I am Emeritus Professor of Design at Goldsmiths,...
How can we avert the impending environmental catastrophe? How can we stop the current avalanche of extinctions (including us), now that atmospheric CO2 levels have exceeded the much-feared ‘tipping point’ of 350ppm?
Judging by the language of the 2012 Rio+20 discussions, the best efforts of politics, science and business may not save us. ‘Sustainability’ still means ‘business as usual’. We need a paradigm change in human behaviour, but this calls for collective, radical, joined-up thinking in which we re-evaluate everything, at all levels and scales, from top-down science and engineering to bottom-up culture and language.
We live in an over-specialized world in which change is routinely hijacked by vested interest and driven by short-term profit, so no amount of incremental tinkering with targets, subsidies, taxes or legislation will do the job – even if we can implement them.
Many believe that ‘design thinkers’ could catalyse necessary change. But, ‘design’, as we know it, (i.e. in the traditional Aristotelian sense) will not be enough. For one thing, designers are not adequately trained to operate at the requisite strategic level.
Paradigm change requires integrated and parallel reforms in education, economics, science and business. It requires all of us to question the deep purpose of what we do within the prevailing ecological context. This is far too complex to be managed by reductionist analysis, tick-box agreements and ‘magic bullet’ solutions.
Paradigm change embraces EVERYTHING – including the whole infrastructure of assumptions, inflections and habits of ‘design’ itself. Our world needs a radical re-fit, all the way down to the last nut and bolt – and beyond. Dreaming, and daring to share those dreams, is the only way to achieve a rapid paradigm change within our ‘democratic’ system.
We are not short of resources - we have run out of imagination. It has been skilfully excised from our consumerist models of education and democracy. This must change.
Instead of expecting citizens to choose from a narrow range of options, we must invite everyone to dream of a better world. This is where it gets interesting. While current ‘realities’ are based on GDP, jobs, growth, and ‘economies-of-scale’, we must cultivate cyclic processes that deliver wellbeing, ecological adaptation and biodiversity.
Redefining wealth will lead to better business but this requires new ways to identify, and to harness, emergent synergies that transcend what we know. This represents a huge shift from a ‘resource extraction’ mentality to learning how to notice, share and harvest unforeseen combinations of data, things, experiences and meanings.
This more comprehensive approach would foster a ‘diversity-of-diversities’ to unlock hitherto unimaginable opportunities. Here, the biggest challenge is not managerial or technological, but linguistic. Quantum physics confirms the ancient (Upanishads) maxim that the world is without name or form.
To achieve a global ‘synergy-of-synergies’ we need to think beyond the imperialist grammar of ancient Greece. This means thinking beyond Platonic solids, Newtonian physics and Aristotelian categories. We need to develop a creative, eco-semiotic approach to the naming/unnaming and charting/uncharting of synergies that are ineffable, but potentially miraculous. All is possible.