Why We Need Life-Centered Design To Build Future Proof Societies

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The Evolution Of Design, From Destructive To Sustainable To Regenerative. From User Centered, to Human Centered to Life Centered.

What is the superpower of human beings? It is the ability to create and believe stories. Design is storytelling. And stories are designed.

“We can create and believe fictional stories. And as long as everybody believes in the same fiction, everybody obeys and follows the same rules, the same norms, and the same values.”  (Yuval Noah Harari)

The difficulty with believing in collective fictional stories. Is that we often fail to question them. We forget to challenge the most apparent constants around us.

The Fishy Story

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”

The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

David Foster Wallace explained that “The point of the fish story is mere that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”

The stories we created and built over the last centuries are the base of the society and (watery) reality we live in today. To start building future proof societies and liveable communities we first have to recognise the water we are swimming in. Once we realise the water around us, we can start redesigning. We have a lot of redesigning to do, to start building future proof communities. Just human-centred Design (HCD) is not going to cut it.

What is Human Centered Design?

Let’s start with exploring what HCD is before we dive into what kind of design we need to redesign our future. HCD is a Design Method that builds on the belief that you can only design solutions that truly work in real life, for real people, when designers have a deep and empathetic understanding of humans, their needs and their environment. HCD is a design method that empowers individuals designers or teams to design products, services and processes that address the core needs of those who experience a problem.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” — Henry Ford.

Humans don’t always know what they want, what they really need or what is possible. It is the challenge of the designer, the researcher and the marketeer to be the fly on the wall, to be the observant, to peel of the layers of superficial need, assumptions and beliefs until they strike the core need, that one result that truly gets the job done.

Why do you buy jeans? Because you want to own a pair of jeans? Or because you want to be fashionable, comfortable and not naked? Exactly. The actual result that needs to be delivered is not getting customers a pair of jeans, but getting customers warm, protected and dressed. And you can get to that result in many different ways. Take, for example, MUD jeans, A jeans leasing company. They could have just decreased the negative impact of their materials, but instead, they dug deeper, questioned their assumptions and completely revolutionised the concept of clothes.

Many of us are looking for ways to transition from the old to a new economy, from old systems to new systems, for new ways to balance our lives on this earth. With User-Centered Design and Human-Centered Design, we were designing for the desirability and usability of one species. Life-centred Design (LCD) is designing and thinking for the entire planet. Aiming for the ideal balance between sustainable, ethical, desirable products and service makes sense from a business perspective. For this, we can not stop at redesigning products and services, we have to redesign the underlying systems and models as well.

What to do with Wicked Problems?

We have been pushing human-centred Design for decades now, but we made hardly any impact on the world’s wicked problems. Wicked Problems? Yes, the big daunting ones, like plastic pollution, poverty, systemic racism, deforestation, I can go on for a while (a long while), but I think the message is clear by now. Wicked problems are problems with innumerable causes, they are hard to describe, and they can not be fixed by one solution. Said, they are complex systemic challenges.

Next, come the super wicked problems, and this is where it becomes truly frightening and therefore, exceptionally motivational. The most urgent examples of super wicked problems are Climate Change and Environmental Degradation. Super Wicked Problems are wicked problems with some additional issues that complex the matter a bit further.

With Super wicked problems, time is running out (Climate change & Tipping Points). There is no central, fully responsible authority. Those seeking to solve problems are also causing it, by simply living on this planet, and being part of the destructive systems we are trying to reinvent. Our current policies and systems don’t take future generations’ needs into consideration; they discount them irrationally.

We are at the moment, creating our own super wicked problems. Our planet is being polluted with plastic, heated by greenhouse gasses; biodiversity is declining dramatically, we are losing species, clean water and forests by the day, by the hour, by the minute. This is why we need Life Centered Design; we need to start taking all forms of life into the equation. Humans have been the central point of our stories, design processes and systems for long enough. It’s time to put the Homo Sapiens back into nature’s system. Only then can we find the right balance between Humans and the rest of Planet Earth’s living forms.

This is the point at which human-centred Design flows into Life Centered Design. We need Life Centered Design, to see the bigger picture, consider the connectedness of systems and design for all forms of life. We need HCD to understand and create products, processes and business models that nudge individuals to transition from a destructive lifestyle to a sustainable lifestyle and eventually to a regenerative lifestyle.

“Building liveable communities isn’t rocket science. It’s much more complicated. The real solution will be in the hard, non-technical work of changing human behaviour”. Naomi Klein

So What Exactly Is Life Centered Design?

When I talk about Life Centered Design, I don’t refer to one specific method or process. Life Centered Design is a mindset shift that can be applied to all design processes. To make sure we are all on the same page, I am referring to the broadest sense of the word when I talk about’ Designers’. Designers are policy writers, creators, artists, systems thinkers, developers, business model innovators, graphic designers, economics, politicians, and the list goes on. Everything around us is designed. The plate you eat from, the job you work at, the system you pay tax in. Designers in this broad sense, have great far-reaching power, and with great power comes great responsibility.

1. Life Centered Design Focuses On The Bigger Picture

People, Planet and Prosperity. The Homo Sapiens is not the only form of life for which we should design. We are all connected to the planet, each other and the future in many ways. True Life Centered Design, creates for this bigger picture; humans, the planet, other life forms, now and in the future.

“Move away from binary thinking and absolute decision making. We are part of complex systems with multifaceted impact and unpredictable scenarios for possible futures”.  John Elkington

2. Life Centered Design Takes The Future Generations Into Consideration

These unpredictable futures can either be Black or Green Swans (or grey but I will leave those fly around for now). Black swans are unforeseen, rare, extremely high impact events that have severe global consequences (e.g. Covid-19, the great recession, the 911 attacks). Green Swans, a term introduced by John Elkington, are the “polar opposite” of Black Swans “Green Swans are dynamics, trajectories, pathways that take us exponentially towards positive high impact changes, dynamics”. We can avoid Black Swans and build pathways towards Green Swans scenarios by seeing the bigger picture. Or to stay with the fish, recognise, acknowledge and redesign the water. As Elkington would explain it, Black Swans happen because we as society weren’t paying attention (to the water..), while Green Swans are more consciously created.

It is our responsibility to design processes, products and models that will be a part of future Green Swans. Our current systems are destructive, for us, but especially for our future generations. We are slowly moving towards more sustainable systems; this is a great step in the right direction. However, to really take future generations into consideration, we have to transition to regenerative systems.

Two concepts currently gaining momentum and can partially power the transition to new future-oriented systems are True Pricing and the Circular Economic. The True Pricing of a product is the market price plus the social & environmental costs. True Pricing has the potential to be regenerative if we add the costs for regenerating resources we have used in the past to the equation. A Circular Economy is an economy in which all resources are kept in the loop for as long as possible. The maximum value of each product is used before recovering and repurposing the resources. The goal is to design waste out of our systems. The circular economy builds on three principles: Design waste and pollution out of our systems, keep products and materials in use, regenerate natural systems

3. Life Centered Design Is Humane At Every Stage

Products, processes and services can not harm humans at any stage. Products that invade human rights; drive people into poverty, harm people or other animals at any stage are not designed with life in mind. In other words, Life Centered Design aims to design solutions for all, at every stage.

To sum it all up

When applying Life Centered Design to a design process, we zoom out to see the big (emphasise on big!) picture. We zoom in to discover and get into the nitty-gritty of the details. We look far ahead into the future to consider all consequences.

The systems we are currently living in are mainly designed with just humans in mind. A crucial part of transitioning to new systems is questioning the systems currently in place. This is why Life Centered Design focuses on asking questions, questioning assumptions and challenging beliefs and collective stories.

It is our responsibility to continually ask questions to zoom in, zoom out and look far ahead.

  • Is this concept built on an underlying belief that I can challenge?
  • Is the problem we are trying to solve truly the problem we have?
  • Why should we develop this product?
  • Can we think of other ways to get to this result?
  • How will this concept impact the greater environment, today, next year, in two decades?
  • Does this concept harm or threaten other forms of life?
  • Can we learn, or derive input from natural occurring sustainable systems?
  • What direct and indirect impact (positive & negative) does this concept have on the natural environment?
  • What direct and indirect impact (positive & negative) does this concept have on human beings?

Humans have been the central point of our design processes for long enough. It’s time to take all other life forms into the equation. It’s time to start Designing with the bigger picture, future generations and humanity in mind, at every stage of the process.

Do you want to transition your products, services or processes to sustainable or regenerative? Have an idea, product or services that you want to rethink and redesign to be future fit? Want to start developing future proof, business models?

The time to take action is now. Feel free to drop us a line!


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