innovation in the first place. The project has functioned as a public platform for some of the most radical ideas in the design world - and as such it has worked to facilitate the process of radical change by circulating critical ideas. Mau has been accused of expanding the definition of design so widely that it has become meaningless (Kerry 2005), yet Massive Change is an example of the systems thinking that establishes the connections between traditionally disparate disciplines. This widening of the scope of design to include the built environment, transportation technologies, revolutionary materials, energy and information systems, and nature creates an arena for the design of systems, organisations, and programs that could create profound change.
The ambitious World House Project aims high. As a model for design education the project is inspirational: more institutions must now focus their collective intelligence on equally aspiration goals.
Where Massive Change designed a grandiose vision of the future of humanity, the Transition movement focuses on a local level. Transition Towns is a grassroots movement active in England and Ireland that has demonstrated how ordinary people can take the initiative when government and industry fail to respond adequately to the challenges communities face in light of climate change and also Peak Oil. Based on the hypothesized theory of peaking in oil production, a theory now acknowledged by both Chevron and BP (Hopkins 2006: 14), the Transition movement is a community design initiative for mitigation and adaptation to post-peak oil and climate change. The 2005 Hirsh Report, written for the for US Department of Energy, claims that 'The problem of oil peaking deserves immediate serious attention' (Hirsh 2005:5). In the UK, Jonathan Porritt claims 'conventional economic growth and cheap oil have marched hand in hand for the best part of 60 years; within just a few years, it will have become increasingly apparent that both are on their last legs' (Porritt 2005:63).
The Transition movement is in the process of developing strategies for re-localization and the creation of parallel infrastructures wherein towns can attempt to develop independence on oil and resilience to global change. Given the UK governments reluctance to acknowledge the concept of Peak Oil, and its slow movement of developing comprehensive strategies which will respond to climate change, communities are now actively working towards their own solutions. Here communities organize to meet the environmental challenges directly, and systems thinking is used to vision wholesale reconfiguration of infrastructures & systems.
Permaculture is central to the thinking behind Transition Towns. Permaculture is a design philosophy for working with Nature in building systems to support human existence. It has a number of guiding design principles that help designers take account of existing systems and plan in complexity, a strategy that contributes to resilience and stability to ecosystems and other systems alike.
The Transition Town movement was initiated in Kinsale, Ireland (2001), now the first town with a strategy approved by the town council for 'energy descent'. The Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan is a timetabled strategy for weaning the town off fossil fuels. Rob Hopkins, co-ordinator of the Plan, and the originator of the Transition Towns concept, is now working on an Energy Descent Plan for the town of Totnes as part of a PhD program at Plymouth University. Energy Descent Action Planning is a tool a community uses to first vision how they see their town 20 years in the future and then creating strategies for energy descent.
The Transition Town phenomenon is growing; there are now 19 towns, cities, and/or areas have Transition Town movements locally active. The movement demonstrates the profound desire for change and a frustration with centralised government, institutions and corporations for failing to provide the kinds of options that are comprehensive enough to respond to what communities perceive as the threats ahead.
Radical changes in the systems that dominate our world are now an imperative. Designers are in a unique position to contribute to these changes by designing sustainable systems. This paper examines examples of radical change happening as the definition of design changes. Here are the beginnings of systems that could still keep us from the ecological catastrophe that the present systems make inevitable. We will need to activate these strategies on a much larger scale, much faster, if we want to stabilize carbon emissions. Let us not pretend to be serious about sustainability until we are comprehensive enough in to meet the targets established by scientists. This is where we need the moral resources to expect nothing less than design that will make this world safe for the next generation.
Change is going to happen. Better to understand this and take control of the change than to become victims of change. We cannot carry on as we are and simply reduce our carbon - we need to get to the 'root' of the problem: reduce consumption, eliminate waste, and create systems that will use less energy. While confronting the challenges that lay ahead will not be easy, if we are mature enough as a culture to see this as an opportunity to make a more simple, less wasteful, low carbon future than the radical change ahead need not be so painful.
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1 Original but controversial; David Stairs
claims the spectacular nature of the Massive Change project ignores the primacy of community with 'overarching technical solutions to human problems' holding the problematic 'primary assumption that the future is annexable by design and marketable to teeming billions'. (Stairs, 2006).
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