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Why Do We Need Metadesign?

The current crisis

The content of recent Climate Change reports from the IPCC (download here) is not news to those who have listened to warnings by the World Bank, United Nations, Pentagon, etc.) over many years. Nor are a surplus of carbon and greenhouse gases the whole story. Species are now disappearing at a frightening rate (faster now than for 600 million years) and our belief systems are out of step with these changes. What we need is a joined-up economic system that encourages societies to work with Nature, rather than ignoring it, fighting it, or trying to re-design it. However, democratic governments find it hard to implement the necessary paradigm change because their methods (e.g. targets, taxes, penalties) are too indirect to change hearts and minds. So far, even concerted actions by politicians, scientists and bankers have been insufficiently effective, or timely enough to avert disaster. While design thinking has untapped potential in managing change at a paradigmatic scale, this has several problems. Because designers are trained operate as subordinate players within the larger economic system, they are part of the problem, rather than the solution. For example, worthy palliatives and incremental changes, such as electric cars and biofuels will not save us. We need to re-think design from scratch because designers are not yet trained to work at the level of lifestyle.

What alternatives do we have?

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We believe that designers should be commissioned to work at a higher level of engagement. Paradigm change requires radical thinking. We need more comprehensive, 'joined-up' ways to feed, cloth, shelter, assemble, and communicate. Designers are trained to attract behavioural change via products, services and images. This approach complements fiscal and legislative approaches.

Are designers ready to meet the challenge?

Possibly - if design can be re-directed as a ‘metadesign’ approach. The scale and complexity of the task are beyond what we know as 'design', which emerged in the 19th century as a set of specialist skills and practices that became harnessed to increasing consumption. Changing human behaviour at the social level is therefore beyond its intended purpose.

Re-designing design

We define metadesign as an emerging framework of practice that will enable designers to change, or create, behavioural paradigms. This is an ambitious task that cannot be achieved by what we currently understand as ‘design’. Paradigms are complex, self-perpetuating systems that are co-sustained by habitual processes that are part of the prevailing social, cultural, economic, aesthetic, psychological, technological and linguistic milieu. As these factors reinforce one another, they fiercely resist change unless they can be addressed in a comprehensive and joined-up way. As this also means identifying simultaneous points of intervention we must devise more comprehensive and radical agenda that includes team-based practices. The ultimate aim of metadesign is to bring about a more ecological and ‘synergy-oriented’ society to replace the existing ‘product-oriented’ world of consumption and profits.

Design Discipline Comparison Diagram
Schematic map compiled by Jordan Dalladay-SimpsonJordan Dalladay-Simpson Icon

We need metadesign

Instead of designing discrete products, brands, or services, metadesigners would orchestrate 'top-down' and 'bottom-up' initiatives. They would broker effective, non-fiscal solutions for communities and their governments. We might, therefore, regard metadesign as a mode of politics.

Metadesigners seek synergy

We achieve synergies when we combine two, or more, existing resources to create a third. In effect, finding a new synergy means getting something for nothing. The origin of synergy is ‘difference’. Many differences create diversity (biodiversity, cultural diversity, etc.), which can, in theory, be turned into a 'synergy-of-synergies', i.e. a new order of prosperity.

‘Languaging’ paradigm change

As Einstein noted - ‘we cannot solve problems using the language that created them’. It is important that metadesigners try to re-language new concepts and to create possibilities that go beyond what was previously ‘thinkable’.


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