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Following is Not Neutral
[first published 12Jan2021 on MASD blog site]
As I write this [07Jan2021], many of us are still stunned in disbelief about what happened at the Capitol yesterday. The media is swirling with thoughts, opinions, and insights around politics and processes, constitution and conflicts, freedom and fairness.
One aspect that is emerging for me — especially in the greater context of sustainability — is the intertwined roles of leaders and followers.
Most of us, most of the time, are followers. Most of the time, we don’t make decisions and take actions that are independent or proactive — we follow those made by others.
For example, we might pick out our own clothing, but we choose from what others have already decided to design and make and distribute and promote and sell. We might decide who to vote for, but we choose from among available candidates, most of whom are white, male, and from privilege. We might choose to eat local or use less energy, but we live in a country that consumes 5 times more resources than the Earth can support.
As followers, we may feel that our role is passive. We’re not the one responsible for making things happen or making the big decisions — we’re just going along for the ride. We’re not the one in the know or the one in control — we’re just the innocent by-stander or the victim. We may not even realize that we’re followers, or who we’re following.
But a leader can only lead if they have followers, and following is a choice. Following is not neutral. Following is intentional. Following has consequences.
“Unintended consequences are the predictable result of intentional ignorance.”
Denise DeLuca, Re-Aligning with Nature | Ecological Thinking for Radical Innovation
In the world of sustainability, a core problem is that good people — meaning most of us — make choices that have bad (unsustainable) consequences. That is because most of us are followers most of the time, and we abdicate responsibility for consequences to the leaders. In our western capitalist society, many of the people we make into leaders — people we choose to follow — are driven to accumulate personal wealth and power, regardless of the consequences to people and planet.
Who are you following? What are their core values? Do their values reflect yours? What are your core values? Can you articulate them? Do you understand how values — yours or theirs — might be reflected in choices and actions or result in consequences? What does it mean if you — and others — can’t answer those questions, or have never even thought about them?
As we seek to understand and glean meaning from recent events, it’s natural to spend our energies seeking those to blame; however, we might also want to take some time to look in the mirror and ponder the unintended consequences of our own intentional ignorance.
What are your choices?
[first published 15June2021 on MASD blog site]
Given my role, I’m often asked: What is sustainable design? As some of you know, design is both a noun and a verb. End-users may focus on design as a noun — the end result of a design process. In our program, we focus more on design as a verb — the process of design, specifically sustainable design.
The process of design might include research, exploration, creativity, ideation, prototyping, testing, iteration, and communication. The process of sustainable design might also engage specific methodologies, principles, practices, frameworks, and metrics. These are some of the things that students learn in our program.
Whatever the process, design involves making choices. Sustainable design is about making choices that lead to a (more) sustainable result. This is very important because it has been estimated that 80% of a product’s impact is determined at the design stage.
If you’re not trained in sustainable design (yet), you can still make better — more sustainable — choices by pausing and asking yourself some guiding questions during your own design process and reflecting on the answers that emerge for you.
Below are a series of guiding questions you can ask yourself during your design process. For each question, pick one or more words from the table that reflect your answers. The words are categorized as ‘more sustainable’ or ‘less sustainable’, and organized by the letters in the word ‘choices’, otherwise, they are not in any order.
In which column do find your answers showing up? How might you make different choices that would allow you to draw more of your words from the more sustainable column?
These questions and words are just a starting point to get you thinking about what sustainable design means to you. Try coming up with your own guiding questions and words that you feel fit in the two categories for each letter. These can become your personal guide for making sustainable design choices.
As we observe the breadth of UN observances in October, from World Habitat Day to World Migratory Bird Day to United Nations Day, we might all be wise and ask a tree—or perhaps a migratory bird—how we might achieve the UN’s SDGs.
Biomimicry has long been known as “innovation inspired by nature” and a “model, measure, and mentor” for sustainable design. If we need ideas, innovations, or guiding principles to help us achieve the SDGs, we need only ask nature. Why? The premise is that evolution reflects extremely rigorous quality-control standards—less than 1/10th of 1% of all species that have ever lived on Earth are around today. Those that have survived, and share the Earth with us, know how to live within the limits and boundaries of the planet, as well as live with each other. Biomimicry gives us tools for discovering functional strategies, processes, and systems that exist in nature and then emulating them to create sustainable design solutions. Honoring and preserving the world’s habitats and inhabitants also honors and preserves the source of the innovative and inspiring solutions that we need to create a future that is regenerative.
Beyond sustainable design, biomimicry can help us think about and approach all problems differently. Environmentalists often get accused of being “tree huggers,” but I must admit that when I need solid advice, I often ask a tree. Not out loud, of course—I just look quietly out the window at my neighboring Doug Fir. My questions might be as simple as, “What should I say in this blog piece?" or as consequential as, “How might I best use my unique position, skills, and passions to make positive change in the world?” Trees don’t understand what it means to write blogs or try to change the world, so it asks me a series of clarifying questions. Pondering these questions helps me slow down, reflect, and tap into my deeper knowing, my own “wild wisdom.” Taking this approach to asking nature can yield both more simple and more systems-based solutions.
Practicing biomimicry has also given me, and an expanding group of colleagues, a new way to understand how we got ourselves into this mess—climate change, social injustice, poverty—and how we might get ourselves out of it. According to Donella Meadows, the most effective place to intervene and make change in a system is to shift paradigms.
The paradigm that got us into this mess is one of scarcity, individuality, competition, greed, fear, and resistance. This is the paradigm of predatory capitalism, supremacy, and exploitation. It’s what we’re talking about when we refer to “The Real World.”
Nature’s paradigm, on the other hand, is one of abundance, synergies, systems, trust, curiosity, and resilience. Nature’s design solutions are multi-functional, responsive, adaptive, and regenerative. Participants in nature’s “economy” value and leverage what is locally available and abundant. All living things in nature support the systems they depend on, taking only what they need and giving back in the process of simply living. This is the paradigm that we need to re-align with nature and to create a future that is regenerative.
Shifting from the conventional to the natural paradigm may sound impossible, but nature’s paradigm is also our own natural human paradigm. We already know it.
Think about the last time you enjoyed a long sunset, smiled at the smell of rain, or lost track of time while playing the guitar, gardening, or talking with a close friend. During those moments, was your worldview one of scarcity or one of abundance, competition or synergy, fear or curiosity, greed or trust, individuality or systems, resistance or resilience? You already know and live the natural paradigm, particularly when you feel most alive.
In the workplace, we’ve all heard that culture eats strategy for breakfast. That’s the natural paradigm beating out the conventional paradigm. We’ve also all read about the qualities of a good leader. Those are qualities that reflect the natural paradigm. We all know that resilience and innovation are critical for surviving change and disruption. Those are products of practicing the natural paradigm. So even in the “real world,” we recognize the benefits of the natural paradigm.
The conventional paradigm, and the thinking and designs that it generates, got us into this mess. We can use biomimicry, the natural paradigm, and our wild wisdom to achieve the UN’s SDGs and create a future that is regenerative.
Explore and Envision
[First published 21Dec2021 on MASD blog site]
You would not be alone if you’re feeling at the brink. Talking to students, faculty, colleagues, friends, and family, it seems like just about everyone has reached their limit. Our resilience is being tested – or may even feel spent – but that is what we need more than ever just now.
As always, when I’m facing complex and even seemingly insurmountable challenges, I look to nature. Just going for a walk in the woods is sometimes all it takes to regain clarity, but if you need more than that you can also borrow from nature’s strategies.
If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve seen a spiral process mentioned before (Spiraling in Control, Biomimicry, Beyond Inspiration). That’s because many processes in nature take the form of spirals – like cycles, but the ending point is never the same as the starting point.
The “5E Spiral” reflects nature’s process of continual transformation: Explore, Envision, Empower, Execute, and Evaluate. In a chronically stressed out world, we tend to short-circuit this process, and get stuck in an endless loop of Execute and Evaluate. This is true whether you’re a student, a corporate executive, or a sustainability activist. Unfortunately, this becomes a positive feedback loop, meaning that it tends to be self-reinforcing and can spiral out of control.
What is the answer? Look at the other E’s in the spiral, specifically Explore and Envision.
This time of year is an especially good time to pause and reflect, take stock of yourself and the world around you: Explore yourself, your context, and your conditions. You might try using an Empathy Map on yourself. Remember what you value, what is important to you, as well as what is not. How are you being and what are you doing? Does it reflect your values? Does it make sense?
After you Explore, the start of the new year is a great time to Envision. What does really good look like for you, for your world, for you in your world? Allow yourself to look beyond what is wrong with the world, take a break from complaining and blaming, and imagine what could be. This is not a feel-good exercise – though hopefully it does feel good. Envisioning what really good looks like is crucial if we are to create the world we want to live in. We cannot problem-solve our way out of the complex challenges that we are facing. That is as true for your own life as it is for the whole world.
Once you take time to deeply Explore and Envision, keep going. The next steps are to Empower yourself and your people to move toward what you envision, Execute your vision and values, and then Evaluate what you’ve learned, what’s working, and what’s not. And then take another lap. And another. Make the 5E spiral your new habit.
For now, though, it is enough to make time to Explore and Envision – and Enjoy!