A Design School for Planetary Collapse

May 17, 2017, originally published at Medium

Storm clouds gather for a future that will be turbulent and dangerous. We need designers ready for this future.

Design schools all over the world are failing their students by ignoring the most important challenges they will face as they live through a time of unprecedented disruption and ecological collapse. Let me state plainly — we need a Design School for Planetary Collapse.

All roads to the future must cross broken terrain. Our political institutions are designed to hoard wealth and reward greed, with a myopic focus on the near futurethat ignores the long term trajectories for every community on Earth. I have written about this previously as the global architecture for wealth extraction that made it possible for 62 people to accumulate the same total wealth as 3.7 billion others who are condemned to live in poverty by a vast Poverty Creation System.

Add that a cultural sickness is rapidly making the world unlivable for the majority of people (to say nothing about the millions of other species that our collective activities are currently driving to extinction). Most people don’t yet know that the “climate doomsday” already happened in Sub-Saharan Africa and that the refugee crisis in Syria is a teaser trailer for coming attractions all over the world as the planet continues to build up greenhouse gases in its atmosphere.

These are design problems and they will only be solved with rigorously applied design principles that embrace whole systems and address root causes of systemic behavior.So why is it that most designers are being trained to create gadgets and sell products that only increase the wealth of billionaire investors? When will we realize that all hands on deck for planetary emergency includes designers of all kinds?

I have written extensively about the need for culture design — see here for the toolkit; here for a description of culture design labs; here for a network approach to collaboration; here for insights into the lived experience of culture designers. The clock is ticking and we don’t have any time to waste!

Perhaps it will help if I paint a picture of what a Design School for Planetary Collapse might look like… imagine that you have just graduated high school and are readying yourself for professional training. Or that you have been enrolled in a workshop series to change fields now that the one you were in is falling apart. You will need to know about things like:

  1. What is the Earth System and how does it work? There are many ways that human activities have altered the delicate balance of planetary processes. You will need to know how agriculture altered the chemistry of rivers and the “dead zones” its runoff creates at the mouth of rivers all over the world. And how the ocean mixes heat from a warming atmosphere decades slower with an inertia that drives change inter-generationally that most people are not aware of. Designing for planetary emergency requires knowing how the planet works!
  2. What does it mean to be human and why is this important? At the core of our predicament is the painful truth that human activities are causing a lot of problems. The silver lining here is that we are capable of changing social norms and collective behaviors to become wise managers of evolutionary change if we know what it means to be human. Many of the flaws in mainstream economic and political thought come from incorrect beliefs about what it means to be human that must be corrected if any design approach is to be actionable and effective.
  3. How does one study change in all its forms? Students of physics have to learn calculus (the mathematics of change). Students of culture have to learn statistical methods. At the heart of all major challenges in the world today is an emphasis on rates of change and how they differ from one trending pattern to another. Navigating such complexity means learning to analyze and intuit what is changing, how it is doing so, and what can be done to influence how the change process happens.
  4. How can a design approach be applied to systemic challenges? One must learn the system-level view for how societies and the planet function in order to grasp their governing dynamics and discover interventions that disrupt current patterns of behavior and replace them with healthier alternatives. Sadly, most universities now are fragmented into “silos” of knowledge by academic field and few seek to take the system-level view.
  5. What kinds of competency will be needed to do the work? Not only will there be hard skills like pattern analysis and systems modeling, this kind of design work must be lived through as the world is in crisis. There will be deaths among friends, chaos and pain in many moments, and the need to grapple with moral dilemmas about the use of political power that may effect millions of people. These are competencies in emotional and social intelligence. They include body-based practices like meditation and the martial arts as well as social skill learning like that of group facilitators and personnel managers.
  6. Who else is doing this that is also on this learning journey? Fellow designers will be empathetic and compassionate, awakened to the state of emergency and ready to live intentional lives of deliberate action. They will come from all walks of life, have every color of skin, be representatives of all genders, and hold a representative diversity of cultures to match the splendid variety that exists in the world.

At the core, such a school would be a right of passage for achieving the combination of intellectual, emotional, and moral maturity that our present “leaders” clearly lack. Selfishness replaced with a selfless commitment to preserve sacred things and the moral fortitude to do what is right even if it means taking a painful or scary path. The world needs spiritual leaders with design skills to do their part in what is sure to be a time of great turbulence and hardship for billions of fellow people.

It is in this spirt that I invite you to ponder whether you would attend such a school. And if you did, would you dedicate your life to service knowing that economic systems are too broken to guarantee safety or security as you go about such important work? Ponder this seriously. Then prepare yourself for action. For the world is now calling us all to greatness.

Onward, fellow humans!


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  • Go to the profile of Joe Brewer

    Joe Brewer

    I am a change strategist working on behalf of humanity, and also a complexity researcher, cognitive scientist, and evangelist for the field of culture design.

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