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(From TEDx Oslo 2013 talks)

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Presented at the Sustainable Innovation Conference Centre for Sustainable design - 4th-5th November 2013 by John Wood).



Drawing upon the author’s previous research into metadesigning, this paper advocates a more innovative and joined-up approach to the way we feed, clothe, shelter, assemble, and communicate. It argues that the normal process of innovating the design of products and services will not be sufficient to change the paradigm causing our ecologically damaging behaviour. Unless innovation is comprehensive enough, we may unwittingly perpetuate habits that sustain the status quo. For designers, the task would include re-languaging the traditional concept of design and innovating the idea of innovation itself. In this respect, rather than focusing on the production of ‘greener’ eco-products and services, the paper suggests making the creative process of innovation more combinatorial and relational. The ultimate aim of this approach is to create a synergy-of-synergies.

Innovation driven by cheap energy

Why is it that many politicians appear to see the ecosystem as a mere subcomponent of our ‘economy’? Arguably, if societal behaviour is driven by this kind of confusion between economics and ‘environmental sustainability’ we will need to make changes that are more pervasive than those which designers are normally trained to making. Historically speaking, capitalism emerged from growth in international trade, new theories of commerce and a proliferation of technological innovations (Harvey, 2010). Not least of these was the ability to produce high-energy fuels at low cost. Where previous agrarian societies had perceived wealth primarily in terms of the conditions that support the growing of food and building materials, etc., the industrialisation of farming in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries heightened the perceived importance of technological and economic innovation. Today, only 2% of the population works in farming, many people travel long distances to work and the transport of heavy goods is a daily routine. As laissez-faire capital and trading systems became more powerful, multi-national corporations and their shareholders came to play a bigger role in governance.


‘Sustainable’ consumption

The term ‘sustainable development’ was coined after the government-managed socialism of the Soviet Union began to collapse. It therefore coincides with the introduction of a tenacious, market-oriented system that was driven by financial imperatives. In the 20th century, while technological innovative and Taylorist management systems increased productivity, managers brought in designers, marketers and advertisers to create desires for things never previously seen, needed, or wanted (Papanek, 1972). The vast diversification of products and services then began to shape the tastes and ‘image’ (Forty, 1986) of their owners. The system also began to push consumer expectations to greater and greater heights. All of these factors are present in the destructive paradigm of trading that we know as ‘consumption’, which requires large quantities of material resources and pollutes land, waterways and air. Despite attempts by designers to ‘de-materialise’ products (e.g. Diani, 1992), make them leaner (e.g. Stahel, 1982), cleaner, slower, or service-based (e.g. Manzini, 1994) these strategies failed to reduce net demand for energy and materials. Indeed, some of these innovations may even have made matters worse.

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‘Virtual’ consumption

Buckminster Fuller was a pioneer who believed designers should ‘ephemeralise’ their designs, as a way “to do more and more with less and less until eventually you can do everything with nothing” (Fuller, 1938). This included his ‘abstract electrical’ approach, in which communication and control signals could be carried by radio signals, in order to save moving massive objects around. In 1974, Nam Jun Paik announced his transactional concept of an 'Electronic Superhighway', which inspired Al Gore’s ‘Information Superhighway’ (1993) and became what we now know as the Internet. At the broadest conceptual level this works by facilitating relations among a very high proportion of all players (individuals and organizations) in the world. This advent of social networking and Open Source innovation was already implicit in the humanist visions of pioneers, such as Denis Diderot (1713-1784), Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), Vladimir Vernadsky (1863-1945) & Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955), who foresaw an era of enlightened ‘global consciousness’, based on the open exchange of information.

Capitalism without friction?

Similar concepts can also be noted in James Lovelock’s theory of ‘Gaia’ (Lovelock, 1979), and Rupert Sheldrake’s theories of evolution (Sheldrake, 1981), even though, for many scientists, their works remain controversial. And, while we have no clear definition of, nor benchmarks for, global consciousness the Internet has, at least, made the concept more thinkable (c.f. Backwell & Wood, 2012). On a technological level, its pioneers include Vannevar Bush (1890-1974), Ted Nelson (1937-) and Tim Berners Lee (1955-), who established a framework for innovation that encouraged rival corporations to work together. Although the Internet has encouraged a degree of altruism, it has also brought about a revolution in commercial advertising, marketing and digital payment across national boundaries and currencies. Bill Gates has dubbed this ‘capitalism without friction’ (Gates, 1999), although, in terms of carbon expenditure, this new economic order is by no means frictionless. In 2012, whereas the aircraft industry produced 689 million tonnes of CO2 in 2012 (IATA, 2013), some estimates claim that the Internet produced 300 (or even 380) million tonnes and could double by 2020. While some practices, such as online ordering and ‘smart’ delivery systems, may potentially reduce energy demands in some ways, this is more than offset by the additional marketing power that the Internet affords to traders. Perhaps this should not be surprising, as much of it was built by the capitalist system that created the problem.

Paradigmatic change

One reason it is hard to change behaviour is that habits are driven along by the prevailing paradigm. Like all paradigms, ours is not only complicated, but also, to a significant extent, self-perpetuating, as it consists of many interdependent sub-components. Although it may seem obvious that some technological innovations can inspire a paradigm from one epoch to the next (Kauffman, 1995), the process is more complex than it may seem. Here, the word ‘paradigm’ is not used in the Platonic or linguistic senses (de Saussure, 1974) but in a slightly expanded version of Thomas Kuhn’s (1962) descriptions of cultures of practice and belief that strongly resist external pressures to change. The paper acknowledges that, while we urgently need a paradigmatic change in human behaviour this may be difficult to achieve. What Kuhn showed in his analysis of scientific paradigms (Kuhn, 1962) is that academic communities often act in partisan ways to resist new ideas that challenge their worldview, especially if they come from outsiders to, or competitors with, their institution. These tendencies are not unique to institutions of learning. In remote ecosystems, several species will sometimes work together to repel members of an invasive species (Pimm, 1997). Likewise, radical innovation in the commercial world may meet concerted resistance if it disrupts vested interests and established habits of practice.

Relanguaging paradigms

Another reason why changing behavioural paradigms may meet resistance is because it is likely to challenge the ‘reality’ of the day, especially if members of the culture have forgotten what caused them to behave as they do. A good approach, therefore, is to reframe and rename the underlying purpose, if possible, by consensus (Meadows, 1999). By first identifying common aims it should be more possible to refresh the working language and keywords that help to sustain that consensus. For example, some scientific adjectives, such as ‘Platonic’, or ‘Newtonian’ not only allude to a given paradigm but, also, to validate it in the popular imagination. This approach is based on the belief that our ‘reality’ is governed, to a large extent, by language (Whorf, 1956; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980) and that this process is circular (Maturana & Varella, 1980). Hence, the influence of a particular keyword serves to endorse behaviour that, in turn, seems to justify the use of the keyword. In George Orwell’s novel ‘1984’, when his fictional totalitarian government wanted to control the population by limiting its imagination, it systematically excised particular keywords from the language. Fortunately, this technique probably works better in reverse, as we can see in some notable examples of innovation by neologism. By deliberately coining new words, some innovators have managed to bring about positive opportunities for change. Examples include ‘meritocracy’ (Arendt, 1954), ‘genocide’ (Lemkin, 1947), and ‘ecocide’ (Galston, 1970; Higgins, 2010).

Confusion about ‘self-interest’

Although this was not Adam Smith’s (1776) express intention, his term ‘the invisible hand’ catalysed a continuing influence on behaviour. Smith was convinced that, by encouraging families and individuals to work hard for their own survival they would also be contributing to the ‘common wealth’ as a matter of course. However, this logic can also be interpreted as a license to act selfishly and to ignore the wellbeing of others. In this sense, the idea of ‘self-interest’ seems to conflate ‘individual self-interest’ with ‘shared self-interest’. This confusion remains problematic where environmental politics is concerned, especially as humans often choose to serve their short-term, rather than their long-term self-interest. As the ‘tragedy of the commons’ hypothesis illustrates (Hardin, 1968), if citizens fail to see the contributory effect of their individual greed, sooner or later their actions will compromise the ecological basis for their survival.

Bringing economy and ecology back together

In order to understand these contradictions in more detail it is useful to compare the words ‘economy’ and ‘ecology’. Originally, they derived from Greek words that described the understanding and management of a household. In this sense, both could be seen to embody the wisdom of local knowledge and prudent action. Logically speaking, this analogy cannot be scaled up without corrupting both of these virtues. Nonetheless, from within the current economic paradigm, it now seems entirely reasonable to quantify the biosphere as a set of resources, assets and currencies. Indeed, this idea is central to how most of the world is governed and it goes some way to explaining why managing money can seem more important than looking after the biosphere. While the term ‘sustainable development’ represents a brave attempt to heal the rift between ‘economy’ and ‘ecology’, it may now be time to challenge its usefulness in ‘metadesigning’ a better paradigm (Wood, 2007).

Ambiguities within ‘sustainable development’

One reason why Dr. Eva Brundtland’s term ‘sustainable development’ (Brundtland, 1987) is problematic is that it is symptomatic of the paradigm that needs to change. While it helped to create an early consensus, it is too ambiguous to be useful in the 21st century. There is nothing wrong with seeking fairness between today’s and tomorrow’s generations. However, the term ‘sustainable development’ does not address the need for fairness between species living now. These, and other anomalies have enabled organisations to ‘greenwash’ (c.f. Futerra, 2008) their activities by making dubious or ambiguous claims (e.g. ‘sustainable business’ or ‘sustainable consumption’) that cannot be falsified using these discursive terms. Even the simplest transitive version of the verb (‘to sustain’) can be used in at least two senses. One is durational and means ‘to keep going (i.e. temporally)’. The other refers to a system that is able to support itself (i.e. structurally).


Who sustains what?

Although, in using the term ‘sustainable development’, Dr. Brundtland seems to have intended it in the former sense of (human) ‘sustainment’ over time, the non-temporal meaning is more important, ecologically speaking. This is because the adjective ‘sustainable’ implies that something should be sustained yet does not specify either how this should happen, or who should do it. Indeed, it is rare for users to specify exactly what is to be sustained. Does the economy sustain Nature, or does Nature sustain us? Does technology sustain capital, or vice versa? In seeking to improve the discourse, I proposed the term ‘co-sustainment’ (Wood, 2000) as it seems less presumptuous, and more akin to how ecosystems hold themselves together. Indeed, they do so by harnessing interdependencies within a highly diverse and adaptable set of organisms. If we are to learn from this system, we will need to invent keywords that will inform the next economic paradigm. Languaging is a term used by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela to describe how living organisms survive within a changing, semantically rich environment (Maturana & Varela, 1980). It can be applied within metadesigning as a method of questioning the purpose of things, then rethinking them by re-naming critical aspects that had been overlooked or forgotten. The purpose of this method is not (only) to make existing concepts clearer, or tidier, but to reveal, or create, new opportunities.

From the unthinkable to the possible

Each paradigm operates within linguistic codes that emphasise certain possibilities and hide other others from us. In effect, this makes certain things ‘unthinkable’ within the discourse (Wood, in Jones, 2005). There is clearly a great deal more work to be done in ‘relanguaging’ particular realities, especially where they promote unhelpful moods or emotions. For example, although Adam Smith’s notion of ‘diminishing returns’ may have been useful in the business of extracting finite materials from the ground it is unduly pessimistic if applied to innovation within a creative industries context. Indeed, some enlightened economists have already noted that a ‘law of increasing returns’ (e.g. Romer 1986; Arthur 1996) applies within many sectors of the economy. Similarly, the accepted term ‘economies of scale’ seems too mechanical as a metaphor for describing biological and ecological systems. However, while the notion of ‘ecologies of scale’ may seem to be more reasonable, in principle, most of us may find it ‘unthinkable’, at least, for the time being.

Thinking outside the paradigm

What the above discussions point to is that the discourse of ‘sustainable innovation’ needs to innovate special terms of reference that depart from the current paradigm. As Einstein warned, “we can't solve problems with the type of thinking we used to create them”. This means we must think ‘outside’ the self-deceptive discourse of our anomalous world. Today, while leading experts in the Pentagon (2010), World Bank (2013) and United Nations (2013) continue to identify climate change as one of the most significant threats to our long-term security, governments continue to prioritise economic growth, instead of happiness or survival (Easterlin, 1974). It is therefore important to acknowledge that what we currently valorise as ‘creativity’ has mainly been used for innovation within urban communities (Landry, 2000), for transforming businesses to make the economy more ‘competitive’ (Cox, 2005) and, ultimately, for stimulating economic growth (Howkins, 2002; Florida, 2002). What is needed is a new approach to creativity that will narrow the gap between economy and ecology.



In different ways, both money and Nature are mysterious. However, whereas ecosystems are part of an ontological reality arbitrated by nature, money is an epistemological game coordinated by governments and banks. And, until very recently, few citizens seemed aware that money is created and destroyed by the banks (McKenna, 1928), still less that, the instant they deposit it, their hard earned money becomes the legal property of those private banks (Ryan Collins, Greenham, Werner, Jackson, 2011). However, this does not mean that bankers and government ministers are in full control of the economic system. Indeed, the spending value of money is only subject to the perceived value that we, as citizens and consumers, attribute to it. As always, there is an abiding issue about the importance of numerical indicators (e.g. quantities within a currency) in evaluating the often intangible, or ineffable nature of living systems. In short, the threat that capitalism currently poses to mankind’s long-term future is not only from banks and their covert motives and actions but, also, from the fact that the human species still finds big numbers hard to grasp, or to write down in a clear form (du Sautoy, 2009). This is not only an environmental issue but, also, one that affects the way we conduct business and politics.

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The problem underlying monetization

Hence, although money in the 21st century is, in effect, a set of numbers most of its power exists at the human, phenomenological level. It is a tireless catalyst to action because we continue to ‘invest’ our desires and expectations in it. Georg Simmel refers to this as the ‘glow’ of money (1900), but he also explains, that “money is the purest example of the tool” (Simmel, 1900). By spending money, the spender acts at a distance. He, or she can acquire things, despatch them to other places and make changes to the world around her, all without touching anything. The power of money, as we currently know it, therefore alienates us from our actions and encourages a dangerous confusion between (ecological) qualities and (economic) quantities. Moreover, as we may have noted, after 2008, the larger currencies become, the more risky they are. Also, their vast size will also make them dissipative (Douthwaite, 1992) and alienating (Mészáros, 2006) to distant investors. While these factors have been hidden by an abundance of ‘cheap’ energy they were part of the motivation behind local currency innovations (Linton, 1983), green trading innovations (Douthwaite, 1996), and microfinance initiatives (Yunus, 2007) that are less wasteful and exploitative.

Currencies based on synergies

In contrast with how capitalism has scaled up its institutions and currencies, natural systems have maintained their equilibrium by seeking diversity. This is an important clue for the way we need to rethink our lifestyles after carbon fuels. It seems reasonable to assume that, unless renewables become as abundant as peak oil, markets must become more localised, diversified and intensified. This will make creativity and innovation much more important to society and business. We need a more ecological paradigm to supersede Adam Smith’s definitions of ‘wealth’, and this might focus more on relations and meaningful synergies, rather than individual ‘things’ (e.g. products or services) and numbers (e.g. profits). One of the strange quirks of Western thought is the ancient idea that ‘reality’ is based on forms, and that ‘nothingness’ cannot exist, or have any useful value. The more we take Plato’s theory of forms seriously, the more we are likely to see the primary purpose of business as the provision of tangible ‘products’ (Tarnas, 1991).


Abundance only comes from combination

What the Platonic paradigm hides from us is that we get abundance only by combining things, rather than amassing larger quantities of the same thing. However, shifting our thinking from relations to discrete objects and things is a truly radical departure from the western belief system. It explains Richard Buckminster Fuller’s assertion that the primary number is two, rather than one (Fuller, 1975). This may seem strange because our philosophical beliefs are based more on individuality and ‘oneness’, rather than on difference. Interestingly, the literal meaning of ‘genius loci’ is posited on the belief that an idea is unique partly because it emanates from one place, not two. However, Arthur Koestler’s theory of creative thinking (Koestler, 1964) suggests that all ideation methods are combinatorial, whether or not the combinatorial act takes place in several parts of one’s brain, or in a playful relationship between several people. This may also remind us of the importance of sexual recombination, as it is nature’s way to obtain ‘innovation’ from two (different) existing resources. Whereas we are accustomed to expect value to emerge from valuable ingredients, synergy (c.f. Corning, 2003) only emerges from difference. This means it is possible to combine ingredients that have a low, or even negative values.

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Turning problems into solutions (with profit)

For example, placing two ‘problems’ in combination may, not only, reduce their unwanted qualities. But it also adds a synergy. For example, by combining two dangerous elements (Chlorine and Sodium) in the right way we may obtain edible table salt (NaCl). Nothing has been lost in this process (both elements are still present), but we also have a useful outcome that was not present before. This principle makes the notion of ‘difference’ a vital resource in its own right. Synergies are abundant. However, as we often fail to notice them, or to anticipate new ones designers need a combinatorial, relations-managing approach, rather than an outcome-seeking approach. synergy is one of the best-kept secrets of nature and it is unfortunate that we underestimate its importance within wealth creation. It is akin to a free bonus that we can get by combining things we already have. Some simple examples are relatively easy to grasp, as, for instance, the fact that stainless steel is up to 35% stronger than any of its ingredient materials. However, a relational approach is not as manageable as the more traditional (i.e. ‘form-giving’) modes of design, because it is usually unpredictable.

What is synergy?

Buckminster Fuller defined synergy as “the behaviour of whole systems unpredicted by the behaviour of their parts taken separately” (Fuller, 1971). This is helpful, as it reminds us of the mercurial nature of combinatorial actions. This is why, compared to designers, metadesigners will need to be more alert to emerging possibilities. This also makes the process more self-reflexive. In natural evolution, innovation works by processes of natural selection, in order to facilitate survival for whole ecosystems. In post-Darwinian terms, competition is believed to maintain the fitness of an organisation within the conditions of market forces. However, in natural ecosystems, competitive relations are less than ideal, as they require more energy than symbiotic relations (Margulis, 1998). If ‘mutual’ (rather than competitive) business relations were to be metadesigned into community-scale enterprises, participants would deliver complementary benefits to one another, rather than wasting energy in weakening them, or removing them from the struggle. This would deliver optimal returns to both, or all parties, even including other organisms in the vicinity.

The entanglement of synergy

What biologists call ‘symbiosis’ is a special form of synergy, therefore many important synergies are self-inclusive, especially if they emerge from co-creative collaboration (Nieuwenhuijze & Wood, 2006) and between team members whose differences are complementary (Belbin, 2010). Where, traditionally, the designer stands back, both temporally and structurally, from the product in order to give it autonomy, metadesigners may not be in a position to do so. This touches on the philosophical (scientific) question about whether we can observe ‘Nature’ as something external to us, or whether we experience being part of it. Karl Marx defined a similar distinction in his comparison between architects and bees. “What distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality”. Following this analogy, our metadesigning methodology is an attempt to operate as architects, and as bees, at the same time. In order to implement this on a national or global scale, this would require a more comprehensive and integrated strategy of innovation at more levels, including economics (e.g. bespoke currencies), language (e.g. values and meanings) and culture (e.g. behaviours).


Meta-combinatorial synergies

One of the most useful meta-tools in developing a combinatorial design methodology is the mathematics of combination. As we increase the number of entities to be combined we find that the number of relations they produce rise exponentially. In living ecosystems, this culminates in some highly complex and chaotic situations that sometimes lead to extraordinary evolutionary outcomes. Nassim Taleb (2007) has reminded sceptics that highly improbable events (e.g. what we might see as miracles) can, and do, cause cataclysmic change. In a different way, Rupert Sheldrake's (1981) 'morphogenetic fields' theory also addressed the issue of improbability. Sheldrake supposes that unprecedented incidents may act as (positive) 'feedback' to precipitate (massive) change in the ecological status quo. However, as architects (rather than bees), we are not clever enough to conceive (let alone ‘design’) using such as vast array of possibilities.

Thinking in Duets

Some recent brain research shows that most human beings are poor at conceptualising more than four interdependent variables, together with all of their possible interactions (or synergies). Buckminster Fuller’s work emphasises the uniqueness of tetrahedral systems (Fuller, 1969) and our metadesign research has developed this principle within human teams of four, distinctly different players. Here, we can introduce this idea using the model of music instrumentalists who play together. As shown, the simplest examples of synergy derive from the combination of two things (see previous examples of salt, or stainless steel). This is equivalent to a duet, in which each player ( A and B ) creates her, or his, own musical sound (i.e. 2 sounds). However, when both sounds combine with the other, an apparent third sound is also created. This is similar to saying that 1+1=3 (n.b. it is important not to take this analogy too seriously).

Thinking in Trios

Adding a third player to the duo (i.e. A, B, C) can increase the number of synergies, although the audience may not experience them as clearly distinct parts. However, in theory, by combining three players we can achieve three synergies, as each player synergises with the other two:

    • 1. Player A : Player B
    • 2. Player A : Player C
    • 3. Player B : Player C

Thinking in Quartets

By adding a 4th player to the trio (i.e. A, B, C, D) we make it 6 times more productive than the duo & twice as productive as the trio

In creativity terms innovators need to think quadratically or to work quadratically in order to achieve the maximum number of useful outcomes (i.e. 6).

    • 1. Player A : Player B
    • 2. Player A : Player C
    • 3. Player A : Player D
    • 4. Player B : Player C
    • 5. Player B : Player D
    • 6. Player C : Player D

It is possible that some, or all of these six synergies can be re-combined with one another to produce 15 secondary synergies, etc.

The quartet works like a tetrahedron

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Figure 1 – a tetrahedron

Some mathematics (i.e. Euler’s Law) and Buckminster Fuller’s theories of the tetrahedron (Fuller, 1971) can be used to illustrate the above sums, where the nodes of the tetrahedron stand for players and the edges represent the relations (or possible synergies) between them. We can use this to develop solutions that satisfy many requirements, simultaneously.

Practical examples

In the traditional entrepreneurial innovation model (c.f. Schumpeter, 1854) we tend to think of relatively simple conjunctions (e.g. pairs) of resources. However, John Ruskin's description of the craft activity (Fig. 1) happens to use a ‘quartet’ of entities, in defining the craftsman’s pride in his work:

    • The natural environment
    • The employer / customer
    • The work itself
    • The natural locality / community

Using the creative quartets (tetrahedral) method could reveal (six) hidden abundances, especially if a suitable entrepreneurial approach is taken. This approach would be helpful within circular economy, such as the ‘cradle-to-cradle’ approach (McDonough & Braungart, 2002). It also represents a heterogeneous approach that extends market systems (c.f. Anderson, 2006). It should also be seen as an adaptive approach that seeks to emulate ecosystems (c.f. Hawken, Lovins & Lovins, 1999), rather than following economic growth models. Although metadesigning complex synergies of combination will be less predictable than mass production, it should also facilitate the harnessing of small pockets of energy, materials and, most importantly, ‘fun’ that might otherwise be wasted.


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