Designing self-sustaining systems

Technology and design both share a concern for creating solutions to problems. What causes them to diverge is a matter of ethics.

For me, “design” evokes hopefulness and future-thinking, while the word “technology” has the smell of the 20th century about it.

Technology and design both share a concern for creating solutions to problems. What causes them to diverge is a matter of ethics. Technology looks inward to itself and asks what is possible. Design looks outward to the human world and asks what is needed.

Technology evokes 20th century ideas of construction and progress. It also evokes the consequences of creations that took no heed to the environment they inhabited. Twentieth century technological progress swept the negative (to call them “unintended” would be too generous) side effects under the carpet: we exported demeaning labor to poor countries, threw our trash into the ocean, vented toxins into the atmosphere.

We no longer have the privilege of externalities in the 21st century. We are running out of corners to hide the trash. We have no choice but to confront the realities of population growth, strained natural resources, global warming, and the strife caused by the chasm between the global rich and poor.

To return to the word “hacking”, we could say that 20th century technology exemplified the negative sense of the word. Not hacking as a search for truth, but hacks—poor solutions to pressing problems.

Design is needed for its emphasis on people and the sense that “good enough” isn‘t good enough anymore. Designed solutions are those that understand the complex environment they inhabit and find solutions that empower and aid without causing destruction in some other corner of the world. Good design will, by definition, be design that exists in harmony with its environment. Self-regulating and self-sustaining systems are everywhere in nature. We can absorb their lessons.

Technology is representative of the 20th century mindset of brute force construction that caused negative externalities on a global scale. Design will become representative of the 21st century hope of coming to grips with the world-changing forces we’ve inherited and finding sustainable paths forward.

Design is technology with ethics. But, still, good intentions are not enough. For design to achieve its aims we must have accurate insight into the consequences of solutions. True innovation in this realm would be the ability to model the consequences of actions before they happen.

Bruno Latour has a fantastic essay that ends with a challenge to designers to do precisely this. We’ve long had the ability to accurately model the objects we design, but what is now needed is the ability to model the consequences of these objects. We need an accurate picture of the contexts and forces that will be altered by releasing new things into the world.