Metadesigning Paradigm Change

square-50cm-spacer.jpg Model-T-Ford-Paradigm.png

Fig. 1 - The automobile paradigm (adapted from Stuart Kauffman)


‘Design for sustainability’ has not saved us from a major environmental calamity because what is needed is beyond what designers are usually trained to deliver. While designers should play a vital role in catalysing behavioural change, human habits cannot be ‘re-designed’ like discrete products or services. What the article calls ‘metadesign’ is a self-reflexive, comprehensive and integrated framework for changing paradigms. It is a combinatorial process that synchronises sets of strategic changes in parallel, and that combines existing resources to create novel synergies. Working at a higher level of complexity weakens the customary distinctions between designer and client, present and future, thus making it less predictive than traditional designing. As new paradigms usually seem counterintuitive from within the old ones, a creative ‘re-languaging’ strategy is an important feature. This helps teams of metadesigners to transcend fixed hierarchies, leaders, pretexts or rules, and to work, collectively and intuitively, towards a ‘synergy-of-synergies’.

Draft of a chapter by John Wood, “Metadesigning Paradigm Change: an ecomimetic, language-centred approach”, a chapter in The Handbook of Design for Sustainability edited by Stuart Walker & Jacques Giard (Bloomsbury Academic), pp. 428-445, 2013


metadesign | co-sustainment | synergy | paradigm change | languaging | ecomimetic


In outlining our metadesign framework, this article challenges some of the terms of reference that we commonly use to discuss ‘sustainable design’. Paradoxically, one of them is the term sustainable design, which evolved from Brundtland’s original term sustainable development. This gained popularity after 1987, when politicians needed a new environmentalist creed that would reassure the market while being scientifically credible. Unfortunately, the term is now so presumptuous and confused as to be counterproductive. What is meant by ‘unsustainable’ might be considered something that it is not viable or robust enough to continue by itself. Alternatively, it may refer to something that it is not appealing enough to warrant approval. The root verb ‘to sustain’ is often used to mean a continuation over time, but can also be applied in the non-temporal sense of ‘holding together’. A living system does not endure because of any moral right, or long-term plan, but because it can adapt to changes in itself, or its habitat. This chapter therefore prefers the term ‘co-sustainment’ instead of ‘sustainability’, as it acknowledges the reciprocal dependency of all living systems (Wood, 2002, p.4). Similarly, the term ‘ecomimetic’ (Fairclough, 2005, p. 42) is intended to remind readers of the need to explore whole ecosystems, rather than to copy the functionality of individual organisms, or their parts. While the term ‘biomimicry’ (c.f. Benyus, 1997) invokes the idea of nature, it almost always refers to the invention of discrete products or technocentric ideas, rather than to a complex web of relations that are symbiotic (i.e. synergistic).

Practically speaking, words are always problematic because Nature is ineffable and the way metadesigners handle this problem is important (Wood, 2011, pp. 27-32). For example, in order to create a more open horizon of possibilities, a metadesign team must be ready to think beyond fixed meanings. When describing how living organisms sustain themselves Maturana and Varela (1992, p.211) used the word ‘language’ as a verb. While this may seem grammatically strange to English speakers, it helps us to understand what they call ‘autopoiesis’ (literally, ‘self creation’). This describes how living systems survive by maintaining a necessary equilibrium between their internal and external identities. This is not only a theory about the seamlessness of interplay between action and theory (e.g. Searle, 1970, p.17) but also a practical way for design teams to co-create their ‘survival’ as living systems. However, this active, radical, consensual reframing of meaning means that, in theory, everything must change – including the team’s self-identity. This process is reminiscent of Freud’s early notion of ‘polymorphous perversity’ (Freud, 1905, ed. Richards, 1991, p.191), which describes how an infant steers its own sexual habits and identities by making situated choices based on its personal experience of gratification or displeasure. These habits may later be guided by the values and responses of the society, mediated by the framework of language that the infant will, in theory, be free to co-create, as a member of that society. For example, in order to ‘language’ ecological utopias that are attainable, but hard to foresee, it is vital to cultivate a shared sense of optimism and opportunism. This also has useful implications for democracy, provided that society can learn to value collective envisioning more highly than it values the crude, binary choices that are registered, every five years, in secret ballot boxes.

Behavioural Change

While 'design for sustainability' is very important, it has yet to make us safe from severe climate changes, or from the decline in biodiversity. The world needs a paradigmatic transformation at the level of behaviours and lifestyles but this is very unlikely to occur through piecemeal innovation or individual reform. Paradigms resist change partly because of the strength of vested interest that shape the economic, political and social order. In order to succeed, designers will need to work with politicians, economists and scientists. This means reforming design to make it a more coherent, joined-up, integrated and holistic practice. The article outlines a framework for establishing such a practice, referring to it as ‘metadesign’. Where, traditionally, designers are trained to create deliverables for the future, metadesigners would, also, co-create opportunities in a shared series of 'present tenses', or, ‘presents’ (Wood, 1998, pp. 88-101). They would seek to complement the evidence-based truth-claims and ‘objective data’ of scientists by co-creating shareable, imaginable and attainable futures, with which they would seek to manage unforeseen opportunities.


1. Design Evolution

What we would currently recognise as ‘design’ emerged in the 1880's from an industrial revolution that sought a more enlightened, prosperous and harmonious society. While this led to some important ways of thinking, these were developed as specialist practices that were framed too narrowly and too disparately. Many designers are still trained to see themselves merely as specialist integrators of form and function. On the other hand, their relatively lowly strategic status proved invaluable to many corporations who wished to maximise profit by increasing the consumer’s compliance at the point of sale. Today, there is no shortage of smart gadgets and myopic, technical fixes. However, these are symptoms of the paradigm that is killing us. They are a by-product of a culture of division, solipsism, fragmentation and specialization. To be fair, not all designers have unthinkingly accepted their role as hired catalysts of consumption. Some, for example, have tried to re-connect community, food and energy production, transport and shelter. Unfortunately, this spirit of radical idealism had lost much of its momentum by the late 1980s when, crudely speaking, the collapse of the Soviet Union’s political power-base reduced the number of dominant ideologies from two to one. After this seismic event, a more pragmatic compromise emerged. This was based on the belief that idealism had proved unworkable, and that our only option was to reform industrial capitalism by improving its products and services. Terms such as ‘alternative energy’ or ‘alternative technology’ gave way to notions of ‘sustainable consumption’ and the ‘green consumer’. As a result, many design educators defaulted to a less troublesome role as teachers of industry-friendly ‘skills’. This has helped to perpetuate a cycle of collective dysfunction, in which big, non-commercial design visions became risible, invisible, or unconceivable. It is time to think again, as radical, joined-up thinking has never been more needed than now.


What happens, or should happen, next in the evolution of design is difficult to predict because of the proliferation of digital media that has seeded a higher level of global consciousness. Movements, such as ‘Open Source’ innovation, social networking, and online activism have already begun to challenge the professional sanctity of design and inspired new genres of ‘design thinking’. These trends are affecting both designers and citizens, albeit in different ways. How might we synchronize ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ approaches in a way that enhances the ‘creative city’ (Landry, ) or what Dewey called ‘creative democracy’ (1939)? If we see the continued upsurge of movements like ‘Permaculture’, ‘Transition Towns’, will designers play a role that is a central one, or would it be more consultative? Is it possible that the design professions would slowly be absorbed into a bigger, more emancipatory picture? We need some big visions. Richard Buckminster Fuller and John Chris Jones come to mind, here, as they exemplify bold attempts to see beyond the narrow limits of specialism that constitute 20th century design. Buckminster Fuller believed that designers should reflect upon the whole universe, then upon our place on the planet, before deciding how to address the design task immediately in front of them. His call for a ‘comprehensive anticipatory design science’ (Fuller, 1969, p. 9) is, therefore, a serious one. Fuller was almost unique in forecasting the key issues of the 21st century in a design-friendly way, even if his style is unduly nerdy and arcane. By contrast, John Chris Jones adopted a more modest, human, personal standpoint from which to embark upon the re-designing of designing (c.f. Jones, 1992). He is one of many who reflected on the range of options and methods that designers use, or could use, extrapolating this quest into the possibilities for ‘creative democracy (Jones, 1998). His notion of ’designing without a product, as a process or way of living in itself’ (Jones, 1991, p.ix) is especially important, as it conflates the classical distinctions between designer and client, present and future, action and thing. However, some might find the styles and approaches of Fuller and Jones so different as to be incommensurate. Fortunately, as synergy is based on difference, I believe they can be combined to formulate a realistic framework for metadesign.


2. Economy v. Ecology

One of the obstacles to formulating a large-scale, optimistic ‘ecological’ design agenda in the 21st century is the growth-centred, economic mindset that contaminates all new visions of the possible. While designers may have the capability to bring about a new ecological paradigm, their efforts are routinely subverted by what Harvey calls the ‘creative-destructive tendencies inherent in capitalism’ (2010, p.46). Typically, although the 2005 ‘Cox Report’ on ‘Creativity in Business’ was important as a consciousness-raising exercise, it ignored the environmental implications (e.g. Cox & Dayan, 2005, p.7). The dominant view of the world as an economic entity, rather than an ecological one, has meant that designers tend to be valued for their ability to ‘maintain a competitive advantage’ (for employers or economies), rather than for cultivating abundance for all. This is why many worthy initiatives, such as ‘green design’, ‘eco-design’, ‘design for sustainability’ and ‘service design’ have, unwittingly, fortified the market forces they were intended to defeat. As if this were not enough, similar ideologies have also shaped government policies that influence the way that designers are regarded, whether as learners or as professionals. A positive paradigm change might be very close, but our old habits of thinking will make it seem remote. For example, while they know that the current economic system is causing massive environmental damage (c.f. Giddens, 2009) governments find it hard to think outside the fiscal language of currencies. They persist with what Douthwaite called the ‘growth illusion’ (1992, pp.6-7), even though they know it fails to deliver lasting happiness (c.f. Easterlin, 1974; Layard, 2005) or wellbeing (c.f. Veblen, 1902; Oswald, 1997).

Many of the key ideas are in place, but time is short. One well-established approach is to re-think the current linear, competitive, GDP-targeted system as a circular economy that is based on ‘zero-waste’ or ‘cradle-to-cradle’ models of business. (e.g. Hawken, Lovins and Lovins, 1999, p.9, McDonough & Braungart, 2002). While the way governments are addressing the problems, say, of climate change are often laudable, they reflect a worldview that lacks imaginative coherence. For example, Stern (2006) argues that, while spending 1% of GDP per annum on ‘green’ infrastructure may seem costly, it would save us from having to spend 5% of GDP if we ignore the problem (Stern, p. vi). But this kind of top-down approach is based on truth-based assumptions, rather than what some call ‘designerly ways of knowing’ (Cross, 2010, p.5), or ‘design thinking’ (Rowe, 1987, p.1), which tend to be more creative, opportunistic and contingent. More design-led approaches are already being developed by innovative ‘service designers’, and by high profile organizations, such as IDEO, McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), the Young Foundation, or Participle. In an ideal scenario, this new breed of designers would be paid to work primarily on behalf of society and the biosphere, rather than for the vested interest and profit of individual organizations, who compete, rather than synergise with one another. The best way to achieve this would be for governments to ask designers to help deliver a more democratic, effective and eco-centred governance. The key methods preferred by governments are fiscal policies, targets and legislative measures. Unfortunately, these are much too abstract, bureaucratic and indirect to change paradigms (Meadows, 2009, p.163-4).


2a. Example The European Union has admitted that, by using these methods to manage the fishing industries, they have dramatically failed to meet its objectives: to protect stocks, to provide a sustainable food source and to help fishing communities to be profitable (c.f. Brown, 2011). A ‘metadesign’ approach, perhaps, combining design, politics and marketing would be cheaper and better. Although the technology for locating fish is frighteningly efficient, the design of fishing nets has improved little over thousands of years. Most of the players, e.g. ship builders, fishing fleets, supermarkets, shoppers, elected politicians and their electorate, see their task as winning a competitive economic advantage, rather than securing synergies at many levels. Each player does their best, but the outcome is a disaster. Scientists give predictive data to politicians, who set ‘quotas’ of catches by the trawlers. But, up to half of the fish caught in the North Sea are thrown back and killed because fishing companies cannot control their catches and do not wish to exceed their quotas. These methods need re-designing in an entrepreneurial, eco-mimetic way.


3. Metadesign

This chapter asserts that, if design, as we know it, were able to re-invent the fundamentals of the way we live, e.g. to re-think our systems of production and consumption in a more integrated and coherent way, we might avert the threat of extinction. My interest in ‘metadesign’ (c.f. Maturana, 1979) began in 1989, when we founded of the Department of Design at Goldsmiths, University of London. The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) funded our specific inquiries into metadesign, starting in 2005. After 2002, the Higher Education Academy also funded our exploration of the value of purpose-defined writing within/for the practice of art and design, and helped us establish the international Writing-PAD Network in 2002 (Lockheart, et al, 2004, p. 89-102). We have carried out metadesign experiments and lectures in the UK, Germany, Portugal, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Korea, Japan, China and Thailand. Our work also owes much to the previous insights of others (e.g. Maturana, 1979; Jones, 1980; Giaccardi, 2005) and inspired the launch of the Metadesigners Network. However, as most designers are trained for a relatively well-defined context, or to limit their angle of vision to discrete products and services we still have a great deal of work ahead before we can safely change a paradigm, or design a miracle.


Because our agenda is complex and self-reflexive we had to redefine the purpose and meaning of design. When Aristotle described design as a ‘final cause’ he was expressing the ancient belief that the universe is defined by an ultimate, future purpose (Tarnas, 1991, p. 60-62). Orthodox design is therefore a singular act that gains its raison d’être from the future. In today’s rational, humanist terms, we might say that it is the designer’s mind that anticipates, and strives to attain, a preferred state of affairs (Simon, 1969, p.111). But Aristotle’s theory reflected an era before anyone could conceive of the idea of independent human creativity. For this reason, design was seen as a process of emulating nature in terms of an ultimate purpose. In short, it pictured the universe in a linear time frame. However, when we think of design in this way, we see two timescales, rather than one. The first is that of a local, short-term future that we might, for example, find in a project deadline. The second, much longer, timescale would be exemplified, perhaps, by the outcome of a project that is completed within the deadline. For designers the second timescale might be interpreted as the ultimate destiny that derives from the way consumers use, modify, or misuse, their design, once it is ready for use. These days, it is important, for social and ethical reasons, to balance the benefits of journey and destination.


Metadesigners would, therefore, seek to steer events for the present, as well as for the future. This process would be guided by feedback from both modes of future. Its complexity brings conditions that make it qualitatively different from Aristotle’s model. In our version of ‘metadesign’ we explicitly resist the creation of desire for the future. This subverts the consumer paradigm. It makes it less of a discrete, predictive process and more of a collective ‘seeding’ activity (Ascott, in Giaccardi, 2005, pp. 342-349) that highlights opportunities that were hitherto unforeseen or, even, unforeseeable. Focusing on the traditional, short-term, purpose-based mode of design is relatively straightforward because our society is accustomed to judging the success of a design by the aesthetics of its form and function. However, to achieve success within the second timescale, the designer must continue to re-design, or manage, the ‘design affordances’ (Norman, 1988, p.82) that are deemed to be immediately useful to consumers and other stakeholders. These always have unpredictable consequences that are a mixture of beneficial and harmful outcomes. The design of a more ‘environmentally sustainable’ car is a good example. Despite its obvious environmental benefits at the local, short-term level, it may, nevertheless, attract more drivers away from public, or human-powered transport systems and back onto the roads (Illich, 1975, p. 18). Where the classical Aristotelian designer would have designed mainly at the level of the product or service, the metadesigner would seek to regulate its affordances and impact as they unfold over time. Managing this process ethically calls for a comprehensive, long-term approach that is beyond the capacity of any one individual, however gifted and well informed she, or he, may be. We have, therefore, taken license to define metadesigning as a loose superset of any, or all, existing design methods, plus other relevant expertise from elsewhere. The following list is offered as a working summary of some key attributes of metadesign:

1.A new paradigm is neededPiecemeal reform is not enough
2.'Languages' new realitiesParadigms exist partly in the mind
3.Eco-mimeticSeeks inspiration from Nature
4.Seeks a 'synergy-of-synergies'Synergy is Nature's unique, free bonus
5.ComprehensiveWe need to join up all the parts
6.Adaptable & InteroperableNeeds to be developed and applied by all
7.CollaborativeWe must work alongside other experts
8.Present orientedIt's too complex to be predictive
9.Seeks fractal outcomesWe need to find our way around systems
10.Radically optimisticWe must try to think beyond the possible

Table 1: Ten attributes of the metadesign framework


4. Seeking Synergy

One of the key characteristics of metadesigning is its focus on ‘synergy’ as a principal indicator of success, where synergy is defined as: “the behaviour of whole systems unpredicted by the separately observed behaviours of their parts taken separately” (Fuller, 1979, p. 78). In practical terms, this means that, whenever we identify at least two different entities we may be able to combine them in order to get something extra, without requiring additional resources. As the term ‘resources’ is merely a subjective descriptor for aspects of the world that we find beneficial to our lifestyle, we may prefer to bring together ‘problems’, or even different points of view, in order to create beneficial synergies. In practical terms, this process is limitless (Simon, 1969, p. 166), which means that synergies can be combined to create an ultimate ‘synergy-of-synergies’ (c.f. Fuller, 1975; Wood, 2007c). Although this is ambitious it is achievable, provided appropriate resources are devoted to the task. As synergies are elusive, metadesign teams would seek to map them by looking for anything that might help to locate, re-create, adapt and orchestrate them. For example:

    • 1. Imaginable, desirable synergies that do not yet exist
    • 2. Things that are complementary to one another (i.e. known compatibilities)
    • 3. Relative balance of ingredients to create affinities (e.g. precise culinary compatibilities)
    • 4. Synergistic relations that exist, but that can produce additional benefits
    • 5. Possible synergies that do not yet exist, and that may emerge from experiment
    • 6. Existing synergies that derive from a combination of other synergies
    • 7. New synergies that might emerge by combining existing synergies

Although synergies may commonly exist at many levels, they may be hard to pinpoint. For example, they may adjoin one another, or even nest within one another (Corning, 2003, p.298) and, therefore, defy easy description. Indeed, working with small teams, we found that some synergies exist on the intangible boundaries between emotions, ideas, people, actions and objects. This creates a paradox, methodologically speaking. Unless you have clear definitions of the agent roles in a system of this complexity you must rely on intuitive feelings that may be difficult to share with others outside your team. On the other hand, any attempt to define and classify them will inevitably create precedents and assumptions that might blind you to latent synergies that do not fit these categories. In addressing the ineffable aspects of synergy, a systemic and eco-mimetic approach is useful, because it inspires a less reductionist approach.


While, for example, fixed hierarchies are rare in nature it is customary for business to create a hierarchy of roles in order to find economies of scale. By contrast, metadesign approach evokes the idea of ‘ecologies of scale’, rather than ‘economies of scale’. Ashby’s ‘Law of Requisite Variety’ (Ashby, 1956, p.207) implies that the self-management of an organization is preferable to micro-management from the outside. When industrial organizations grow, they fragment into large, many-tiered hierarchies. This reduces what we call 'team consciousness (or network consciousness), defined as the ratio of direct to indirect relations within the system. Another way to say this is that a higher proportion of members become ‘outsiders’ to the activities of their colleagues. When this happens it becomes more difficult to orchestrate a ‘synergy-of-synergies’. (Backwell & Wood, 2011, p. 36). In our research we avoided big hierarchies by developing small, heterogeneous, leaderless co-design teams. We also adapted management methods (e.g. Belbin, 2010, p. 120) to suit the purposes of metadesigning. Team members learn to diagnose their own interests, capabilities and potentials, and to create possible roles within self-assembled teams, in order to establish a basis for adaptable working relations. Unlike a commercial context, in which professional roles are usually predefined, a metadesign system would need to manage more intangible values, processes and shared experiences in its own way. Participants would need to reflect upon and, perhaps, revise the assumptions, purposes and terms of reference that brought them together. This includes learning how to orchestrate and co-steer a shared sense of wellbeing within a community of co-designers and stakeholders. A possible use for these methods is for acting as a creative bridge between the different discourses, say, of governments and grassroots activists.

5. Paradigm Changing

It is very difficult to reform behaviour without also changing the paradigm that sustains it. But the ancient Greek word ‘paradeigma’ (παράδειγμα) referred to the factory display models used by managers and buyers. It therefore had a more static meaning than we find in the 21st century sense of the word. Plato’s understanding of a paradigm was based on his interest in the perfect uniqueness of ideas, models and prototypes that he saw as being more ‘true’ to the generality, or typology, of a vase, or bed than to the actual (i.e. less perfect) production copy that reaches the street. In the early twentieth century the linguistics theorist, de Saussure, expanded the word to describe a cluster of adjacent meanings and signs that constitute the structure, rather than the content, of what is said. When we substitute particular words in a sentence for other words, we may change the meaning without changing its structural ‘paradigm’ (c.f. de Saussure, 1974). The later idea of ‘semiotic paradigms’ meant that designers were not limited to words, but could also use any other ‘signs’, such as sounds, smells, or gestures. This allows us to harness more senses and experiences in the thinking process and, thus, to create more imaginative possibilities.

In 1962, Kuhn published his research on the phenomenon of ‘paradigm shift’ (Preston, 1995, p.39), which is helpful for our metadesign context. He explored the idea of ‘belief systems’ within science, noting that scientific academies, or ‘establishments’ fiercely resist change for inordinate lengths of time. Although this sense of the word still alludes to previous meanings, it is far more complex because it also acknowledges the systemic role of vested interests, and other strong forces. Each paradigmatic discourse is upheld, in part, by particular experiments, theories and vocabularies that have come to seem ‘natural’ to proponents. According to Kuhn, scientific paradigms change only as a result of a full-scale ‘revolution’, in which the belief system in question is finally defeated by a huge weight of evidence and political pressure. Alternatively, the paradigm may perish when the generation that created it retires from power and gives way to a younger generation with different viewpoints. Kuhn’s idea of paradigm change helps to explain why previous versions of ‘sustainable design’ were too weak and fragmented to work. The old, Platonic idea of the paradigm assumed a singularity of identity, and therefore was relatively easy to work with. By contrast, Kuhn’s paradigms operate more like living organisms and are, therefore, extremely hard to compare with one another. To make things even more difficult, Feyerabend has pointed out that any observational methods we use to understand them will also be incommensurate with them (Feyerabend, 1975, p. 224–225).

EXAMPLE 1.: Commercial urban architecture -

While architects strive to create unique, individual styles, few challenge the paradigm of high-rise buildings made from concrete, steel and glass. Each of these materials has a big carbon footprint. And, while glass is excellent for attracting solar energy the design paradigm produces an embarrassing surplus. This means we need an additional source of energy to throw it away. In short, instead of refining the design of office blocks we need to metadesign a better paradigm. But this is not a trivial task. Paradigms are hard to change because of internal and external forces. Internally, they co-sustain one another. Externally, they also co-sustain other paradigms. In eco-mimetic terms, these synergies are akin to symbiotic relations. In ethical, socio-political terms, however, they might be seen as expedient vested interests. This needs re-languaging in a more affirmative way.

EXAMPLE 2.: the automobile paradigm -

How might we go about eradicating cars from cities? This may entail understanding the Fordist paradigm as part of a larger, Taylorist paradigm (c.f. Fleischman, 2000 pp.597-624). One way to map this is to describe the success of the automobile in eco-mimetic terms (Kauffman, 1995, p.240). Whether the vehicle at the centre of figure 1 (at start of article) is a ‘sustainable’ electric car or a gas guzzling petrol engine is relatively unimportant. Each is merely a different version of the same paradigm, which requires the same infrastructure to co-sustain the way we shop, go to work, meet friends, or visit other places. This picture shows eleven, and these could be seen as paradigms in their own right. In addition to their co-sustainment with the automobile, each paradigm also has a relationship with each other. But it is not a weak, abstract relationship. It is an acquired, co-dependent affinity that has led to habits of exchange. Maturana and Varela refer to this as ‘structural coupling’ (1980, p.xxi), where the conduct of a given player is also a function of the conduct of the others in the system. If this were not complex enough, figure 2 (below) offers a bigger snapshot of the whole paradigm.

Figure 2 - Some of the many paradigms that constitute our 'reality'

Each of the 16 systems ‘paradigms’ shown is, to a greater or lesser extent, structurally coupled to each of the others, as represented by a simple line. But, in practical terms, each line represents a complex amalgam of habits, beliefs, policies and practices. In eco-mimetic terms, it will be valued and defended at its local level. This highly simplified diagram helps us to identify, and explore, a total of 120 structural couplings across the whole system. The combined force of these couplings illustrates the scale of difficulty we encounter when seeking to ‘change the paradigm’. However, the mapping method used enables us to set up a detailed ‘future-possible’ map that offers new benefits to all. Orchestrating more comprehensive outcomes therefore requires simultaneous intervention at many locations within the paradigm. By mapping all of the vested interests may enable us to broker multi-stakeholder deals that attract fundamental change by offering clear benefits to all concerned. Interventions at a few, critical leverage points be an easier way to change a paradigm (Meadows, 1999, p.18) but the mindset behind the paradigm may make this seem difficult, unthinkable or impossible. Our metadesigners have developed tools that seek to move beyond these assumptions (see figure 3).

In social terms, paradigms are important because they represent the unthinking habits of the silent majority. This is because ‘normal’ behaviour is so integral to the cultural paradigm that alternative actions become invisible to us. To visitors from a different culture, however, these same actions may seem to be driven by a baffling, or crazy set of hypotheses and beliefs. Like many human habits perpetuated by subjective belief, there is a whole network of products, services, habits and myths of language that sustain them. Our metadesign approach is based on the idea that, given the right team of experts, these could be re-languaged and/or re-designed.

6. Languaging New Paradigms


The old idea that language co-sustains our ‘reality’ by setting the boundaries for thought (c.f. Lakoff & Johnson, 1980) is also implicit in the psychological and ecological notions of ‘affordance’ (Gibson, 1979, p.16) and in von Uexküll’s term ‘Umwelt’ (Ingold, 2011, p.64), which sought to map the phenomenological boundaries that pre-condition a given living creature’s worldview. At the political level, ‘re-languaging’ the status quo has proved very powerful as, for example, when Lemkin coined the term ‘genocide’ (McDonnell & Moses, 2005, pp. 501-529). Although his previous petitions to the UN had proved unsuccessful, the creation of this new word was enough to inspire a new international law. A similar approach was recently tested in a UK court, to ascertain whether ‘ecocide’ can become an international crime against species (c.f. Higgins, 2010, p.61). The reason why we need such a rich biological diversity on Earth is to maintain its stability as an ecosystem. But the number of species is in sharp decline. The COP10 meeting in Nagoya estimate that ecocide damage by the world’s top firms cost the equivalent of $4 trillion in 2009 (Higgins, 2010, p.65). Unfortunately, the methods used to confront the problem seem shockingly dysfunctional, perhaps because bureaucracy seeks to work with ‘objective’ parameters by over-simplifying and rigidifying (Wood, 2012, ) its terms of engagement. But, if language plays such an important role in shaping, and negotiating our perceived ‘reality’, it may be surprising that the role of writing and speaking has been so undervalued within the act of designing. This may have been caused by anti-theory sentiments (Wood, 2000, p. 1). At the social (e.g. co-design) level, Wittgenstein’s idea of ‘language games’ (Brenner, 1999, p.16) illustrates the way that certain entities (words, or beliefs) gain favour in a consensual way. Some of our co-authorship approaches (Nieuwenhuijze & Wood, 2006, pp. 87-102) emulate ecological conditions by trying to ignore the conventional rational distinctions between knowledge, location and team.

These approaches offer a discursive framework that refrains from critical, or oppositional statements, that focuses on actions, opportunities and outcomes, rather than on explanations, consistencies, truths or taxonomies. Some of these methods invoke what I call ‘auspicious reasoning’ (Wood, 2009, pp. 315 – 327) that seeks to think outside the ‘design’ box. They are inspired by the Darwinian logic behind the theory of Gaia (Lovelock, 1979, p.x; Margulis, 1998, p. 5), which depicts planet Earth as a vast, symbiotic, self-maintaining system. The Gaia theory’s lack of distinction between ‘living’ and ‘inanimate’ offers a useful step towards re-languaging the design agenda at a high level. In Nature, it is the variety, or diversity, of forms and conditions that enable the planet, as a whole, to regulate its own conditions for survival. When a given species cannot perceive and ‘re-language’ new, emerging conditions that suit its habitat, it may die (Maturana & Varela, 1980, p.xvi). Extinctions are, therefore, normal and useful, because they create a niche in the whole system that affords new, more appropriate patterns to emerge.

How might designers support the difficult task of government? Government representatives are powerful, but they are only type of agent within a set of participants. While individuals do their best to achieve the most favourable outcome, the combined process resembles a trading situation, rather than a prudent act of collective reasoning. The process involves the use of scientific evidence to plot past, present and future levels using an arithmetical language. Rather than radically rethinking the way we design our cities, economies, and food and energy chains, the international response by politicians and scientists seems to focus on making lists and setting targets and timelines. In 2010 – the Year of International Biological Diversity – the 2010 Nagoya World Biodiversity Summit was successful in setting some targets, although few experts believe we will meet them (Gross & Williams, 2010, pp. 496-497). Missing targets is a common occurrence that adds to the task, because it tends to create apathy and to discourage unanimous compliance with agreements. One of the problems in the current system is a fundamental ignorance about ecosystems. The traditional role of science is to provide sound, verifiable data upon which nations can audit what they do, then frame their strategies accordingly. In this case, however, the framing of policies based on sound evidence seems unlikely when eighty-six per cent of land species and ninety-one per cent of sea species remain undiscovered or unclassified (c.f. Mora, Tittensor, Adl, & Simpson, 2011). In order to encourage an increase in biodiversity the Nagoya agreement designated large areas of land and sea as regions of wilderness. While this goes further than the largely bureaucratic requirements of the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, i.e. making targets, inventories, taxonomies, budgets, timelines etc., it will not work because the natural replenishment of species in the areas chosen is too low (Harrop, 2011, pp. 117-128). Whether formal classification follows Linnaean, Darwinian or other approaches it need not and, indeed, should not, obscure the dynamic relationships among species. This is because the fluidity of relations among living creatures is an important aspect of how biodiversity arises and evolves through ‘natural inclusion’ as the ‘fluid-dynamic, co-creative transformation of all through all in receptive spatial context’ (Rayner, 2012, p. 6).

7. Some practical implications

Just as twenty-first century science and technology offers sophisticated digital instruments for remotely locating diseases in crops, or fish in the sea, so we also need ways to perceive, value, nurture and bring them into synergistic relations with other parts of the system. In order to do this, we also need to revise the language that sustains our presumptuous, barbarous styles of living. In the case of fishing, for example, what is needed is a more selective trawl system that would only catch mature fish of known species and age, etc.. This is not offered as a smarter way to sustain ‘business as usual’ in the fishing industries but, rather, a way to encourage more elaborate business systems that glean more values and qualities from each step in a long cycle of eco-friendly processes. Another way to put this is to say that we need to synchronise innovation on many levels at once. This means helping SMEs to set up ‘networks of innovation’ (Bussracumpakorn & Wood, 2010). This may mean asking governments to reward smaller-scale, co-creative endeavours for their ability to manage complexity.


Parallel, Tessalating Innovations
The following is offered as a way to illustrate how metadesigning might work with this level of complexity within a practical context. It is sketched out as a set of parallel design briefs for specialists from a range of disciplines. It was tested in London, April, 2012.

Introduction to the Briefs
What are the hidden opportunities of, say, connecting water and energy utilities, clothing fashion and cars? We might answer this question with a provocative riddle.

"What is the carbon footprint of rain?"

This may remind us that, in many developed countries, when it rains we prefer to drive short distances instead of walking. This behaviour is sustained, not by necessities of health or safety, but by a shared assumption that masquerades as an aesthetic truth. Fortunately, the idea that rain is dangerous or unpleasant is subjective and, therefore, may be influenced by the way we describe it. This will depend on the particular language habits that prevail in a given culture. For example:

  • 1. In the UK people cheerfully malign the rain. "What a miserable day..."
  • 2. In Scandinavia they say: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing”.

Could metadesigners popularise the Scandinavian sentiments, at the same time as designing better rainwear? Fashion designers enjoy the reputation of being among the most creative. Unfortunately, the fashion industry also inspires some of the most wasteful habits of consumption. How might we change this? What Barthes called the ‘fashion system’ (1983, p.39) is one that, like all paradigms, is difficult to reform. One reason for this is that fashion designers are seldom encouraged to innovate at an entrepreneurial business level. As one of our researchers put it, the fashion industry ‘thrives on innovation’ but ‘resists change’ (c.f. Tham, 2008). The following set of briefs is offered as an example of how specialist designers and innovators might work together in order to create many simultaneous innovations that can be joined to produce an emergent 'synergy-of-synergies'.

1. BRIEF to Fashion Designers

    • a. Design garments that give option of full protect from rain, wetness, cold, etc.
    • b. Design headwear that evokes fascination and pleasure from rain.
    • c. Design shopping holders that are permanently integral to/concealed in clothing.

2. BRIEF to Engineers

    • d. Develop (shoe) wheelie design that offers a safer way to glide on flat surfaces.
    • e. Explore possibility of integrating with a pram, or human-powered goods carrier.
    • f. Include a simple braking system that stores energy for immediate, or later use.

3. BRIEF to Account Managers & Entrepreneurs

    • g. Find viable alternatives to the existing revenue-streams of fashion designers.
    • h. Explore ways in which this might be self-funding, via social networking sites, etc.
    • i. Work with public sector auditors to balance project costs and outgoings with social risks and benefits.

4. BRIEF to Linguists and Creative Writers

    • j. Help participants to re-imagine known concepts, materials and sensations.
    • k. Propose new (linguistic) terms of reference that may facilitate new designs.
    • l. Co-create, or co-author ways to describe anything that is novel or unfamiliar.

5. BRIEF to Communication Designers

    • m. Collaborate with the metadesign team and, where possible, all participants.
    • n. Monitor and collate all of the findings from all participants.
    • o. Present findings as an Open Source, readily accessible Sharealike project.

6. BRIEF to Metadesigners

    • p. Ensure that each of the six teams are able to synergise with the other five.
    • q. Find optimum combinations that will create a benign ‘synergy-of-synergies’.
    • r. Orchestrate all of the above (+ participants) to ensure the maximum fun.


While managing the six innovation requirements will add complexity to business, it could also make it more viable in the long-term. If the parallel innovations can be made to tessellate with one another, additional layers of synergy are also possible. These can be developed as long-term, ‘long-tail’ enterprises (Anderson, 2006) that intersect in exquisitely ingenious ways. Ultimately, these should be orchestrated as a benign ‘synergy-of-synergies’.


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