Now That We Know the Critique of Global Capitalism Was Correct

Colombian American anthropologist, Arturo Escobar, moves beyond the critique of capitalism to map out strategies for transitioning post pandemic. He proposes we need a “radical eco-social, economic, political, and cultural transition in every country and in the world at large” (157). Escobar offers five principles for thinking about strategies which can be applied to design or other forms of collective action. First, we must return the communal to social life, a move against individual solutions. Oaxacan activists talk of the ‘we-condition of being’ (condición nosótrica de ser, 157) which is an orientation of compartencia (“sharingness”, 157) of thoughts and actions to understand what makes a resilient community/person. Second, we must return the local to social, economic, and cultural activities through food sovereignty, agroecology, seed saving, commoning, and urban gardens to name a few-- innovations that break with patriarchal, racist, and capitalist ways of living. The third principle focuses on the strengthening of political autonomy and in engaging in “dream-designing” (disoñación, 158) helping us to redesign our lives in a partial, but still substantial movement toward de-globalization. The fourth principle suggests we incorporate “feminist and radical [] relational politics into many, if not all, of our designing practices” (159). Lastly, we need to consider the “re-earthing” of life (159). We are in a relationship of interdependence with the planet where new forms of life are always in the process of co-arising. 

Escobar, Arturo. 2021. “Now That We Know the Critique of Global Capitalism Was Correct.” In The New Possible: Visions of Our World beyond Crisis, edited by Philip Clayton, Kelli M. Archie, Jonah Sachs, and Evan Steiner, 157–61. Wipf and Stock Publishers.

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The Three Horizons of Innovation and Culture Change

Daniel Christian Wahl, author of Designing Regenerative Cultures, reports on a framework that he, as well as other future practitioners and members of the International Futures Forum, developed to engage with the complexity of the interconnected problems we face today. They named their approach the ‘Three Horizons’ framework.  ‘Three Horizons’ thinking attempts to make sense of and facilitate cultural transformation, and to explore innovation in an uncertain future. ‘Three Horizons’ is a foresight tool. “It describes three patterns or ways of doing things and how their relative prevalence and interactions evolve over time.” The first horizon describes established patterns/systems and a ‘business as usual’ scenario, the second horizon maps out disruptive transitions where innovations are more effective than existing practices—but not always transformative; when they are transformative, they lead to the third horizon which identifies new emerging patterns. These three situations co-exist at all times and tell us about the future by analyzing our behaviour in the present. The Three Horizons methodology prioritizes solutions that create and sustain regenerative patterns and accepts that we learn from experience and are always in “an apprentice mindset.” Wahl suggests that holding facilitated conversations using this framework allows us to see things through diverse community perspectives. This step, he proposes, has the potential to transform and innovate cultural norms.

Wahl, Daniel Christian. 2017. “The Three Horizons of Innovation and Culture Change.” Medium: Regenerate The Future (blog). 07 2017.

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Wicked Problems in Design Thinking

According to Richard Buchanan, design thinking should be considered “the new liberal art of technological culture” (5). In centering design as a key discipline for shaping society, his goal is “to connect and integrate useful knowledge from the arts and sciences alike, […] in ways that are suited to the problems and purposes of the present” (6). He argues that the disciplines that are traditionally understood as liberal arts once formed part of an integrated Renaissance education that comprised the scope of human knowledge, from philosophy to mathematics, to the sciences and the fine arts. However, he argues that today the liberal arts have become specialized and siloed from the sciences. He sees design, with its “interconnection of signs, things, actions, and thoughts” (20) as positioned to be a discipline that can genuinely bridge the humanities and the sciences in practical ways. Designers shape symbolic and visual communication, material objects, activities and organized services, and complex systems or environments for living, working, playing, and learning (9-10). These domains operate across disciplines, so both the arts and sciences use design for problem-solving. This transdisciplinary quality makes design a valuable tool for addressing challenges that are indeterminately large and complex, ie. “wicked problems” (20). Designers can address these problems because their methods are both general and particular, meaning that a designer can frame a general answer to a particular problem, and then reframe the solution in a new context. The transferability of design thinking to new aspects of a problem makes it an integrative discipline that can harnesses knowledge in interdisciplinary ways.

Buchanan, Richard. 1992. “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking.” Design Issues 8 (2): 5–21.

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Living Systems Theory and Its Relevance to Design: A Matrix

This two-page document describes the qualities of living systems that designers can draw upon to begin integrating design and natural systems. Ten key concepts are covered: (1) living systems are “organizationally open, self-organizing and ‘autopoetic’ which means they generate order and change from within. Designers must work carefully with living systems to harmonize with and not disrupt their natural order; (2) they “operate in a state far from equilibrium”: living systems take in and expend energy continuously and designers must learn to channel the emergent flow of energy rather than seeking to reduce a system to equilibrium; (3) they “have emergent properties”: complex systems operate uniquely at many levels and designers must be able to design for adaptation and change rather than rigidity; (4) their “structure is networked, holarchic, and fractal” and design solutions must also be holistic in nature; (5) living systems are “Are sensitive to initial conditions” which means that small changes can have long-term effects. Designers must take the time to observe natural systems over time, and they should consider the ramifications of even small interventions; (6) they “Are controlled/regulated through feedback” and designers must learn to account for feedback loops when intervening in living systems; (7) “when healthy, [they] have high degree of diversity” which should be cultivated by designers; (8) they are “comprised of non-linear relationships,” which therefore requires designers to work slowly and iteratively, taking pause to assess the impact of their work on the system; (9) “whole and part relationships are nonhierarchical”: living systems are complex and the whole is difficult to see. Designers should refrain from imposing artificial boundaries around the system; (10) they are “full of interdependence and cooperation,” which designers should cultivate. They should also refrain from interfering in relationship webs, working iteratively to assess impacts before proceeding to initiate greater change (2).

Irwin, Terry. 2012. “Living Systems Theory and Its Relevance to Design: A Matrix.” In Grow Small, Think Beautiful: Ideas for a Sustainable World from Schumacher College, edited by Stephen Harding. Floris Books.

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Wicked Problems and the Relationship Triad

In this text, Irwin introduces four key points for changing our perspective on how design can intervene in society: (1) our “wicked problems” are as complex as the living systems they are embedded within (1), (2) people, environment, and things are intertwined in these systems, (3) new forms of design are required to address this, and (4) new ethics is required to develop new solutions. Irwin defines “wicked problems” as limitless, complex issues that cannot be easily conceptualized and argues that before designers can contribute to solving wicked problems, they must develop expert skills in seeing and understanding them, which means a departure from the oversimplified business-oriented worldview. In the second half of the article, Irwin defines an expanded “living systems” worldview that will provide designers with the tools to engage with wicked problems (2). Finally, Irwin provides examples of how interventions into systems can either compound or defuse wicked problems depending on whether they accurately assess the complexity of the systems in which they are intervening. Irwin concludes by arguing that new design principles that account for the relationship triad are essential if we are to move towards a sustainable future.

Irwin, Terry. 2012. “Wicked Problems and the Relationship Triad.” In Grow Small, Think Beautiful: Ideas for a Sustainable World from Schumacher College, edited by Stephen Harding, 232–59. Floris Books.

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The Dynamical View of Natural Form

Irwin and Baxter call for a paradigmatic shift in the way that designers work, from a focus on form to a focus on relationships. In the West, the focus of design on form stems from our mechanistic worldview, they argue. This worldview is limiting in that it prioritizes the quantifiable, individual parts (rather than their relationship to one another), and human supremacy in the natural world. Adopting Goethe’s ‘way of seeing’, the authors argue for a dynamic understanding of unity, in which form is seen as a process that can evolve, rather than a constant. Only when designers can understand that we are parts of a whole, can we design sustainably for the future.  

Irwin, Terry, and S. Baxter. 2008. “The Dynamical View of Natural Form.” In Design & Nature IV: Comparing Design in Nature with Science and Engineering, edited by C. A. Brebbia, 129–38. WIT Press.

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Ecology: A Pocket Guide

Ecology: A Pocket Guide draws attention to the complex networks of life forms found within the natural world. By defining a vocabulary of natural systems, Callenbach aims to increase the reader’s ecological knowledge and consciousness to be better positioned to protect ecologies found on planet Earth and to defend against their degradation. While this book does less to propose a specific theory of change, it encourages us to change our way of thinking about the natural world, from a belief that humans and the natural world are made up of individual or separate parts, to understanding the “ceaselessly changing, interconnected, incredibly intricate flow of life in Earth’s ecological systems” that exist across planetary, bioregional, ecosystem, human, and microscopic scales. In this way, Callenbach posits ecological definitions for us to consider (1) our dependence upon the natural world for our survival; (2) our interconnection with the natural world and therefore, our accountability to it; and (3) the way in which ecological processes include human processes and therefore, how we must transition to more holistic views of ecology to solve the sustainability crises. 

Callenbach, Ernest. 2008. Ecology: A Pocket Guide, Revised and Expanded. University of California Press.

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