Design for Sustainability Is Inherently Participatory

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Source: Designers as Transdisciplinary Integrators and Facilitators of Sustainable Solutions Daniel Christian Wahl and Seaton Baxter. Design Issues, 2008


Design for sustainability is inherently participatory

Daniel Christian Wahl and Seaton Baxter:

"Sustainability is rapidly becoming an issue of critical importance for designers and society as a whole. A complexity of dynamically interrelated ecological, social, cultural economic and psychological (awareness) problems interact and converge in the current crisis of our unsustainable civilization. However, in a constantly changing environment, sustainability is not some ultimate endpoint but is better conceived as a continuous process of learning and adaptation. Designing for sustainability not only requires the re-design of our habits, lifestyles and practices, but also, the way we think about design. Sustainability is a process of co-evolution and co-design that involves diverse communities in making flexible and adaptable design decisions at local, regional and global scales. The transition towards sustainability is about co-creating a human civilization that flourishes within the ecological limits of the planetary life support system.

Design is fundamental to all human activity. At the nexus of values, attitudes, needs and actions, designers have the potential to act as a transdisciplinary integrators and facilitators. The map of value systems and perspectives described by Beck and Cowan as ‘Spiral Dynamics’, can serve as a tool in the facilitation of ‘transdisciplinary design dialogue’. Such dialogue will help to integrate the multiple perspectives and diverse knowledge base of different disciplines, value systems and stakeholders. Further expansion of the ‘integral vision’ by Wilber consolidates a framework for understanding, acknowledging and weaving together different perspectives and worldviews. Esbjörn-Hargens and Brown describe the application of this framework to solving complex problems of local and global relevance and to sustainable development. When applied to design this kind of framework can help us to conceptualise how different value systems and different onto-epistemological assumptions change our experience of reality and therefore intentionality behind design. This change in why we design things and processes, in turn, affects what and how we design.

Since sustainability requires widespread participation, communities everywhere need to begin to shape local, regional and global visions of sustainability and to offer strategies to engage humanity collectively in cooperative processes that will turn visions (designs) into reality. However, rather, than believing that we can design universally applicable blueprints to bring about sustainability by prediction and control-based top-down engineering, it may be more useful and appropriate to think of the outcome(s) as an emergent property of the complex dynamic system in which we all participate, co-create and adapt to interdependent bio-physical and psycho-social processes. Such a view has enormous consequences for the way we view design. As an integrative and transdisciplinary process, design thinking can inform more integral/holistic solutions that promote the emergence of systemic health and sustainability as properties of the complex dynamic system that contains culture and nature and of which we are integral participants."

The importance of Meta-design as awareness of intentionality

Daniel Christian Wahl and Seaton Baxter:

"Design can most broadly be defined as the expression of intentionality through interactions and relationships. At the downstream end of this process our cultural artefacts, institutions and patterns of production and consumption express intentionality materially. Upstream, in the immaterial dimension, the ‘metadesign’ of our conscious awareness, value systems, worldviews, and aspirations defines the intentionality behind materialized design. Here the term ‘metadesign’ refers to the concepts, and onto-epistemological assumptions we employ to define ourselves and to make sense of experiencing our participatory involvement in complex ecological, cultural, and social processes. The perspectives of different cultural worldviews and of different academic and professional disciplines are all shaped by the metadesign of the intentions, aspirations, and basic assumptions that inform them. Each of these different perspectives generates different specialized knowledge about certain aspects of perceived reality.

Appropriate decision-making, within complex eco-social dynamics, requires us to consider insights generated by a diverse range of perspectives and disciplines. Richard Buchanan writes: There is no area of contemporary life where design – the plan, project or working hypothesis which constitutes the ‘intention’ in intentional operations – is not a significant factor in shaping human experience. Design even extends into the core of traditional scientific activities, where it is employed to cultivate the subject matters that are the focus of scientific curiosity.

Materially, the intentionality behind design is expressed through the interactions and relationships formed by consumer products, transport systems, economies, systems of governance, settlement patterns, and resource and energy use, with the complexity of social and ecological processes. Immaterially, our organizing ideas, worldviews, and value systems express how we make sense of our experience of reality through metadesign. Transdisciplinary dialogue and collaboration can encourage researchers and practitioners to contextualise and situate their specialist knowledge within a larger holistic/integral metaperspective that acknowledges the validity and contributions of multiple points of view. Changes in the culturally dominant worldview, value system, and aspirations will lead to fundamental changes in intentionality and lifestyle. Such metadesign-induced changes will be catalytic in the transition towards a sustainable human civilization.

In general, sustainable decision-making and design processes must be open to contributions from diverse disciplines and perspectives and, at the same time, they must remain aware of the epistemological and ontological metadesign assumptions that define the perspective of each discipline. There is an important visionary element to design that affects how we experience and shape our environment. “Designers deal with possible worlds and with opinions about what the parts and the whole of the human environment should be.”

The transformation towards a more sustainable human civilization requires a process of inclusive and participatory dialogue that will ultimately turn visions of sustainability into reality. This will require the individual and collective participation of everybody. In the face of climate change, national and international inequity, social and ecological disintegration and rapid resource depletion, nothing less than a societal and civilizational change - without precedence in scale and profundity in the history of our species - is urgently required. It has to occur during the next few decades if humanity wants to avoid ecological and social meltdown.

David Orr argues:

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.” Design plays a central role in this, both in the material dimensions of product design, architecture, industrial design, and town and regional planning, as well as in the immaterial dimension of the metadesign of concepts and inclusive multi-perspectives from which a holistic/integral worldview can emerge.