Radical Optimism

a definition in the context of metadesign

Affirmative approaches

  • Design is sometimes seen as a problem-solving activity.
  • When this happens, it is easy to over-emphasise the 'problem-space'.
  • This can compromise creative thinking and limit the perceived horizon of possibilities.
  • Metadesign therefore seeks to encourage an strongly optimistic, affirmative approach.
  • Instead of identifying itself with 'problems', metadesign sees itself as an opportunity-finding process.

Mike Davies.jpg
Mike Davies of Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners in September 2003 at one of our first Attainable Utopias events.

Beyond a Joke

  • Mike Davies holds up a bottle of what he called his 'contagious optimism pills' in one of our first AU workshops.
  • His term helped us to theorise the feasibility of designing miracles.
  • We figured that, whether or not this task is feasible is dependent on whether we can make it thinkable.
  • We see this as an aspect of auspicious reasoning.
  • Without contagious optimism, miracles become less thinkable, therefore less attainable.

Beyond the Law of Diminishing Returns

  • Classical economics was inspired by the metaphor and logic of mining.
  • By 'exploiting' a finite set of resources one soon encounters the 'Law of Diminishing Returns'.
  • This axiom depicts the world as a set of vanishing resources that cannot be replaced.
  • It therefore encourages a narrow, competitive and conservative view of things.
  • More recent notions such as the law of increasing returns seem to promise what may seem, to traditional economists, a repudiation of natural entropic principles.

Breaking habits by challenging beliefs

  • Another pessimistic theory (Hardin, 1968) is called the 'tragedy of the commons'.
  • This claims that humans evolved as an exploitative species
  • We have 'always' exploited resources for local, or short-term advantage.
  • Our minds evolved alongside this habit. It persists, even though we know it no longer works.
  • More positive thinkers (Gerard de Zeeuw, 2002) have shown how we might reverse this trend.
  • Invite citizens to work towards sharing net benefits of small, incremental improvements.
  • In thinking about, and designing for, highly complex systems the MF may take the view that, over the last two thousand years of western thought, the role of the imagination has been under-valued.


  • Because resources are dwindling, metadesign must find latent abundances within existing resources.
  • It must synergise (existing) synergies into an emergent 'synergy-of-synergies'.
  • This work needs to be informed many disciplines - anthropology, engineering, philosophy, psychology etc.
  • Metadesign will explore new configurations of 'serendipity'.
  • For example, it will seek 'temporary utopias', or 'micro-utopias' (rather than 'Utopia').
  • Positive feedback is useful in 'self-creating', or self-sustaining systems (see autopoiesis).
  • But positive feedback can create a bad situation, just as easily as a good one.
  • War is easy to start and hard to stop. We must learn more about sustaining peace.
  • Poverty and drug dependency are also examples of a 'vicious circles' that self-sustain.
  • Hence, we may try to transform 'vicious circles' into ‘virtuous circles’.

See Tool no. 77 - Designing Miracles.
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