By Maura Dilley
Good designers know how to create products and services that people love. This seems like the most obvious contribution of design to the sustainability challenge – making green products superior to conventional ones. But in a conversation at Bioneers with Sarah Brooks, Director of Social Innovation at Hot Studio in San Francisco, we uncover a broader and more integral role for design in the movement towards sustainability. Brooks calls this “Design for Whole Systems Resilience.”
We’re going through unprecedented number of unanticipated shocking events, Arab Spring to the worst floods then the worst droughts. Resilience is the capacity to cope with these shocks nimbly, to stay flexible, responsive and healthy as a society and as a planet; it is a life skill built up into a strategy to save the world. Resilience is sustainability and then some. It adds some curiosity mojo that wakes-up people’s hearts and minds.
So what do designers do and why might this be useful herding cats (Change Makers)?
Design research and facilitation helps people build confidence in testing ideas that are disruptive and scary. This is critical as we are moving from known systems to new ones – designers have made a science out of user research, championing minimum viable products and prototyping, which can help organizations take safe steps into the unknown and that’s a huge activator for change.
In a design workshop, conscience and unconscious biases are exposed, fears and doubts are put on the table to be validated as well as hopes and dreams. Designers embrace uncertainty and are comfortable with it. They are natural synthesizers, pattern finders . In this way, they can be role models for the mindsets needed to tackle the ambiguity of our mission to achieve sustainability and our strategies to reach that goal.
Designers are trained to actively see, listen deeply, and rearrange the relationships between elements into more favorable dynamics; they have wherewithal to know the difference between permanent and impermanent objects and the confidence to move stuff around. This training helps them translate the weakest link in a system into a system-changing opportunity. They truly believe the world can be changed.
Why would design skills like Assessing Human Needs & reliance on frameworks be helpful to building resiliency?
Designers are specialists in assessing real human needs and validating needs with user research. Brooks says she “never fails to be amazed by how many organizations struggle with the idea that you could just ask people what their met and unmet needs are as a way to inform the prioritization of what deserves testing.”
With synthesis and mapping, what designers can uncover is how people are working around a broken system to meet their needs. Workarounds are the jackpot of design research, they point to a golden leverage point in the system for change, the place where people need help and changemakers should be focused. A design solution injected into a workaround space could have systemic ramifications, which would exponentially scales-up chance.
Designers love frameworks – in design, the process is unmistakably as important as the product, where other disciplines rely on accumulated knowledge to shape their world, designers use frameworks to climb into the unknown. There are many design frameworks and one common denominator: hold space for the process of learning from field research and iterating solutions.
Design workshops feel like magic, you get a view inside the minds of your colleagues, you draw, make maps and models, get people aligned toward shared goals and you walk away with a buzzing sense of possibility and a plan for how to get to desired outcomes. So how do we scale up the magic that happens in a design workshop? According to Brooks:
“Using the same methodology and mindset we do there. Similar to what I heard you talking about with David McConville we must get out of the dualistic mechanistic thinking that dominates our society. It sounds like a ‘Duh’ but its everywhere – science/art, mind/body – society suffers from a deep cosmological foundation in the idea of a mechanistic universe and we really need to move on from that. Design can help you visualize and then play with the interrelationships in a system.”
Resilience is talking about using designer skills in service of co-creation. Together we can hack the systems that bind us to unsustainable lives. We can discover and dissolve our own workarounds and lead our communities in the same process. A recent example of design informed leadership is the Urban Prototyping Festival, which took place yesterday in San Francisco. These are regular citizens, employing design thinking to make systemic changes and improve urban living. That’s phenomenal. Business world is also waking up to the power of design as a valuable guide to transformation. There is a lot of good that design informed leadership could do and a lot of room for expansion.