Collective Designing in the Anthropocene

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
― Richard Buckminster Fuller

Lisa Norton

What is the role of design in change work today and how can integral approaches to designing enhance distribution of social benefits? What if we could imagine ways to design collectively, as a species – a human tribe of tribes – in anticipation of our collective challenges? The age of the Anthropocene calls forth an integral designing agency. As the contingent nature of our interdependent global challenges becomes apparent, abductive design thinking can aid in pattern analysis, ideation, prototyping, and play testing.

Integral designing agency, being transdisciplinary, transpartisan, collective and collaborative, affords qualities most needed at the intersection of ill-defined life conditions such as climate, poverty, conflict, population and energy where uncertainty prevails. But what makes designing agency integral and how does this look in practice?

Integral designing considers the varied perspectives, needs and values of the human species-stakeholders and gatekeepers alike. Integral designing is anticipatory of possible futures and precautionary of their impacts across time spans beyond individual human lives. Integral designing can serve transformative change by means of iterative modeling and prototyping of alternatives in key areas like health, education, and environment.

In the civic arena how might integrally informed designing contribute to new forms of social and political action? Every human being is a designer in the sense that our collective behaviors leave grooves in the form of cultural and political norms. If we understand the ways we live, consume, govern and engage as collective designs, we see that our civic space reveals itself as an array of designed responses to an (artificially limited) range of civic ‘problem’ framings, signs and images. This is particularly evident in the intangible design realms such as service, policy and governance where we are often solving for partisanship with issues polarized so as to defend or contest ideologies (Kloor).

Mike Hulme, founding Director of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research has said, “I don’t think the Anthropocene is an idea that can be solved…it is helping us to rethink about ourselves, our relationships to each other and to the non-human. And indeed it is helping us to think about how we think about our relationship to the future.” (217).

When student leaders from my school traveled to Washington D.C. to march against the TransCanda Keystone XL Pipeline extension I found myself wondering about the assumptions driving the design of these particular change tactics, namely the demand by student groups for full or partial divestment from funds that profit from coal, gas and oil. Are current activist strategies effective designs, for whom, and if so, by what measures of efficacy? Further, why do activist campaigns borrow from political tactics of the past? Historical precedents for radical activism such as the influential global divestment campaigns against Apartheid in the 1980’s and against tobacco in the 1990s (Shogren) although instructive as models, are not necessarily useful roadmaps for the emergent activist territories of today.

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”(Heraclitus).

Nor does a unilateral flow of science communication necessarily result in a productively informed and engaged public (Hulme, 225) as environmental reform giant Bill McKibben learned the hard way with his first book and acknowledged on Twitter, “My theory of change was people will read my book and then they would change…that’s not actually what happened-“(McKibben).

Some small liberal colleges have agreed to the student demands, the Brown Divest Coal Campaign being one of the most successful to date (Shogren). The Fossil Free Campaign launched by fuses profit and harm to stigmatize the big suppliers “If it is wrong to wreck the climate, then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage.” ( Student groups at our peer institution, the Rhode Island School of Design, have organized as Divest RISD. “Our demands could not be more reasonable or more feasible. We want the college immediately to stop making new investments in fossil fuel companies, and then to sell off their holdings over five years.”(Henn).

Several of my students, representing Students for Environmental Action (SEA) and SAIC for the Future raised concerns that The School of the Art Institute of Chicago is involved with firms and funds that are invested in fossil fuel (Isaacs). Although I applaud student leadership for advancing their agenda and being engaged in civic matters, I was dubious about the network strategies straining between macro and micro scales with palliative local activities like Recycle Mania on the one hand and demands for major financial divestments by our Board of Governors on the other. I speculated with students about the kinds of changes these tactics are designed to produce. Although divestment from fossil fuels, along with offsets, carbon trading, and lifestyle impact analysis can and do enhance our individual and collective adaptive capacities, from a systems perspective divestment of colleges and universities would be but a drop in the bucket in terms of creating change in the energy market. It would serve the symbolic function of shifting a perceived locus of responsibility from a consumptive society to the suppliers of fossil-derived energy. Such engagements although arguably productive, may reinforce existing political factions and actually delay key interventions (Lowe). Further critical analysis may support the argument that such campaigns are for the most part designing deepened entrenchment of conflicts.

In complex and contested conditions such as climate adaptation, strategic change design and media messaging are always a political and never neutral (Hulme). The climate idea has many facets, each representing communities of belief (Leiserowitz et. al.) within a constantly evolving multicultural discourse. Climate is a life condition calling for integration of transdisciplinary collaborative expertise, collective creativity and action. Post-modern climate activism for the most part remains, from a design strategy perspective, an exercise of maturing progressive orthodoxy’s narratives of power. Typical ‘climate porn’ message characterize Millennials as the next ‘victims’ of climate change as a means to motivate participation in the growing climate movement.

Being an interlocking systems challenge, climate exemplifies the trans-disciplinary design challenge of our day. Climate is contextually interrelated to issues of poverty and wealth, population and energy. Yet the intangibility of climate concepts and impacts, with causes and effects distant in time and space, make them notoriously difficult to visualize and narrate. Whether various economic, stigmatizing, or anarchist tactics ‘work’ seems to matter little so long as they serve to validate positions along a spectrum of concern. In this Balkanized civic space moral admonitions and market instruments are blunt instruments, bound to fall short of the nuanced, co-created response required of climate adaptation. Although they may serve to raise awareness about the interrelated causes of climate change, the social cost of carbon, and intergenerational ethics, sensationalized political demands win their gains at great human cost.

Climate issues pose decisive questions about our common humanity, basic needs and creative capacities, and the value of human and other life. They challenge us to design processes that will bring humility into dialogue with the other -even those who hold views very opposed to ours- in the interest of a finite planet. Post-postmodern design dwells in the present, remaining attentive to acute needs and observing contextual changes. This designing agency is post-cynical, eschewing stereotypes and meeting others as human beings first, and in present time. In his March column in Integral Leadership Review, Don Beck reminds us to attend to the relations between vMemes and life conditions. “…For example, in terms of “Integral Leadership, the formula how should be who leads whom to do what with which people living where and that points at “what needs to be done.” (Beck).

‘Pulls’ into participatory civic narratives may help prevent climate activism from vacillating in negative feedback loops, over- and under reacting to a dehumanized and intangible foe. At meso level we can engage the power of collective intention, creativity and behavior as we evolve our ways of designing. Integral practitioners are embracing practical action. They are attempting to bring their practice and consciousness to bear in ways that affect lower right institutions and structures. They are attempting to further cultural evolution, bringing it to higher levels and that make a difference.” (Terry Patten in Volckmann)

Inserting individual and collective responsibility into the equation, the Transition Towns model advocates a gradual withdrawal from a societal ‘addiction’ to fossil fuels analogous to the belief that imprisoning drug dealers will not put an end to demand for drugs. The Institute for the Future’s Governance Futures Lab prototypes flexible policy architectures offering complementary and polycentric scales of governance, feedback and regulation with the capacity to yield a range of benefits across different sectors of society (Cole).

Understanding tolerance of difference as a precondition for resiliency including climate resiliency, post-postmodern designing solves for peace instead of conflict, relating instead of winning. Iraq veteran and peace advocate Paul K. Chappell, author of The Art of Waging Peacewonders when we will learn how to speak to people who do not agree with us. “If we can’t make peace within us how can we possibly create peace in the world around us; and if we can’t make peace with our own people in our own country how can we possibly create peace with other countries?” (Chappell).

The Anthropocene era challenges us to design for a level coherence that fosters dialogue. Its post-postmodern forms will be polymorphic and multivalent, its dynamics emergent, and its ‘clumsy solutions’ (Verweij) will be failure friendly. Integral design ideation bridges divergent arenas of expertise and methodology to address interior beliefs and exterior lifestyles. Staged in alternating divergent and convergent phases of contextually situated propositions, integral designing is evolutionary- anticipating and invoking greater capacities with every iteration.

About the Author

Lisa Norton, Professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago since 1992, teaches, consults and facilitates in whole systems design thinking and re-directive design education.

References (2013). Fossil Free Campaign. Retrieved from:

Beck, D. (2013). “The Master Code and Integral Politics in Polarized America”. Integral Leadership Review. March.

Chappell, P. K. (2010). Waging Peace Documentary. Retrieved from:

Cole, D. Cole. From global to polycentric climate governance. (2011). Climate Law. IOS Press. Pp. 395-413. Retrieved from:

Fuller, R. B. Retrieved from Wikipedia:

Henn, J. (2013). “RISD Students Stage the Nations First Fossil Fuel Divestment Sit-in.”

Huffington Post. April 29, 2013. Retrieved from:

Heraclitus. Retrieved from:

Hulme, M. (2011). “Restructuring Climate Policy for a Partisan Era” Presented at TAFE NSW, Sydney Institute. ABC Big Ideas Retrieved from:

Hulme, M. (2009). Why We Disagree About Climate Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 217, p.225

Governance Futures Lab. (2013). “Re-Constitutional Convention.” Institute for the Future. Retrieved from:

Isaacs, M. (2013). “Does SAIC Invest Responsibly?” FNews Magazine. Chicago: School of the Art Institute of Chicago. April. P .8.

Kloor, K. (2012). “Climate Tribalism on Display.” Discover. February 17, 2012. Retrieved from:

Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C. & Hmielowski, J. (2012). Global Warming’s Six Americas, March 2012 & Nov. 2011. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

Lowe, T. (2007). “Climate Porn”. Cosmos Magazine Online. 21 February.  Retrieved from:

McKibben, B. (2013). Retrieved from:

Shogren, E. (2013). “College Divestment Campaigns Creating Passionate Environmentalists.” NPR Morning Edition May 10, 2013. Retrieved from:

Verweij, M. (2006). Clumsy Solutions for a Complex World: Governance, Politics and Plural Perceptions. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Volckmann, R. (2013). “Integral Politics: A Conversation with Terry Patten.” Integral Leadership Review. March.