Keyword - paradigm

An attempt to define the word for our purposes

Plato's understanding of 'paradigm'

Plato (429-327BC) spoke of a hypothetically perfect structure of things that was 'beside' or somehow 'within' the imperfect, everyday appearances that we can touch and see around us in everyday life. This probably derived from ancient Greece's trading empire in which the copying of artifacts for mass production was quite advanced. Whereas "δειγμα" (deigma) was something to be shown, a "παράδειγμα" (paradeigma - i.e. "pattern, example, or sample") was a more perfect version that could be exhibited as a more faithful representation of a given product.
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Drawing of a torus square-50cm-spacer.jpg Doughnut production line square-50cm-spacer.jpg Individual doughnut

The idea of the 'paradigm' within linguistics

In the 19th and early 20th centuries the word 'paradigm' came to be used within linguistics to describe a comprehensive idea, often expressed within a parable or fable. Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) used the word to describe a class of elements that share key attributes. To clarify this idea it is useful to compare paradigms with 'syntagms', which are parts of a grammar that cannot be changed without changing the meaning. In the sentence 'I' (subject) 'punched' (verb) 'the crocodile' (object) we have a grammatical structure that permits many variations (alternative versions of the sentence) without changing the paradigm. Changing 'I' to 'she' in the above sentence would change the meaning, but not the (grammatical) paradigm.

Paradigms in science

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Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) square-50cm-spacer.jpg Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

In the early 1960s, Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996) applied the word in a broader context when he saw that belief systems are self-sustaining cultures. Individuals, ideas and publications may change, but the cultural structures that maintain them tend to change more slowly. These structures enable dominant beliefs to sustain themselves for longer than is reasonable. Hence, particular approaches may continue to be applied long after they work effectively. This is partly because the co-dependent factors that sustain the paradigm are less affected by the bigger picture. They resist change until the new evidence becomes overwhelming. Academies are relatively closed institutions that develop consensus by seeing small bits of evidence as part of a larger logical perspective. But the politics of publication and reputation leads to vested interests in which change may be resisted unreasonably - sometimes for a generation or more. When a particular generation of academics reach retirement age at around the same time this can lead to an 'avalanche' effect. This may be called a 'paradigm change' but we should be careful to distinguish between syntagmatic and paradigmatic innovation.

Design paradigms

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Bolt and Nut - Archimedes (287-212 BC) square-50cm-spacer.jpg Tapered wood screw__ (after 1760's)

It is remarkable how the human mind can resist seeing beyond the prevailing paradigm until it gives way to another one. It is likely that Archimedes (or a near contemporary) conceived the parallel-threaded screw that we find in the modern bolt (see above). It took several thousand years before the idea of a tapered screw thread emerged. This enabled screws to penetrate wood without having to make a threaded hole first. Whether this represents a true paradigm change is open to discussion. However, the length of time between the first bolt and the first screw is symptomatic of the challenges involved in changing a paradigm.

__Current use of the word 'paradigm'

All of the above senses of the word are resonant in the way we use it today. Hence, it can be used to refer to a pattern of thought in any given context. In terms of metadesign it should be understood as stronger than a philosophical or theoretical framework. As Albert Einstein reminded us, solutions to big problems are hard to imagine from within the mindset that produced them. If the paradigms are literally 'unthinkable', how can we work with them? Who can think beyond the possible? We need an approach that includes the design of key words and ideas that will facilitate effective change.


Mario Mazzucato (2015) lists 12 key technologies essential to the development of smartphones. Most were developed by state-funded enterprises, rather than commercial industry, per se.

  1. tiny microprocessors
  2. memory chips
  3. solid state hard drives
  4. liquid crystal displays
  5. lithium-based batteries
  6. Fast-Fourier-Transform algorithms
  7. the internet
  8. HTTP & HTML
  9. Cellular networks
  10. touchscreen
  11. voice-activated artificial intelligence agent (Siri)

Mazzucato, M. (2015). The innovative state. Foreign Affairs, 94(1), 7-8.
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GEM Peapod 2012 square-50cm-spacer.jpg Nissan Tama 1947

Huge rise in sales of low-emission cars (BBC News 18th April, 2012). Electric Cars have been around since design emerged from the industrial revolution (1880's). They are both part of a much larger paradigm. Currently, designers are specialists who are trained to catalyse the economic system of consumption. This why re-designing the car will not save us from catastrophic climate change, or from biodiversity depletion. Our metadesigners framework is intended to re-design the paradigm of design.

See paradigm change
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