Designing Our New World

January 22, 2020 | FEE Content, FEE Posts


by Bob Leonard


Our climate crisis is a global, extremely complex systemic problem. It cannot be solved by individuals using siloed legacy thinking. Designing a low-carbon future requires unprecedented levels of collaboration, creativity and imagination.


Much of what we need to do to successfully alleviate our climate crisis is related to design. The 20th century was left brain, the 21st century is whole brain. The right brain leads with design, creativity and humanity. The left brain engineers and executes on the right brain design/redesign thinking.



So many of the design decisions made every day have a climate implication: each one can help promote a low-carbon future that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels. Those who create the products and built environments of everyday life – from engineers to architects – have an important role to play by designing solutions to our climate crisis.


Here we are in the first quarter of the 21st Century with much of the world built out, paved over, and with ever more overcrowded mega-cities. We have to redesign much of the built environment. We must make design/redesign decisions on transportation, housing, and highest use real estate retrofitting. A prime example would be to take the ever-growing numbers of vacant big box stores and recast them as indoor vertical gardens, providing multi-crop yields of organic produce that is locally grown.


We need to redesign all forms of industry, transportation and daily life from being powered by fossil fuels to being powered by clean, non-polluting energy sources. It’s a gargantuan (and exciting) design effort.


Here are just some of the energy and technology redesign transitions:

  • developing distributed energy models to coexist with the current grid model,
  • redesigning the refueling infrastructure replacing and/or supplementing gas stations with electric charging stations,
  • retrofitting and redesigning outdated 20th century real estate (especially retail outlets including malls and big box stores),
  • moving from a society designed for the one car per person ownership model to one where there are ever more short-term rentals, ridesharing apps and autonomous vehicles,
  • the design and deployment of “moon shots” such as Space-based Solar Power and Atmospheric Cleansing technologies.


Whole Systems Problem Solving 


Successfully addressing our climate crisis requires a holistic view. Our climate crisis is a manifestation of unintended consequences of past designs. Today, we have the tools, research and science available to model our design decisions more intricately, limiting the instances in which the solution to one problem creates new problems somewhere else. By analyzing whole systems and understanding interconnections, we can minimize the negative effects of the solutions we create.


Designers and engineers who use the process of whole-systems problem solving consider the relationships among complex systems, instead of focusing on individual parts of systems. This is important because challenges such as our climate crisis represent a set of interconnected issues that can’t be solved in isolation. By taking a big-picture view and considering the whole system, the best opportunities often arise, and can be incorporated, early in the process.


This type of systems thinking leads to holistic design. Holistic design sees a problem or a system as part of a larger, interconnected whole. Given that Nature is the most complex, integrated, holistic design humans have ever experienced, it is obvious that systems thinking and holistic design are core to the redesign of how we live.


Biomimicry and Cradle to Cradle Design


Nature produces abundance all day every day with no waste or toxicity. She accomplished this via 3.8 billion years of trial and error R&D.


Could we model our own product design on Nature’s? A tree produces thousands of blossoms in order to bear fruit, yet that abundance isn’t wasteful. It’s safe, beautiful and highly effective. The blossoms fall away to biodegrade and enrich the soil. If not picked, the fruit is eaten by birds and seeds are distributed to produce more trees. Products might be designed so that, after their useful life, they provide nourishment for something new – either as biological nutrients that safely re-enter the environment, or as industrial nutrients that circulate within closed-loop production cycles, feeding the manufacture of other goods.


Nature has her own waste disposal solutions. In nature nothing is wasted. All things that were once alive eventually become part of the earth again, returning usable resources. So why not study how nature produces abundantly without waste?


Bill McDonough, the architect and designer, has formulated a design principle which he lays out in his book Cradle to Cradle. He demonstrates that our current production systems are based on a ‘cradle to grave’ design model that dates to the Industrial Revolution. This process casts off as much as 90 percent of the materials it uses as waste, much of it toxic. Mr. McDonough challenges the notion that human industry must inevitably damage the natural world.


There’s an established science that analyzes nature’s ideas and adapts them for human use. It’s called biomimicry. So far, most biomimicry breakthroughs have been designed and deployed to build better products – lighter, stronger, faster, etc. What if biomimicry scientists (biomimicists?) tackled Bill McDonough’s closed loop, zero waste, cradle to cradle design challenges?


We want to continue (and expand) our current quality of life, so we should borrow design and production techniques from Mother Nature. But we don’t have a lot of time. Today, design teams are leveraging technology to rapidly iterate among thousands of potential design solutions before arriving at the optimal one. The same thinking can be applied to the design of climate solutions – continually iterating and optimizing designs until we have the best solution to grow to the scale we need.


At the core of all design and redesign projects will be several tenets:

  • approach each design problem from a holistic perspective using systemic design principles,
  • lower greenhouse gas emissions as quickly and completely as possible in every facet of the supply chain and production processes,
  • restore as much of the natural world as possible through clean-up, restoration and conservation,
  • create direct linkages between what people do and the consequences they unwittingly create,
  • replace quantity with quality,
  • look to Nature for elegant design solutions,
  • design all products to have a long life of utility, and to be easily disassembled and reintroduced into the production life cycle when their useful life is over.


By relentlessly applying the principles outlined above (engaging more people in the design process, understanding the impact of our decisions, and rapidly iterating until we arrive at optimal designs) we can create elegant solutions to our climate crisis.


We are up to the task, but our timeline is short, and civilization is at stake.





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