(Re)writing The Paradigm
emulsifying & catalysing interactions within metadesign teams
This article is an afterthought to our 2022 book on metadesigning designing in the era of the Anthropocene. The book argues that - as commercial design has shaped the Anthropocene - so it is part of the economic paradigm that needs changing. However, although designers may have the creative potential to change paradigms, they are not formally trained to do so. This is the context for advocating what it calls 'metadesign'. However, given that design education shapes how designers acquire their skills we can regard it as a type of metadesign. The article focuses on the assumed purposes of writing within design degrees and reminds the reader that academic writing derived largely from scholastic, truth-centred traditions, rather than from the more purpose-led, outcome-focused practices of design. Whereas future designers of post-carbon, post-growth economies will need to facilitate local and convivial synergies, alphabetical writing emerged from the pragmatics of scaling-up colonies and empires on behalf of ruling elites. In seeking alternatives to the declarative grammars and literacies of scholarship it cites less hierarchical analogies drawn from chemistry and molecular gastronomy. For example, the concepts of 'emulsifiers' and 'catalysts' act as useful models for writing genres that can reconcile the myriad vested interests and ideologies that co-sustain paradigms. The article also outlines a systemic notation framework that blends mapping, writing and semiosis. Used in a sufficiently entrepreneurial way, this diagnostic tool could also be used to change paradigms.
The Conditions of Design
This article heralds a new book that calls for a more radical, joined-up and comprehensive set of practices that it calls ‘metadesigning’. The term metadesign has been around since the early 1960s and has been used in several contexts, as cited by several authors in our book. Clive Dilnot's foreword offers fresh insights into John Chris Jones’s 1984 book ‘Designing Designing’ in which he defines metadesign as 'the design of design processes and processes of change'. In her 2003 PhD, Elisa Giaccardi applied it to digital communities and Caio Vassão is currently using for practical social innovation and public sector projects. Ultimately, we envision it as possible superset of interoperable and open source supertools. This idea would mean that any, and all, effective methods could be assimilated and offered to all. However, this reminds us that designing is always shaped by the prevailing conditions of the designer's workplace, most of which are beyond the designer's control. These conditions include the laws, standards, business models and financial protocols that maintain the current economic system.
During the Glasgow COP26 summit of 2021, despite being briefed by leading scientific thinkers and strategists, political leaders fell short of saving the planet. How did this happen? Arguably, scientific reasoning is a way of evaluating evidence-based facts and political reasoning is a form of bargaining and expectation management. Could design-based reasoning be the missing element? Politicians seek to change behaviour by setting ‘targets’, making heartfelt speeches and brandishing the sticks and carrots of fiscal policy. Whereas all of these methods are abstract and circuitous, designers are trained to work at a more direct level. At best, they change behaviour by fashioning new affordances that reward us more immediately and experientially. Some modes of design reasoning are already used in government, but we also need to think beyond existing methodologies, especially as designers are not yet trained to change whole paradigms. Even worse, the design industry has been shaping the Anthropocene for a while and so is part of the paradigm that needs changing. This implies that the design community would need to work towards a kind of collective metamorphosis at the professional level.
Beyond Silo Thinking
As most designers acquire their initial assumptions, expectations and working habits from their study experiences design education is also one of the conditions of design, therefore it is useful to regard it as a mode of metadesign. Fortunately, the design education system has the freedom to reform itself, given that universities are not directly affected by the market forces that constrain designing in the commercial sector. Lara Furniss - another of the book's authors - discusses her research that explored how UK universities teach design. Her findings show that few design courses have the fearlessness, coherence or breadth of vision that made the top cross-disciplinary design companies so successful. Just as design education shapes design, so the writing methods taught in universities help to shape the way that future designers are likely to think. This invokes deeper questions about the perceived purpose of writing within art schools. What can learn from the technologies of connectivity? Which writing genres would make design practices wiser? Do design students really need to writing? Some academics in the more traditional and scholastic universities may find this question surprising, given that book-oriented learning remains the default model for higher education.
Whereas mainstream universities evolved from the mediaeval monastic traditions of solitary rumination and book copying, art school virtues include the tacit skills and sensibilities embodied in the old crafts guilds traditions. Strangely, today’s students of art and design often seem oblivious of the epistemological conflict this implies. One reason is that the fault line between bookish and atelier epistemologies is concealed by a common bureaucracy of assessment. Over the last six decades we have adjusted art school learning environments for compliance with the business models, government agendas and other impediments of book-based degrees. Of course, not all university design departments perceive the purpose of writing as an integral part of the student’s ‘practical’ work. In many universities, written assignments are administered and marked by staff who manage the process as a standalone skill, or as a peripheral adjunct to the ‘core’ subject. The UK Government published its Coldstream Report in 1960 to set the standards for art students to be awarded honours degrees. Unfortunately, most art schools assumed that writing academic essays and dissertations would be mandatory, even though ‘writing’ per se, is not mentioned in the Report. Many art school deans therefore recruited graduates from the humanities and sciences in order to teach their studio-based students how to write like scholars.
Reductionism in the Academy
If we are to re-design our degree courses around the quest for a safer and more regenerative world we will need to think more deeply about the dissonances between scholastic and studio-based traditions of learning. For example, do the two cultures have compatible definitions of ‘knowledge’? If design students must prove their prowess in writing, how should we best teach it to support their main studio practices? Designers need to read and write, but there is no benchmark that cites the possible purposes of writing. It would be helpful to invite leading thinkers to create a cluster of vision statements. Unfortunately, the creeping monetisation of the education system and quasi-commodification of degrees is distracting us from long-term issues like this. Anecdotal reports from senior academics suggest that more and more time must now be devoted to managing disputes about the services, grades and written qualifications paid for by students. These discussions focus attention on tuition fees, loans and job markets. In this parochial context we are unlikely to see many calls for new visions of the Art School, especially as practical design courses are more expensive to run yet enjoy less prestige.
The Purpose of Literacy
It is strange that when compared with disciplines, such as law, medicine or accountancy, artists, designers and craftspeople are regarded as members of the ‘minor professions’. Whereas the former practices have been around for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years, alphabetical writing and summative reasoning only emerged in the last five thousand years as fiat currencies and fiscal management methods became used to maintain and to grow imperial colonies. They enabled early protocities to scale up beyond the Dunbar number of below a few hundred members, but this created hierarchies of specialist classes, each with its own working vernacular. Whereas the horizontal sharing of information emerges organically via local, embodied and interpersonal exchanges, the vertical flow of managerial data needed to be monitored and managed centrally in order to preserve the prevailing structures of power. Monosemic or arbitrary codes (e.g. numbers and letters) facilitated a discourse that works for the lowest common denominator.
Quality versus Quantity
Today it has become even harder to reclaim the concept of ecological ‘wisdom’ within a data-centred economy, especially when educators still seem to have no agreed understanding of ‘knowledge’. While university regulations for doctoral awards commonly refer to ‘new knowledge’ they seldom, if ever, specify its location, purpose or intended operational timescale. Even though the purpose of examination criteria is usually ill-defined it is customary to condense years of student endeavour into a single mark or grade. This similarity to accountancy suggests that the system was designed more for administrative certainty and fairness, than for developing new ways of learning that will help us to survive. This kind of reductionism was also notable in the recent emphasis on online learning, whereby universities allowed their students to remain silent and invisible while a lecturer preaches to them on Teams or Zoom. If universities wish to prepare out learners for a truly regenerative world they will need to embrace diversities on every level, not just those that relate to individual identities. It will require more situated and self-reflexive modes of learning that operate on a wide spectrum of emotional, creative, haptic, rational and performative levels.
Imperialist Writing and Accounting
Without written laws, contracts, bonds and accounts the modern megacorporation would not exist. As these modes of writing were designed to convey managerial information without ambiguity, they also restrict the depth, nuance and scope of possibility. The most extreme example is fiat money, which reduces the world to nouns without qualities. As Georg Simmel put it "The quality of money consists exclusively in its quantity.” If our purse contains X number of Euros it will always add up the same way (X Euros exactly). On the positive side, monetary transactions can be universally accountable beyond dispute. Indeed, the interoperability and fungibility of money make it a ‘supertool’. Unfortunately, to make it work like this it was designed to conceal any intrinsic synergies that might otherwise distract people when conducting transactions. In order to make the act of counting seem sane, we must tell our brains that the items concerned are identical members of the same imaginary category or class. Coins are therefore designed to look identical in order to heighten the illusion of additive logic. However, as figure 1 shows, instead of combining X coins we have a diversity (the same number) of different things, we soon notice an abundance of possible synergies. Moving from the current summative economic framework and transitioning to to a more relational and combinatorial paradigm will alert us to abundances the are implied in a diversity of differences. Ultimately, metadesigners will cultivate what Buckminster Fuller called a net ‘synergy-of-synergies’.
Fig. 1 - Relations outnumber - and are more valuable than - things
Beyond Digital Ontologies
In the mid 20th century, whereas this kind of networked and relational thinking inspired analogue and connectionist technologies, governments and big business saw more potential in digital databases, spreadsheets and other mechanisms for polarising uncertainties and forcing binary distinctions. These concepts probably originated in the early bureaucratic empires of ancient China and in Aristotle’s famous ‘law of excluded middles’ and theory of categories. This is not mean that our digital pioneers lacked vision. Ada Lovelace imagined a more lively, numberless world far beyond Charles Babbage’s arid computations. Others envisioned the internet as a fully inclusive, interoperable world that would release humanity from the petty constraints of the academic disciplines. Ted Nelson coined the term ‘intertwingling’, suggesting that “...there are no subjects at all; there is only knowledge, since the cross-connections among the myriad topics of this world simply cannot be divided up neatly” (Nelson, 1980). Unfortunately, Tim Berners-Lee’s lofty vision of a single, non-proprietary, non-monetised internet system was quickly reclaimed by the social media companies who used algorithms to polarise opinion and to gather data. Today, even children are part of a predatory economy that strips the meanings from messages and sells them as ‘metadata’.
Situated and Unsituated Writing
Looking ahead, if avoiding imminent extinction requires a paradigm change humanity may need to empathise with quantum computers, rather than adding machines. Some aspects of of Blockchain, Knowledge Graphs and other coding systems look promising, although many cryptocurrency enthusiasts seem enthralled by the dumb metaphors of mining and scarcity that perpetuate financial speculation and exploitation, rather than nurturing local willingness and trust. How can we re-design or to re-shape the thought processes that will cultivate relational synergies, rather than ‘things’? I have spent a long time asking myself why this has proved so difficult. While synergy between ‘things’ is more abundant and valuable than the things themselves, we still have more nouns (in English) than the relationships that outnumber them (see fig. 1). Formal English grammar turns the world into chunks and makes things ‘add up’ in the rational sense (n.b. 'rational' derives from unit-based measurement). However, the logic of living systems does not ‘add up’ because values are always situated in a specific context and are emergent and combinatorial. They are synergistic. Hence, team synergies emerge more in the flow (i.e. as verbs) rather than from nominal team roles (i.e. as nouns and conjunctions). The idea of situated-ness in communication can be exemplified by comparing Swiss German and Japanese. Whereas a recorded conversation in Swiss German may be understandable when taken out of context, a casual conversation in native Japanese would depend more on the immediate context and tacit understandings of the participants.
In linguistic studies, a ‘paradigm’ is a set of very similar words that, when combined, create a definitive meaning or broad concept. In everyday discussions, we change meanings by substituting different words within a standard grammatical structure, rather than re-inventing the structure of thought beneath it. However, when we change the grammar’ (i.e. the linguistic paradigm) we are likely to change what is ‘thinkable’. By enlarging the domain of the thinkable we will notice more possibilities and avail ourselves of more opportunities. The shift from the mining (i.e. granular 'thing-based') paradigm to a more relational paradigm may not be easy. Switching from a summative, noun-based discourse to one that is combinatorial and synergy-based will feel like we have relinquished our ability to plan and to work predictively. In other words, we will hanker for the certainties of design. On the other hand, metadesign will teach us to value opportunity-finding approaches and show us how to orchestrate serendipities. Eventually, we will find this more rewarding than the fact-based, problem-solving paradigms. Whereas traditional scholastic disciplines worked within truth-centred or analytical genres of writing, art school pedagogies have often given artefacts a provisional status whose ‘purpose’ is expected to emerge later. Metadesigners will need new models of writing that synthesise both of approaches, but in a strongly outcome-oriented form. What I have called ‘auspicious reasoning’ is a comprehensive, reader-centred and outcome centred approach that can help designers to ‘write’ new paradigms. Computer coding is an example of auspicious reasoning, given that it is evaluated by what it does, rather than by how it reads.
Thomas Kuhn used the word ‘paradigm’ to describe scientific cultures of belief held within academic institutions. He showed how scientific paradigms often resist change, even when there is clear evidence they are beyond their sell-by date. Just as a scientific communities sometimes resists acknowledging the next paradigm, so our collective lifestyles may take a while to adapt to new ideas and visions. This is because we cling to older myths and value systems - all of which co-sustain one other within the larger social paradigm. What genre of writing would best facilitate this process? Much academic writing exists either as a proof of study, a step-by-step record of a research process, experiment, or sequence of arguments. Metadesigners need writing genres that might, for example, catalyse the synthesis of assets. If so, this would call for modes of writing unlike the narrative and prosaic descriptions we tend to use in design research. Social paradigms are extremely complex, as they are tacitly embodied, situated and distributed, therefore we cannot ‘say’ a lifestyle paradigm, any more than we can ‘say’ or ‘write’ how to ride a bicycle. If we are to metadesign paradigms we need writing genres resembling what computer scientists call ‘knowledge graphs’ - i.e. databases of relationships, rather than things.
In our early metadesign research we consulted with Dr. Vadim Kvitash, a medical doctor who has patented diagnostic and therapeutic method that maps the internal metabolic conditions of patients. Importantly, instead of measuring each parameter against a standard external benchmark he maps them in terms of their relationships to one another. Figure 4 shows a ‘relonic’ map depicting all of the vital chemicals in the blood. In this case, the lines depict suboptimal relations that can guide a reliable survival prognosis for post-operative heart patients. As his approach is systemic it can also be applied to non medical situations, and he helped us to apply it to an urban planning context in which we compared two famous cities. Complex systems maintain a state of homeostasis because of feedback and feedforward loops that are sufficiently configured to enable local self-regulation and general self-coordination. Kvitash’s approach applies this understanding to the mapping and re-mapping of paradigms. In practical terms, once we have mapped a paradigm’s formative elements in a circle each line can then be used as the location for texts that describe each of the the relational lines. Instead of shaping the information according to the implied narrative of an academic essay, it enables any notes, qualifiers, quantifiers or other semiotic signifiers to be juxtaposed in a precise and explicit relational framework.
Fig. 4 Kvitash’s Relonic mapping of blood chemicals
The Autombile Paradigm
Fig. 2 Template for ‘re-writing’ the automobile paradigm
As mentioned above, we can apply a relonic approach to any other system or paradigm. Figure 2 shows an empty template relating to the automobile paradigm (c.f. Kauffman, 1995). The climate change context illustrates the need to augment design approaches with more comprehensive responses, such as metadesign. Although switching from a diesel-powered car to a more efficient electric car is obviously a good idea, but it may be insufficient to mend the climate. For example, advertising electric cars as less damaging is likely to increase demand for rapid personal mobility. Finding a different paradigm would mean designing at higher levels, such as live-work balance, urban planning, and the wasteful business models that entangle many designers. Any paradigm can be represented as a set of sub-paradigms, each of which exists as a vested interest group with its own habits, tropes and ingrained assumptions that serve to co-sustain one another. Drawing interconnecting lines between every sub-paradigm within the whole system thereby enables the metadesigner to see any given relationship as a vested problem, or as an opportunity for brokering new opportunities or benefits for each party. This mode of writing can be used to create integrated strategies for restructuring the paradigm in accord with a revised purpose.
Whereas the design paradigm is traditionally characterised by singular acts of drawing or form-giving by individuals, I have long argued that this has made synergy seem mysterious and intangible. My own work in metadesign has therefore explored the importance of combinatorial reasoning, whether or not this relates to combinations of materials, ideas or people. Most synergies are hidden or elusive because they are nameless yet the lack of internal synergy within a team makes it harder for it to notice useful synergies elsewhere. In his 1809 novel ‘Elective Affinities’ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe used an established paradigm from chemistry to depict the sometimes fraught relationships between his characters. The field of ‘molecular gastronomy’ is a more recent and accessible inspiration for metadesigners who need to work collaboratively. Like metadesign it can exist as both an art and a science, given that it requires situated judgements, some of which depend upon evidence based principles and parameters. For example, as science shows, different herbs burn at different temperatures and each cooking oil will have its own melting point. This explains why, when cooking curries it is important to add ingredients in the correct order so that each will release its flavour when the appropriate temperature is reached.
The English cornish pasty is unusual in separating savoury (meat) and and sweet ingredients (jam) by keeping them at opposite ends of the pasty. The design of this traditional miner's lunch item reflects the convention of starting with a main course and ending lunch with a sweet dessert. Perhaps it caters for people with very different taste preferences. Either way, its design makes it hard to eat them together. Some elements resist combination, whether they happen to be people or foods. Just as it is hard to get oil and water to mix, so some team members will not collaborate without rancour. Sometimes, their personal animosities are so strong that they find it hard to coexist in the same room, even though they need to work together. Just as an emulsifier, such as an egg yolk, will enable oil to bind with water, so we can manage an acrimonious relationship by inviting a suitably skilled third person to work between them. Of course, it is vital that the 'human emulsifier’ has a greater affinity with each of them than they have with one another. It is likely that s/he would be an excellent languager who is able to empathise, interpret and reimagine the unique wisdom of the parties concerned.
Figure 3 - strategically placed emulsifying handbooks to optimise organisational interplay
Figure 3 shows a self-managing, four-team organisation based on a rudimentary living system. Although each of the four team's functions are essential to the metabolic workings (i.e. and survival) of the organism, they are sufficiently different from one another that some agents could find it baffling if relocated to a different team. Misunderstandings may also be the result of personal they cannot empathise with others from a very different background. Emulsifying is akin to the concept of enterprise, given that the etymology of the word ‘entrepreneur’ literally means ‘taking from between’. The concept of the human emulsifier could easily be used to design a double-portal handbook that brings different team members together. Like a Cornish pasty it could be designed to be read from either end. In this configuration, six emulsifier handbooks would offer a total of twelve introductions that represent each of the four standpoints in relation to the other three. It could exist as a conventional book that can be read from either end, or a digital portal leading to common ground in the middle.
Catalysing Reactive Change
The purpose of emulsification within teams is not to mollify or to deny important differences, but to set up the conditions for mutual benefit, rather than defeat for one or other party. Whereas emulsification can be an exercise in diplomacy and caution, the ultimate aim is to change the paradigm, therefore it also needs to be bold and creative. In Arthur Koestler's notion of bisociation) participants imagine combining several seemingly incompatible or irreconcilable ideas. Forcing them together causes unexpected idea/s to pop out. This may explain why it may be necessary to combine things that are simple, but very different. Elizabeth Fulhame devised the chemical concept of ‘catalysis’ in 1794. A ‘catalyst’ is a substance that will enhance, or quicken a chemical reaction without being changed or depleted in the process. It comes from the Greek word ‘katalúō’ (‘καταλύειν’) that means to ‘loosen’ or ‘untie’. If this is not enough, the catalyst may be a superb facilitator or therapist who can unobtrusively elicit new insights from the client, yet without seeming to add any of her own ideas.
The Deep Purpose of Brevity
Notably, the catalysing process may not work unless there is sufficient working space. A practical parallel is the clearing of junk from a table, or emptying a room of clutter. In writing terms it is a reason for reducing the word count to the absolute minimum essential elements that will lead the reader to a well honed recommendation, proposal or product. For design students, learning how to pitch their work as 'show and tell' may be more helpful than writing a scholarly essay on design. For one thing it can help to build trusting client relations as it is face-to-face and performative. It therefore calls for the ability to listen and to improvise around matters of immediate relevance to the client. Of course, it is risky, but innovation is always risky. Koestler warns that bisociation sometimes culminates in laughter. No matter how long stand-up comedians spend in crafting their gags, their success or failure will be judged in the chaos of the living moment. Much of the hard work will have gone into honing down, rather than writing a Magnum Opus. As Paul Auster said, “The joke is the purest, most essential form of storytelling. Every word has to count.” In 2021, David MacMillan received a Nobel prize (jointly with Benjamin List) for inventing a general procedure for rapidly catalysing novel chemical structures. Interviewed about his qualifications for devising the process, MacMillan cited his upbringing and sense of humour. "You can convey ideas quickly from growing up in Scotland…you learn how to talk and you learn how to tell a joke and you can get to a punchline," he said. - you're good at it.”
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