Climate Design For A World on Fire: Part 1

This week, the world is noticing what happens when we ignore climate change. The alarms are (literally) ringing, and designers must answer the call.

I am not arrogant enough to presume I know what to do to solve our issues of the day. But I know enough to suggest hundreds of things that can make a difference, even if their reach and full impact aren’t known.

This week, Seth Godin and a large team of writers published The Carbon Almanac, a manual for tackling the carbon future. Its timing couldn’t have been more appropriate as we witness record heatwaves across the planet and a litany of climate crises so big that Fast Company published a partial summary of what’s happening to show its readers the scale and scope of the problem.

When Fast Company — a tech and innovation magazine — decides to switch coverage to climate disasters, you know it’s serious.

As Seth Godin wisely states in his introduction to the Carbon Almanac project:

We don’t solve systemic problems with individual actions

Individual actions do matter but nowhere near what systemic actions can accomplish. My recycling does little when billions of tonnes of plastic are put into the world, propped up by support from oil and gas companies, government subsidies, and marketed demand for fast, cheap, convenient, and disposable products.

This week, what happens when we fail to take systemic change seriously has been put on full display. And it’s nowhere near over. The fires have been set.

Failure, By Design

Climate change and the damage it causes represent massive failures in design by design.

We have failed the Earth and ourselves for many reasons – but all of them are tied to designs. When we design interventions on systems problems based on individual motivation, not systemic action, we design for failure.

When we design economic systems that are based on growth instead of development (as economist Herman Daly puts it), we fail.

By putting off what can be done now in favour of choices that add to the problem (even if that is reduced impact), we design for failure.

Ignoring the non-linear effects of climate change, complexity, and environmental science in favour of short-term interests, consistently, we design for failure.

When we overload individuals with the responsibility for the solution and absolve corporations, industry, governments, and the world’s wealthiest, we design for failure.

None of these are radical statements – but observed patterns based on the science and practice of systems design. We designed what we’ve got. One of the fathers of systems science, W. Edwards Deming, put it perfectly:

Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.

What Next?

The world is (literally) on fire. Preventing climate change is like designing safer matches when your home is burning down. A more helpful design ethos is to focus on human needs, wants, and capacities within systems designed to exploit behaviours that aren’t in the best interest of the planet (or us).

This means preparing us all to live differently and within the means available to us. This can be an enormous opportunity to live better, not just survive.

It also means changing the metrics — which is where professional evaluators can be of such benefit. To illustrate, consider Herman Daly’s comments on the economy:

It’s a false assumption to say that growth is increasing the standard of living in the present world because we measure growth as growth in G.D.P. If it goes up, does that mean we’re increasing the standard of living? We’ve said that it does, but we’ve left out all the costs of increasing G.D.P. We really don’t know that the standard is going up.

What are our metrics? What are our strategies to achieve them? The Carbon Almanac provides some of both and is one of many tools at our disposal. We can make a difference, but the time to do is quickly shortening.

If you’re a designer like me, it’s time to step up. If you’re an evaluator, it’s time to step up. In the coming weeks, we’re going to look at how to fight the fires — literal and metaphorical — of climate change now.

Sarah McLachlan’s words come to mind — lets us as designers, evaluators and strategists bring what we have to the table.

Hearts are worn in these dark ages
You’re not alone in this story’s pages
The light has fallen amongst the living and the dying
And I’ll try to hold it in, yeah I’ll try to hold it in
The world is on fire, it’s more than I can handle
I’ll tap into the water, try to bring my share
I’ll try to bring more, more than I can handle
Bring it to the table, bring what I am able

Image Credits: JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash and Kevin Butz on Unsplash

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Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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