How to make systems thinking sexy  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

John Thackara at "Doors Of Perception" has a post of his keynote address at the Buckminster Fuller Challenge awards in New York back in June - How to make systems thinking sexy.

When Elizabeth Thompson, executive director of the BFC, asked me, "is the Challenge too niche?" my reply was: Damn right it's niche - and a good thing, too. No other public design competition that I know comes even close to being this demanding for applicants, nor so thoroughly managed. The Challenge is a long way from the business as usual of mainstream design and its frothy competitions.

By "business as usual" I mean the kind of business that is bewitched by what Dr Chris Seeley calls, in The Fool and the Great Turning "the three impossible fantasies": the fantasy of limitless growth; the fantasy that actions can be taken that don't have consequences; and the fantasy that human beings are separate from, and above, the natural world.

These fantasies are not unique to design. They describe the state-of-mind of the industrial growth economy as a whole - the economy which Adbusters has so memorably described as a “doomsday machine”. It's a doomsday machine because everyone strives after infinite growth in a world whose carrying capacity is finite. The better the economy performs — faster growth, higher GDP — the faster we degrade the biosphere that is he only life support machine we have.

It’s madness - and all over the world people are waking up to the fact that it’s madness. Those awakening include a fair number of designers, architects, and urban planners. But they - we - are still a minority and they - we - are waking up so...very...slowly.

Don't get me wrong. It’s fantastic that designers have been involved with projects that improve access by poor people to safe drinking water. It's been inspiring to learn that engineers are figuring out ways to reduce the cost of medical or agricultural equipment. And communication designers, when they raise awareness about pressing social issues, can play a life-critical role in mobilizing people to take meaningful action about them.

I'm also a big fan of the skills and energy that design thinking can bring to the green economy table - such as when design portrays what Fuller described as "preferred states" so evocatively that diverse groups are motivated to try and make those outcomes happen.

With its focus on services, not just on products, design thinking has also started to adopt the whole systems approach that Fuller was advocating a generation ago. Above all, with its strong ethos of prototyping ideas early and often - following Goethe's dictum of "Begin it now!" - design thinking brings positive energy to bear on intractable situations that might otherwise be bogged down in endless talk and powerpoint slides.

All this is welcome, and impressive. But it's too slow, not enough - insignificant relative to the bigger picture.

Last year I was invited to a famous design firm on West Coast to talk about "design for social impact." When I got there, the whole place was locked down by security guards. Wow, I thought! Maybe President Obama is coming to discuss social impact. Silly me. The security clampdown was insisted on by a famous soft drinks firm. I don't know what their project was about - maybe they were there to redesign the shape of the bubbles - but I doubt that replacing the doomsday machine economy was uppermost in their minds.

Many design firms have added design for social impact to a portfolio that is otherwise shaped by the demands of the perpetual growth economy. The net result is a "do less bad" approach to environmental and social issues. That's why we hear so much in design-land about "being aware of" or "taking account of" or "moving steadily towards" a respect for environmental limits.

The green entrepreneur Gunther Pauli is scornful of this half-way house approach: 'A thief who tells a judge he is stealing less than before will receive no leniency. So why do we give each other awards for polluting 'less', even though we are still polluting?’. Why, indeed. If one 'moves towards' the goal of, for example, net zero impact - but one's total business is growing - the net effect is to fall behind.

Outside the business-as-usual tent, gradualism is on the retreat. A new kind of economy - a restorative economy - is emerging in a million grassroots projects all over the world. The better-known examples have names like Post-Carbon Cities, or Transition Towns. But examples also include dam removers, seed bankers, and iPhone doctors.

A restorative economy is emerging wherever people are growing food in cities, or turning school backyards into edible gardens. The movement includes people who are restoring ecosystems and watersheds; their number includes dam removers, wetland restorers, and rainwater rescuers. Many people in this movement are recycling buildings in downtowns and suburbs, favelas and slums. They often work alongside computer recyclers, hardware bricoleurs, office-block refurbishers and trailer-park renewers.

You’ll find the movement wherever people are launching local currencies. In their version of a green economy exchange system, 70 million 'unbanked' Africans exchange airtime, not cash, using the M-pesa system. For every daily life-support system that is unsustainable now — food, health, shelter and clothing - alternatives are being innovated. Thousands of groups, tens of thousands of experiments.

What these projects have in common is that they are creating value without destroying natural and social assets. I'm not talking here about a 1960s style retreat into an imagined rural idyll, with or without a teepee. On the contrary, the most dynamic restorative design is happening in urban contexts, where it re-imagines the urban landscape itself as an ecology with the potential to support us. ...

In addition to the million-plus grassroots projects of restorative economy; and in addition to community-scale networks like Transition Towns; a third zone of activity, also outside the design tent, is also amplifying the reach of systems thinking beyond the academy.

This is the emergence of projects that engage with resource efficiency as a social process, not a technical one. Our BFC winner last year, Operation Hope, exemplified this.

Simply explained, Operation Hope was about the use of cattle to reverse the spread of deserts around the world. But its back story was about the ways energy and nutrients are circulated in natural ecosystems and how humans could learn from this.

I believe all of us on the jury were surprised when we selected , as our clear winner, such a starkly post-Green Revolution and post fossil-fuel project. We seem instinctively to have marked a step beyond the green revolution which, with its hyper-industrialized agriculture, involved massive inputs of petro-chemicals and herbicides, monoculture cropping, and confinement animal feeding operations. Yes, the Green Revolution increased global food production tremendously - but it severely degraded its ecological base in the process.

Project Hope, in contrast, stood for what its founder Allan Savory calls a new ‘Brown Revolution’ that is based on the regeneration of covered, organically rich, biologically thriving soil and brought to fruition via millions of human beings returning to the land and the service intensive production of food.

The fundamental difference between Operation Hope and what went before is that it was - is - about wholes, not parts. Unlike the subject specialization of the industrial growth economy, Savory's approach is based on the idea that things can have properties as a whole that are not explainable from the sum of the parts.

The same goes for this year's remarkable winner, Blue Ventures.

By connecting conservation with wealth creation Blue Ventures has found a way to help fishing communities in the developing world experience a counter-intuitive reality: that saving fish doesn't mean starvation, it means surviving and prospering.

As Alasdair Harris, Blue Venture's founder and research director told us, "the way we approach marine conservation is not just about setting up protected areas. It's about alleviation of poverty, empowering women, reducing gender inequity. All those things, from sex and reproductive health to education are directly relevant to conservation. We work in a multidisciplinary, holistic way."

At the scale of the city, or the city-region, this kind of multi-dimensional, multi-scalar, multi-temporal restorative design re-imagines the man-made world as being one element among a complex of co-dependent ecologies: energy, water, food, production, and information. It takes natural biodiversity and its starting point – with special emphasis on bioregions, foodsheds and watersheds.

It's not about back-to-nature. It's about enabling these different ecologies and flows and networks help each other.


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