Teaching to the Future: A Design School Where Nature is Always the Client

ecosaBy Antony Brown

Design is a magical profession that creates our reality through a mysterious process of visualization and imagination called creativity. The design process gives shape to everything that surrounds us and, in turn, that reality shapes the way we perceive the world. Like all powerful magic, the practice of design carries with it a profound responsibility. Every object created by design, be it product, building or metropolis, has a powerful impact on us and the environment.

As soon as this latent power of design is understood, what becomes disturbing is the superficiality of most design education. Too often design professionals are educated in an environmental and spiritual vacuum. Learning is structured in an Descartian abstract reality full of style and empty of substance with little connection to the underlying reality of the world.

With the accelerating deterioration of the natural environment, it is essential to educate designers that are skilled in finding solutions that enhance our planetary ecology rather than consume it. We are fast becoming a beleaguered species whose survival is by no means secure. Environmental problems continue to burgeon and the real impact climate change is still yet to be fully felt.

Designers are not educated to solve the ecological challenges we face, yet design is a problem-solving skill that is ideally suited to proposing solutions to environmental, social and even economic challenges. But without a deeper design education that addresses these broader issues, design will continue to pursue style over substance.

How can designers be educated to design for the environment? How can they use the power of their design skills to create a world that brings balance back into our lives? Is it possible to balance the needs of the natural world with those of human populations?

Training the next generation of ecological designers

To train ecological designers, a skill far more advanced than sustainable or green design, we must develop in students a real sense of the natural environment. A professional who designs for the well-being of the environment must have a deep understanding of the systems they affect and a profound sensitivity to the natural world. How can a designer surrounded by an urban world, created for and by a single species, be expected to care or know about the environment? We may understand it in an abstract, scientific way, but we must give a foundation of knowledge about the environment that is expanded to include a spiritual awareness of what we do when we tear up land to create our houses, cities, solid waste dumps, sewage treatment plants and supermarkets.

Ecological designers need to understand the complexity and interconnectedness of the world’s systems and the utter dependence we humans have on the natural world and its services. Without them we are well on the road to extinction. We need to move to experience and engagement rather than theory and detachment. We tend to educate students from the neck up, ignoring data showing how our minds and bodies are a connected whole. We are a seamless part of the natural world, and research shows that for our health we need community, nature and a sense of purpose — not just a way of “making a living.” We need to move from abstraction to commitment and search for values deeper than a “lifestyle.”

Nature has been testing systems for million of years. Complexity, diversity and co-evolving systems are the names of the game in the natural environment, yet designers are not trained to understand this model. Perhaps the first and most fundamental aspect of a design education must be to move to a holistic understanding of these design processes. This was one of the goals laid out in 1998 with the founding of the Ecosa Design Institute. The idea was that, with a different approach to education, designers can regenerate, restore and repair our environments and therefore heal the world. We must make nature and natural systems the model as we strive to make connections between what we imagine and the reality we create. We must strip away the shell that separates us physically and emotionally from the natural world. Our understanding of the environment must move from a theoretical to a visceral level that includes experience as well as data.

Design for the future

We need to develop a deep commitment to the health of the world. This may be the key measurement of a successful design — a more empirical way of measuring the designer’s impact. Does the design encourage community, not in the abstract Facebook version, but in the everyday world? Does it reduce the health problems so prevalent in our urban societies? Does it encourage the blending of natural and human systems? Does the design increase the mental and physical health of the human and natural environment?

We need to educate designers who can not only create physical environments or products, but can also visualize a new, better kind of society. Since the failure of the modernist architectural movement, the concept of the designer or architect as social prophet is in disrepute, yet I believe it still has power. For the modernists, it was not understanding human psychology in the underlying philosophy that was wrong. We now build our own environments, and they affect us just as profoundly as the natural environment did when it evolved our ancestors. This makes designers shapers of our collective future.

Moving beyond “green”

“Green Design” has become a fashionable topic in the design arts. There is a growing sense that the designer has a key role in solving many of the acute and complex environmental problems facing our society. Design professionals have begun to address the issues through seminars and workshops purporting to give the secret to successful “green design.” Plugging in solar panels and designing with recycled materials are just technological fixes, not ecological design. Designing for the environment exists as much in the heart as in the head, and here lies the problematical issue: How should these skills be taught? Will “green design” be yet another trendy exercise in planned obsolescence or a fundamental shift in our attitudes? Like all slogans based on its ability to fit on a bumper sticker, “green” or “sustainable” by their very broadness can mean whatever anyone wants them to mean.

One of the most important tasks is to regenerate a spiritual element to the design of the world. The designer must amplify our collective sensitivity to the overall design of the planet, the interaction of its systems and the delicacy of its balance. We all must examine the wisdom of those who lived in times when a true connection with the Earth existed. We, in our western scientific paradigm, have jettisoned the more subtle spiritual and philosophic systems in the mistaken belief that we can impose our will on the environment with no consequences.

Without a comprehensive approach to the design of human environments, development will continue to spread across the planet. From the design of the homes we live in to the design of the furniture and products that fill them, from the form our cities take to the packaging of products, design has a pervasive impact on all of our lives.

To accomplish change we cannot keep teaching the same traditional design curriculum. We need a new model. The Ecosa Design Institute was founded to become that model and emphasizes the role of design in solving environmental, social and economic problems created by the needs of a growing, increasingly urbanized, global population. Its curriculum develops from the underlying evolutionary processes of nature – complexity and adaptive systems. This concept allows design to evolve from the flows, pressures and impulses that constitute its surrounding environment. This new model for design education is essential if we are to achieve a new vision for our future. Otherwise we are condemning ourselves to the dystopian future of Blade Runner, or worse.

Antony Brown

Image credit: Ecosa Institute

Antony Brown is Founder and Director of the Ecosa Design Institute, a Sponsored Program of Prescott College.

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One response

  1. “This new model for design education is essential if we are to achieve a new vision for our future.”

    How do we develop a sustainable civilization?

    The 21st century will overturn many of our previously-held assumptions about civilization. The challenges and opportunities land development stakeholders now face – to fulfill the needs of society and achieve a favorable return on investment without harming the environment – have vast implications on the sustainability of our communities around the world…. http://www.triplepundit.com/author/sldi/

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