The Architecture of Life: Designing a New World

The Architecture of Life - Christopher K. Travis

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Designing a New World

Transformational Economics VI - Last post in a 4-part series that begins HERE.

I want to finish this series of posts with questions for designers.

I often wonder if we are using the incredible human capital and innovative powers of that group effectively.

I often ask how much we are accomplishing towards "real world" applications of the possibilities we theorize about in architecture, interior design, software and systems design, product design, graphic design, organizational design and other design disciplines.

Values and experiences may also be designed. Cultures and systems of relationships can be designed. After all, what were Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, and the philosophers of the East doing? They were offering breakthrough designs for living constructively in relationship.

Mostly, those of us who are interested in design theory talk about these issues, but do not apply them with any real power. While I enjoy intellectual ferment - I think it is important to face what is at stake in the world right now and turn possibility into action.

In my life, these are the questions I ask about myself and my role on this planet.

"What do I have to contribute?

How am I positioned to make a difference?

How am I 'being'?

How could I 'be' that would make a bigger difference?

What impact might that have on the world around me?

What difference does what I say make to others?

What is possible if we all joined together in creating a powerful conversation?"

With whom can I collaborate?

What can we do together that makes a difference?

The battle for the intellectual high ground and the next new big idea or technology has a place in our explorations, but I am more interested in applied ideas and collaborative action that can make a real difference in people's lives now.

To become useful, possibilities must turn into structured research, plans, projects, grass roots movements and concerted action. It must turn into new technologies and patterns of shared behavior. That is what is required before the possibility of transformation can be fulfilled.

Perhaps looking at the cost of inaction might add a sense of urgency to our conversations.

We are in the midst of a global economic conundrum no one really understands. It's roots are psychological and embedded in words, but it effects are catastrophic for the well-being of people across the globe. There is no question many are dying as a result of what is going on now.

Yet we act as thought we have no idea what to do about it.

The Automaticity of Being and Buying

The roots of this crisis are profoundly related to the automaticity of human behavior - particularly around the dialectic between "budget VS desire" or "sustainable economics VS the emotional buy."

No matter how you frame it, the issue we face is that we as human beings are not very good at managing money in the face of chemical secretions in our brains.

Part of that is the "being of being human" that results from our physiology - the “animal we are” outside our pretense of uniqueness. Our emotional architecture plays out in our complex societies in complex ways.

But part of that automatic behavior is created consciously when we or the people who hire us design purely to stoke our self-interests - and ignore a sustainable ethic. As designers, we need to become "evangelists for a sustainable planet" and enroll our clients for their own benefit. It is part of serving them.

We live in a world where perceived value is largely disconnected from the possibility of "holistic designedness.” Too often, we fail to adopt an ethic that values sustainability and sufficiency; one that lives in the day to day human experience of real people and empowers economic fairness. Drive down any street in any city or turn on your TV and you can see the result of placing short term gain over long term results.

Markets and marketers – many of whom are in the design community - have long been focused on manipulating the unconscious automaticity of our most primitive internal motivations - social attachment, reproductive needs and impulsive consumption. This dominant ethic preys on that automaticity. It has no commitment to the well being of those who we serve. We are facing the consequences of those choices in our economy and our daily lives right now.

Globally that ethic remains the primary focus of our professions, despite what it has meant for the planet, our communities, our families and our personal well being. The cost is an economy that has proved unsustainable and epidemic proportions of the stress-related diseases of slow attrition like diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

So the cost of that "conversation" is very high and it is institutionalized.

Buying the right beer does not really give you more friends and having a hot automobile does not guarantee you will get laid. (Though in a world where everyone buys that story, it might help.) Shallow values produce shallow and unsustainable lives. We are over medicated, over eating, over reacting, over spending and overly anxious...and we don't really know what to do about it.

Every advertisement we see plays to our insecurities, anxieties and urges. What underlies that approach is an implication that the buyer is inadequate, insufficient and lacks good judgement or self discipline. That is the history of marketing, sales and graphic design and the same view has informed the actions of the design and construction industries in which I play. Short term sales is prioritized over both community, beauty and nature. Our built environment is an expression of who we are and we are becoming less related to other living things at an alarming rate.

On the Internet, user experience is most often directed towards making it easy and intuitive to sell something to someone - whether they need it or not. Why can't those same tools be directed towards designing more productive and fulfilling lives?

Everything is packaged. Not just products, but lives. Everything is disposable...including people. (Note the unemployment rate.) It is not who people are that matters but how they are perceived as agents in the marketplace. We sell to demographics and stereotypes, not individual people. Personal values are subconscious motivators mined to target advertising or political agendas.

Historical spiritual and ethical values are now now openly aspects of identity. Being a good person has become a story designed to make us look good, not a committed place to stand. Being honest is a way we want to be perceived, not a way to be. Being brave is a narrative...not a course of action.

This is not new. It is the being of being human - but we have evolved to the point that the possibility of stepping outside that paradigm exists. What we must see is that we created this environment for our children. It is not working and we have the power to change it. And until we do, what we have built will build us back.

Our Not-So-Secret Identities

Almost every action we take is related to our identity. Core ethical values are enmeshed in a social identity we present to others that often undermines them. Identity drives business - product design, marketing, advertising, sales methods, human resources and even research. As if psychological identity - ego as Freud would have it - does not cause enough problems for us in our relationships with one another, we now create identity as an industry and it is very much in demand.

What is missing that we are so desperate for created identities? Is it that we do not know who we are? What is the cost of that?

Creating Constructive Designedness

Whether you are a creationist or a Darwinian - no honest person can avoid the fact that we behave like primates. Despite our illusions of grandeur, the deep internal motivators that drive our unconscious choices are not going anywhere any time soon. You can call it original sin or pray to the gods of evolutionary psychology, but the end result is the same. There is not a person on the planet that truly walks their talk.

But that does not have to limit us. Human primates uniquely have the tool of introspection and the gifts of language, socio-cultural values and cooperation. With effort - as individuals and communities - we can step beyond our automatic behaviors and learn new concepts. We can create wonderful, workable, sustainable things. We can break old habits.

We can grow and make the impossible, possible.

What we designers sometimes forget in our high-minded discussions and lust for new technology is that people out there are losing their jobs and homes right now - and worse - that the majority of people on our planet live day to day, week to week and have very little backup in times like this.

The truth is, children are dying as a result of our behavior and if we in the West keep it up, it will be our children dying, not just those in underdeveloped nations. As a species, we are overpopulating and despoiling our planet and we seem to have very little control over our behavior.

Will only catastrophe make us stop? That is our history. Must it be our future?

Design is what those of us who make our living designing things can do about that impending catastrophe. ANYTHING made by man can be better designed, including our overall experience of life. And even when not perfected, designedness is usually an improvement over decisions that result from automatic reactions cued willfully by self-interested people tweaking the chemistry within our brains.

If profound human change occurs bottom up – and I assert it does - what is the possibility of seeking a design for self-awareness?

What is the possibility of designing wellbeing and full self expression?

What can be accomplished by creating designedness around sustainability?

What can be accomplished by creating designedness around sufficiency?

What can be accomplished out of creating designedness in relationships?

What can be accomplished around creating designedness around money management?

What can be accomplished by expanding a conversation for designedness beyond our professions into our relationships and the experience of our everyday lives?

We need to play bigger, expand possibilities and focus as though our own lives and the lives of our children are at stake - because they are.

The Nature-Technology Disconnect

There is another powerful paradigm shift we are juggling that has terrifying implications. It involves the "game of life."

I watched a video today from UX Weekend 2008 featuring Jane McGonigal - a game designer who was making an argument that the next thing in game design is "games as the perfect UX design for real life."

Many of her comments are far thinking. She is clearly a brilliant woman and I totally get a lot of what she is saying about the "real world" possibilities of games...but in one way her talk disturbed me. She thinks we should make the real world act more like a game.

She points out that 92% of kids between 3 and 18 in the U.S. play games at least once a week in America. I know my grandson spends hours most nights doing exactly that, as do his friends and uncounted millions of young people.

World of Warcraft's wiki is the second largest wiki in the world. It has 134,000 total pages and 5 million people visit it monthly. McGonigal sees it as a giant project to document that alternate universe. Her position is that "games work better than life." Time spent in game worlds is more valuable to those people than time spent is "reality."

I question whether most hard-core gamers have any experience of what "real life" really is from a biological or ecological point of view, at least non-domesticated life. We in the developed world are now so insulated by our technologies and our built environment - especially our young people - that most of us have little experience of free living ecosystems.

Very recently – for the first time in the history of our species - it became possible to live a virtual life and that experience is altering human physiology. We are no longer consistently impacted by the natural environment in which we evolved and that is having a profound impact on the "being of being human." We are losing a sense of the natural rhythms and flow of our planet.

I assert we have no concept of the long term consequences of such a change in who we are.

That transformation was not designed. It emerged bottom up and a new kind of humanity is arising out of it for better or worse.

Do we know what we are becoming? If we lose our connection to our home will be ever "be at home" with one another? Is there a developing schism between minds buried in machines and those still nested in the natural world?

If designers and design theorists cannot identify answers to those profound questions and find ways to implement the answers that arise in constructive ways, then who can?

If the design community cannot find them, then my last question is…who do we have to enroll in our conversations so that we can?

My commitment as a designer is to design a world that works for everyone.

What is yours?

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