What does it mean to design for a better world?

Article By:

Principal | Chief Executive Officer

I’ve lived, worked and traveled on four continents and in about a dozen countries. My past experiences have only added to my fascination for life, my zest for living and my curiosity about the meaning of things. As a 21st-century global citizen and science junky, a few things have become painfully evident to me as an environmental design professional:

Throughout the entire known universe, the planet Earth is the only place we know of where the anomaly called life has taken root. On this planet, humans evolved to become rulers—unwitting guardians of the life anomaly. As a species, we stumbled through the millennia of evolution, rising from our quadruped ancestry onto two feet, and lifting our curious gaze to the cosmos. We created myths to unite our species, explored multiple societal structures, subdued all our natural predators and tamed nature, waged war on numerous subsets of our species, and challenged the very order of things, including splitting the atom and putting humans on the moon. We progressed from the industrial age into the technological revolution, and we are now neck deep in the era of big data.

Breaking down design for a better world

“In a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power” - Yuval Noah Harari

 I want to explore what it means to design for a better world. As design professionals, we believe that we are consciously and intentionally improving the environment we live in, but the truth remains much more complicated than this simple mantra. Therefore, let's dissect the phrase design for a better world and define what each word means in the context of this phrase.

The word design, at its most basic means “the purpose, planning, or intention that exists or is thought to exist behind an action, fact, or material object." It's “the creation of a plan or convention for the construction of an object, system or measurable human interaction. Designing often necessitates the aesthetic, functional, economic, and socio-political dimensions of both the design object and design process.” So to design, in its purest form, is to manifest intent to create a human interaction or system. Great!

The word better evokes positive connotations, signaling “a more excellent or effective type or quality”. It’s further defined as “more appropriate, advantageous, or well advised; more suitably, appropriately, or usefully”. So better really means all things functionally and qualitatively positive. Got it?

Design for a better world could, therefore, be translated to mean "the manifested intent for a more excellent and positive world". However, there are over seven billion human beings currently on Earth. Each one of us may have a slightly different take on what a better world means. Not to mention, the countless other plant and animal species that inhabit the planet—what would abetter world look like from each of their perspectives?  

In 2018, in the world of rapidly changing technology and big data, how relevant is the word better? Have we decisively established that today’s technology has made our lives qualitatively better? How do we prepare our children and grandchildren for the future within their lifetimes, and how do we design human environments for a future we can’t visualize? Historically, human beings could make fairly decent assumptions and predictions about where the world was headed, based on historical precedent. However, with the accelerating technology-fueled avalanche that is today’s world, anticipating tomorrow’s world seems nearly impossible.

How can we ensure a better world?

“Today, design for a better world may mean, more than ever, preparing for an uncertain future.” - Me

In Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons For The 21st Century, he tells 21 stories that help us do just that: prepare for an uncertain future. I selected three of his 21 lessons that have inspired me the most. I believe these three lessons can help present and future generations design a better world and thrive in the 21st century:

  1. NATIONALISM: Global problems need global answers
  2. IGNORANCE: We know less than we think
  3. EDUCATION: Change is the only constant

NATIONALISM: Global problems need global answers 

As a child, it often struck me as odd that migrating geese, deer and other wildlife blatantly ignored national boundaries in their migratory travels. As an adult, I realize that the ideology of nationalism is merely a form of exaggerated tribalism. While practicing loyalty to one’s family unit, tribe, sports team or workplace may make sense, as Hariri points out, loyalties beyond what is local and tactile are not inherent—they only occur when problems too significant for the local group to handle happens. Nationalism came about as a result of challenges or issues too enormous for the tribe unit to control, causing multiple tribes to come together or be forced together by an empire builder.

As French President Emmanuel Macron decried at an event to mark the centennial of the armistice that ended the First World War over the weekend, "Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. By saying our interests first, who cares about the others, we erase what a nation holds dearest, what gives it life, what makes it great and what is essential: its moral values." And while Macron may have directed that sentiment at the United States’ current embrace of the America First ideology, it can also be applied to any country's role in the preservation of Earth's amenities. We all share this planet.

Today, our problems are not national, multinational, or even continental. They are global and a call to us to embrace our collective, singular civilization. While specific projects or problems may be local or regional, the basic premises of human life and environmental resilience are universal. There is so much more that unifies us than segregates, and we should identify these global common denominators, focusing on points of congruence such as clean energy, potable water and sanitization, human migration, urban agriculture, and resilience in the face of extreme weather events.

IGNORANCE: we know less than we think

I rarely talk about politics with my family, but when we do, we like to joke about the genius of individual policymakers. In Germany, it’s common for the minister of economics to become the minister of health without possessing any expertise in the area. It's not uncommon for many countries' governments to swap leaders of highly specialized offices like Christmas presents, which makes no sense. How can someone be an expert in both medicine and military defense?  

However, this is what politics encourages and perpetuates, not only in our leaders but even when discussing with family members over the dinner table. It's the idea that because we read a book, checked out a Wikipedia page or listened to our favorite commentator on television or online that we are an expert in the subject. I mean, look at the United States’ official position on climate change. Even with tangible evidence like hurricanes and forest fires, and the United Nations Governmental Panel on Climate Change—a collection of leading climate scientists—that released a report in October warning that if the world’s global temperature exceeds 1.5 degree Celsius within the next 12 years, the weather will significantly worsen with the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. The world’s most powerful nation refuses to acknowledge the truth.

Unfortunately, this problem also befalls all of us. We all have cognitive biases (the tendency to perceive information based on our own experiences and preferences, resulting in distortion of reality and judgement). One of these is what Harari calls “the knowledge illusion.” We think we know a lot more than our ancestors did when often we know less. For example, we all rely on many experts to live our everyday lives. We can’t hunt our food, build our shelter, or make our clothes, and yet we think we are smart because we have access to all the world’s knowledge by opening a browser window. Instead, we must remind ourselves to stay humble, be thankful and do our best never to stop learning.

EDUCATION: Change is the only constant

Both the speed and the nature of change have accelerated rapidly over the last few decades. We used to hand down cultural values, technologies and traditions, mostly unchanged and from the earliest oral traditions, one generation to the next. Today, it is near impossible to predict what human society or traditions will look like by 2118, a mere century away. Changing technology, climate and human socio-economics, make it all very hard to know what to think about the future.

Neil deGrasse Tyson once gave an excellent speech on the value of knowing how to think vs. just knowing what to think. A basic understanding of history, biology, math and other subjects is essential -no doubt. However, beyond that, it’s more important that we learn how to navigate the new sea of information, how to filter out what’s important and accurate, and how to determine what’s downright false, than just remembering more facts. Thinking critically and discerning facts from opinions is a learned and acquired skill. With more data being created now in a single year than the past few millennia combined, future workers won’t need to know as much as possible, but how to find out only that which they need to know.  

This lesson reaches back to the message on ignorance, and the need to celebrate knowledge rather than be afraid of it. Even with the power of the Internet, we must strive to find holistic understandings. One article or website will not always provide a well-rounded argument or definition of a subject. Therefore, we must communicate to future generations that to thrive, you must be proactive in educating yourself by taking in as much information as you can and talking about it! Discuss with your friends, family and coworkers to expand your knowledge. It’s your greatest weapon as deGrasse Tyson explains: “Knowing how to think empowers you far beyond those who know only what to think.”

In conclusion

Each of Harari’s lessons has inspired the kind of practice we want Nadi to become—one that playfully, humbly, and curiously tackles the big problems of today, seeking the most resilient environmental design solutions for the uncertainties of the future. As urban and environmental designers, we sit at the intersection of many global environmental, social and political issues, and for us to make a positive impact in our present and future worlds, we must embrace globalism, lifelong learning, and careful scrutiny of the data that forms the basis of our design work.

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