Should Change be Radical?

EcoLabs at the Sustainable Innovation 07 conference.


This paper describes how new design models characterized by systems thinking  & the democratisation of design have the capacity for radical change.
Three contemporary projects; the Open Architecture Network, Massive Change, and Transition Towns are all very different but potentially significant examples of this new design model in action.

We are accustomed to assuming that we have control over the future we build, and so when we ask if change should be radical, what we mean is; 'should we instigate radical reforms and policies?' The word radical comes from the Latin rādīcālis meaning 'having roots'. Radical change generally refers to drastic political, economic and social reforms. But radical change can also happen as a result of dramatic environmental factors. Scientists are now unanimous: "Warming of the climate system is unequivocal" (IPCC 2007). Unprecedented change in the ecosystem is happening now. These changes are the result of the products and systems we have designed in the past and continue to design. So fundamental change is happening irrespective of our belief in radical change. The question we face today is whether we will pro-actively create the kinds of systems that will mitigate the radical change now already happening.


Climate scientists warn that carbon concentrations in the atmosphere are already damaging the ability of the ecosystem to maintain homeostasis. James Hansen, Director of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, claims 'recent greenhouse gas emissions place the Earth perilously close to dramatic climate change that could run out of our control, with great dangers for humans and other creatures' (Hansen 2007:1925). The trajectory of emissions levels is vital: we urgently need to stabilize emissions if we hope to avoid a tipping point when feedback loops take effect. Dramatic environmental danger demands a major response, and nothing short of radical and systemic change will achieve the necessary reductions in carbon emissions.

This paper is about projects that are leading these changes in the built environment. The dematerialization of design and systems design provide new models for dealing with our environmental crisis. We will need to harness all of our critical skills at this point to develop sustainable methods & systems to develop a low carbon culture. We can no longer indulge any type of design that is not grounded in ethics and sustainability. While discussing these issues, this paper will examine a few models for radical change within the design and activist communities: the Open Architecture Network, Massive Change, and Transitions Towns.

Following Einstein's now famous dictum, 'The world will not evolve out of it current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created the situation', we need first to dig a little deeper into the 'roots' of our problems and examine how we managed to create such unsustainable systems. For many years we have operated on a particular highly reductive model of design. We set ourselves narrow problems and solve these in a blinkered way, with a disregard for wider consequences. Simplifying modes of action will not be effective now in addressing our environmental crisis. There are no simple technological and/or practical 'fixes', technological improvements at best stabilize the carbon dioxide emissions due to the growth in consumption (Barrett 2006). A more fundamental approach is required to build sustainability into the system as well as embrace technological improvements.

We must find a much deeper level of understanding. We must learn to design systems that engage with complexity and work with the laws of Nature. The imperative as designers is to shift our thinking, life styles and organizational behaviours by grounding them in systemic principles. This adoption of systems thinking in design has the capacity to radically change the way that our society functions. Changes in the design model will change consumption patterns because the physical properties of designed spaces and objects will change as a result. A new design model is developing which has this capacity for this radical change.
The new model has two characteristics that I will be briefly describe below.

1. Systems thinking
An awareness of systemic and ecological principles engages a holistic approach to design which understands that all the properties of a given system (whether biological, social, economic, mental, linguistic, etc.) cannot be determined or explained by the sum of its component parts alone. Instead, the system as a whole determines how the parts behave. Systems thinking change the manner in which designers function, and requires an interdisciplinary approach to education, research and practice in design.

Systems thinking is fundamental to the most exciting advances in design today that look to nature for inspiration. Recognizing that all systems in the natural world must be a closed loop, architect William McDonald and chemist Michael Braungart's 'Cradle to Cradle' approach suggests a new industrial revolution will be founded on Nature's effective design principles. The related field of biomimicry models design on the complex waste-free processes of Nature.

2. The Democratisation of Design
The democratisation of design refers to methods of designing whereby the consumer and other non-designers become active participants in a collaborative design process. The UK Government's Sustainable Development Strategy sees public involvement as 'essential' (DETR 1999). New methods such as citizens juries or panels, round tables, visioning, charrettes and new 'consensus conferences' have become necessary, and they arise from the realisation that environmental values are not preformed, but rather that they 'emerge out of debate, discussion, and challenges, as people encounter the facts, insights, and judgements contributed by others' (Owens 2000:1144). New design models have participants rather than passive consumers and these active agents seem to be a pre-requisite for a sustainable system.

Design theorist John Thackara explains the shift and its relation to systems thinking: 'Old-style top down, outside-in design simply won't work. The days of celebrity designers are over. Complex systems are shaped by all the people who use them, and in this new era of collaborative innovation, designers are having to evolve to being the individual authors of objects, or buildings, to being facilitators of change in large groups of people' (Thackara 2006:7).

The open source design movement is an example of this new design process. First used as a means of collaboratively developing computer software, now open source methods are being employed in the creation of physical products, architecture and systems. Here individuals apply their skills to projects for the common good to help to spread ecological or cheaper technologies. In Wired magazine, Thomas Goetz states 'open source is doing for mass innovation what the assembly line did for mass production' (Thackara 2006:222). Despite the hype, in practice open source projects are often only as good as the expertise of their moderation.

Manifestations of Radical Change
This paper will now examine three manifestations of radical new design processes and projects in action. Redesigning our systems and our physical space, each is characterized by the two principles above. Although all three have great potential, each is still in an early stage of development and so results have yet to be seen.

A. The Open Architecture Network
Open Architecture Network (OAN) is an online, open source community dedicated to improving living conditions through sustainable design. The network is a project of Architecture for Humanity (AFH), a charitable organization seeking architectural solutions to humanitarian crisis. AFH won the Ted award in 2006 and used the resources from this prize to establish an open source architecture network (launched in March 2007). The OAN allows architects, designers and engineers to share information, assess and modify designs, and develop new solutions. Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of Architecture for Humanity explains: 'Think of it as the Wikipedia of humanitarian design, the first big step towards open source design… We aim to prove that you don't need $15,000 worth of CAD programs to come up with design solutions. You can participate with a napkin sketch, a borrowed scanner and a public Internet connection.'(Steffen 2007).

The OAN is made possible by the use Creative Commons licensing. Creative Commons has facilitated the process of innovation by permitting more rapid, cooperative development and allowing design to be distributed widely. On the Open Architecture Network designers' works are protected by Creative Commons licences. This enables designers to share their work freely, while protecting their intellectual property rights from being exploited by competing commercial interests.

Sinclair intends that the system will create a mechanism for informal designers in developing countries to leapfrog through earlier innovation and have access to the most current and effective design strategies. Sinclair would also like to see humanitarian architecture and design competitions change the way they operate in light of the network's possibilities. He asks; "What if design competitions were based around a particular set of criteria, but at the end, you made the good thinking in all the designs open and available to everyone?" Furthermore, "If the system works, it's a call to action... It'll be interesting to see if the design community rises to the challenge" (Steffen 2007).

B. Massive Change

Massive Change is a project run by Canada's Bruce Mau in the collaboration with a small inter-disciplinary team of students at the Institute without Boundaries. The team's first project; 'Massive Change: The Future of Global Design' became a website, a radio show, a book, and a major exhibition that toured North American Art Museums. The project explored and sparked a discourse on the future of design by creating visualizations of design solutions including work from the most forward thinking eco-designers of our time including John Todd, Janine Benyus, Jaime Lerner, and William McDonough.

The first Massive Change project was responsible for documenting innovations & bringing them into the public domain in an original fashion1 - but not actually creating the innovation in the first place. The project has functioned as a public platform for some of the most radical ideas in the design world - and as such it has worked to facilitate the process of radical change by circulating critical ideas. Mau has been accused of expanding the definition of design so widely that it has become meaningless (Kerry 2005), yet Massive Change is an example of the systems thinking that establishes the connections between traditionally disparate disciplines. This widening of the scope of design to include the built environment, transportation technologies, revolutionary materials, energy and information systems, and nature – creates an arena for the design of systems, organisations, and programs that could create profound change.

The first part of the Massive Change project has functioned as a platform to bring innovation as well as ecological and systems literacy into the public domain, and as such is has provided a valuable role in helping making systems intelligible. John Thackara lauds the exhibition as a 'response to our pressing need to make visible the as yet invisible'. This is important he says, because 'the point of systems literacy is to enable collaborate action, to develop a shared vision of where we want to be' (Thackara 2006:168).

The Massive Change project is now embarking on their second project: The design of a sustainable house: The World House Project. The website asks,

What if we could design buildings that produce their own oxygen, distill water, accrue solar energy, change with the seasons and produce no waste? What if we used biomimicry to foster development of sustainable homes and communities? What if the strategies of conservation, stewardship, regeneration, health and ethics were applied to building both the home and the city?

The ambitious World House Project aims high. As a model for design education the project is inspirational: more institutions must now focus their collective intelligence on equally aspiration goals.


C. The Transition Town Movement
Where Massive Change designed a grandiose vision of the future of humanity, the Transition movement focuses on a local level. Transition Towns is a grassroots movement active in England and Ireland that has demonstrated how ordinary people can take the initiative when government and industry fail to respond adequately to the challenges communities face in light of climate change and also Peak Oil. Based on the hypothesized theory of peaking in oil production, a theory now acknowledged by both Chevron and BP (Hopkins 2006: 14), the Transition movement is a community design initiative for mitigation and adaptation to post-peak oil and climate change. The 2005 Hirsh Report, written for the for US Department of Energy, claims that 'The problem of oil peaking deserves immediate serious attention' (Hirsh 2005:5). In the UK, Jonathan Porritt claims 'conventional economic growth and cheap oil have marched hand in hand for the best part of 60 years; within just a few years, it will have become increasingly apparent that both are on their last legs' (Porritt 2005:63).

The Transition movement is in the process of developing strategies for re-localization and the creation of parallel infrastructures wherein towns can attempt to develop independence on oil and resilience to global change. Given the UK government’s reluctance to acknowledge the concept of Peak Oil, and its slow movement of developing comprehensive strategies which will respond to climate change, communities are now actively working towards their own solutions. Here communities organize to meet the environmental challenges directly, and systems thinking is used to vision wholesale reconfiguration of infrastructures & systems.

Permaculture is central to the thinking behind Transition Towns. Permaculture is a design philosophy for working with Nature in building systems to support human existence. It has a number of guiding design principles that help designers take account of existing systems and plan in complexity, a strategy that contributes to resilience and stability to ecosystems and other systems alike.

The Transition Town movement was initiated in Kinsale, Ireland (2001), now the first town with a strategy approved by the town council for 'energy descent'. The Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan is a timetabled strategy for weaning the town off fossil fuels. Rob Hopkins, co-ordinator of the Plan, and the originator of the Transition Towns concept, is now working on an Energy Descent Plan for the town of Totnes as part of a PhD program at Plymouth University. Energy Descent Action Planning is a tool a community uses to first vision how they see their town 20 years in the future and then creating strategies for energy descent.

The Transition Town phenomenon is growing; there are now 19 towns, cities, and/or areas have Transition Town movements locally active. The movement demonstrates the profound desire for change and a frustration with centralised government, institutions and corporations for failing to provide the kinds of options that are comprehensive enough to respond to what communities perceive as the threats ahead.


This paper briefly describes three projects that aim to create the kind of change that will respond to the environmental challenges we now face. Will we as a species have the intellectual, technological, and the moral resources to rise to this challenge? Presently, we are on a path that will barely meet the net carbon reductions quotas the UK government has pledged in the Kyoto agreement (5.2% by 2012). How will we meet the 26% to 32% by 2020 about to pledged in the UK Climate Change Bill? Furthermore, recent scientific reports reveal that these targets are not necessarily enough to keep the carbon in the atmosphere below a critical threshold (Hansen 2007:1).

Radical changes in the systems that dominate our world are now an imperative. Designers are in a unique position to contribute to these changes by designing sustainable systems. This paper examines examples of radical change happening as the definition of design changes. Here are the beginnings of systems that could still keep us from the ecological catastrophe that the present systems make inevitable. We will need to activate these strategies on a much larger scale, much faster, if we want to stabilize carbon emissions. Let us not pretend to be serious about sustainability until we are comprehensive enough in to meet the targets established by scientists. This is where we need the moral resources to expect nothing less than design that will make this world safe for the next generation.

Change is going to happen. Better to understand this and take control of the change than to become victims of change. We cannot carry on as we are and simply reduce our carbon - we need to get to the 'root' of the problem: reduce consumption, eliminate waste, and create systems that will use less energy. While confronting the challenges that lay ahead will not be easy, if we are mature enough as a culture to see this as an opportunity to make a more simple, less wasteful, low carbon future than the radical change ahead need not be so painful.


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1 Original but controversial; David Stairs

claims the spectacular nature of the Massive Change project ignores the primacy of community with 'overarching technical solutions to human problems' holding the problematic 'primary assumption that the future is annexable by design and marketable to teeming billions'. (Stairs, 2006).


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