Symbiosis — a New But Ancient Definition for Good Design

Boma Community in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Personal Photo

Where are we going, what do we care about?

There have been many purposed definitions of what constitutes “good design”. I would like to put forward an answer based on the idea that “good design” can be measured by how successfully it reflects or embodies the values of society. Though impossible to concretely define what these collective values may be in the future, we can speculate. Thinking about future possible realities based on our current context–a methodology explored by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby in the book Speculative Everything–we can hypothesize about what humanity may value. In a future where people come to care more about the environment–either out of necessity for survival or because the benefits of a symbiotic relationship with nature become evident–I argue that “good designs” will be those that strengthen the connection between humanity and the environment. “Good design” will foster human wellbeing within natural ecosystems, promoting symbiosis rather than dominance or ambivalence.

Disconnect — our current reality

In the book Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough and Michael Braungart make it clear that most design today propagates the opposite–humanity’s detachment from the natural world. It is a systemic problem built into growth driven capitalism, which encourages spending and a disposable relationship to “stuff”. Braungart and McDonough highlight that under this model huge amounts of material, energy and value are wasted and significant damage is done to the natural world. While users may be aware of the impact human activity is taking on the climate and environment as a whole, drawing connections to individual actions is far fuzzier and convoluted. Arguably by design. This is because disrupting consumption, under the current model, is bad for the economic bottom line. We have become so used to throwing things away but in reality, there is no such thing as “away”, Braungart and McDonough write.

This out-of-touch relationship between society and the environment is also explored in the Designer Maker User chapter “How much do we own?” The authors make it clear that design contributes to this wasteful oriented end-of-life through material choices, manufacturing strategies, hyper consumption driven by planned obsolescence and cosmetic styling. The authors note however, that while designers play a role in the problem, “waste… also requires the attention of consumers, governments and manufactures.” We do face a systemic problem that is connected to all levels of society, but it is far more than just our waste that requires an overhaul. The structure, values, and behaviours built into our system must be reevaluated in order for important changes to really take hold.

In The New Yorker article on Rem Koolhaas’s exhibit Journey to the Countryside, he discusses how within “the past three decades”, a single “model for global development” has dominated. It is an urban, centralized and western ideal that is built on and perpetuated by the industrial exploitation of Earth. However, the exhibit also includes two models that examine how civilization could progress in a more environmentally connected way. Each would require “people to behave like indigenous cultures that were able to inhabit spaces without destroying them”, Koolhaas says.

Alternative visions of future progress like this are exactly what we need and there are others who are exploring this idea–William McDonough and Michael Braungart in Cradle to Cradle and Julia Watson in LO-TEK, Design by Radical Indigenism, as two other examples. At its core, the ideas presented by these authors demonstrate an understanding that humanity and the things we create are directly linked to natural ecosystems. Our world is a closed loop and “good design” must represent this interconnected reality.

Symbiosis and an indigenous approach to design

Julia Watson’s notion of LO-TEK is one great example of a methodology for infrastructure and technology design that embodies this direction. She has researched many highly adapted and complex indigenous technologies that exist outside the realm of high-tech, each with the potential to support humanity through a symbiotic relationship with nature. We have an opportunity to adopt “principles of indigenous design, many of which are thousands of years old, to help cities around the world to not only mitigate the impact of climate change, but to be resilient for the future”, she notes.

Another piece in Rem Koolhaas’s Guggenheim exhibit, connects to a similar concept of an indigenous inspired alternative to the industrial system. “Pixel farming”, a project headed by Lenora Ditzler, is a demonstration of a style of agriculture practiced by indigenous peoples that presents natural keys to pest management, soil fertilization and drought security. Like LO-TEK, “pixel farming” can be seen as a “good design” model for future development that functions like a natural ecosystem and is ultimately far less destructive.

These LO-TEK solutions accomplish as much if not more than standard technology in a far less disruptive or investment intensive way. Watson highlights that “we can’t just keep reusing the high-tech and that type of thinking to solve the problems that created the problems.” This understanding, that we need a new–or arguably a very old–systemic approach to design and development, is key.

Speculative design focused on alternatives

A future in which these approaches to design are taken up by humanity, would require a drastic shift in peoples’ attitude and behaviour but could lead to a much healthier and connected existence. In their book Speculative Everything, Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby argue that this sort of discourse is very important; using the exploration of alternative models for future development as “tools to better understand the present” and “as catalysts for public debate and discussion about the kinds of futures people really want.” Speculative ideas provide opportunities to question our system and our values. Dunne and Raby note that it’s important that these “possible futures” include “a believable series of events” that allow people to “relate the scenario to their own world”.

The LO-TEK case studies in Julia Watson’s book provide viable alternatives to current systems. Imagining their widespread adoption is relatively easy because each is already a functioning solution. While currently place-specific and without precedent for system wide integration, it’s not difficult to imagine a future in which LO-TEK principles are embraced. This is a speculative future full of hope, one that opens our eyes to the fact that we could relate to our world in a much more conscientious and sustainable way. Speculative ideas like this, with real world application, could inspire people and help change the course of human development.

Shifting our mindset

Most people today have minimal physical connection to non-urban spaces and thus, the environmental repercussions of modern, urban life are intangible and easy to dismiss. Julia Watson suggests that it’s time to transition away from a high-tech approach to design–processes and thinking formed during the industrial revolution–and adopt “traditional ecological knowledge” or hybrid systems that combines our high-tech understanding with indigenous methodologies.

In a future where we begin to feel more acutely how interconnected we are with the rest of the natural world, rather than separate or dominant, humanity will come to value the environment more highly. Design will shift in response to our changing attitude and values. Technologies, infrastructure, products and experiences of the future, which support humanity and an economy while promoting a symbiosis with nature, will exemplify “good design”. In the interview, Watson talks about the examples she highlights, as acting like seed material for a new approach to design.

To get from where we are now to this version of the future, there is a fundamental change of mindset that needs to take place. Humanity must recognize the fact that “we’re not superior, we’re not working against or threatened by nature, we need to be symbiotic with it. We need to shift this idea of superiority, to an understanding of symbiosis” says Julia Watson. We must take the seed ideas and speculative concepts presented by Watson, Koolhaas, William McDonough, Michael Braungart, Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, among others, and put them into practice.

To Conclude

It is clear that our current system and humanity’s disconnected relationship with nature is flawed. Inspiring systemic change will require visionary action, bold speculative thinking about futures and design, changed values and behaviour and a consideration of how ancient systems of infrastructure and technology can be implemented in a new context. “Good design” will be characterized by those that allow people to inhabit the world while allowing Earth to thrive and reconnect humanity with nature as a participant, not a superior.



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Alexander Burton

Alexander Burton

Designer, striving for a desirable future in which people value our collective humanity and the natural world.