A possible worldview for designers and makers


We have to turn to the designer’s role within a holistic worldview.  For designers generally and for architects in particular the professional focus is on the manipulation of the human environment to provide the various artifacts, from tools to shelter, from food to pharmaceuticals that support the material quality of our lives. Because of this, the consideration of the relationships between the individual, society, technology and the natural order must be central.  Unraveling the complex interrelationships within the sphere of the designed and manufactured accompaniments to life and the social mores and purposes they serve is difficult without adopting an already predetermined belief based explanation system that is locked into the currently prevalent political, sociological and economic mindset.  Here I shall try to break out of these conventions.

While design tends to focus on particular or proscribed “problem areas”, my consideration of an appropriate design philosophy here will follow a broader pattern of thought.  I will start with the content and quality of our lives and then consider how the material and social systems we create relate to our ideas about appropriate and enjoyable activity and values in our lives.  The discussion will concentrate on four areas of consideration:

  • How do we wish to live?
  • What do we need to make?
  • How should we make things?
  • What is the holistic meaning of the things we make?
  • What should be the designer’s role in this?


How do we wish to live?

We cannot escape from this central question.  It is the driver of client and consumer demand and the basis of most of the presumptions of design philosophy.  It is, of course, the central subject of politics as well.  And there are good reasons for this, which I will come to consider.

It is unlikely that a total consensus is possible when we attempt to answer the question: how do we wish to live?  However it will be argued here that the greater the area of consensus, the more coherent and satisfying the consequent culture becomes, even though it may have to have boundaries that are more permeable than either we might think appropriate at first sight or has been the case in the most coherent cultures of the past.

In earlier chapters I have tried to arrive at an understanding of the human condition as a background to the discussion of design possibilities and responsibilities.  I based this analysis on the starting point of experience, the day-to-day reality that we all face and in which we participate. Similarly, I will start here with what seems closest and most obvious.  As people and as primates our immediate concerns appear to be self, family, homemaking, conviviality, livelihood, society, and nature, sort of in that order.  As our awareness and education broadens, learning, culture and sport enter in and for those who are called, curiosity, virtuosity, adventure, celebrity, power and wealth may have strong appeal.  These latter groups of involvements (I shall refer to them collectively as “second and third order involvements”) may often substitute for the primary ones, which seem to revolve around what might be termed our biological needs.  But, unless these second or third order involvements are sooner or later enriched by replacement networks (family replacements), as a principal motivation they can become rather hollow and lead eventually to insecurity or worse.  Underpinning all these social and cultural activities is the “material support system”, the farming and extraction of resources, manufacture and transport of goods and the furnishing of technologies and services we think we need to sustain our physical well being, culture and economy together with the technologies aimed at preserving and enhancing our health and the extension of our life span.

This short foray into the nature of our lives immediately suggests a complex of desire and regulation, rights and responsibilities, that is not easy to resolve into an effective order of demand and response, value and significance, cause and effect and order of importance or priority, let alone good and evil.  The life experiences and social relationships that follow from these involvements are also the source of many historical epics and archetypes demonstrate the struggles, dilemmas and paradoxes that characterize the human condition.   While the fundamental drive might be seen to be biological, history and particularly recent history reveals a story about our struggle to leave our biological preoccupations and limitations behind.  Choosing what to indulge in and making sure it doesn’t hurt more than we can actually still enjoy drives our choice of experience as much as the quest for more obvious comforts – probably more so than most of us care to admit.  The pursuit of the second and third order involvements as set out here has established in recent times a completely new version of the autonomy of the individual that has left the simple biological or dynastic life behind them.

However, while the whole group of human involvements outlined above is for any of us full of internal struggles and misalignments, as a cluster of agendas, interactions and experiences it represents the core of human existence and purpose. The consideration of these issues should therefore allow us to debate how we wish to live.  For the sake of this discussion I propose to divide the groups into more precisely defined sets, prioritized into five orders:

  • Self, family, homemaking, conviviality, livelihood, society, and nature
  • Learning, ritual, culture and sport
  • Curiosity, virtuosity, adventure, celebrity, power and wealth
  • Hunting, farming and extraction of resources, manufacture of goods and provision of life support and other services, transportation, trade and commerce
  • Law, governance and war

I propose to look at these sets more closely with a view to answering the question: “How do we wish to live?”


Self, family, homemaking, conviviality, livelihood, society, and nature

While few would dispute the primacy of these involvements and their fundamental structural relevance to our lives, within these areas of experience we are immediately beset by paradoxes and contradictions.  We are self centred and self-protecting, but we admire the selfless and those who put their lives at risk for others.  We enjoy family relationships within which there are often strong bonds, but mistrust and hatred are also often rife within the family.  In spite of this, on balance there are so many positive things about the biological family that we have to regard it as a fundamentally important institution and worthy of being sustained.  If functions are what we look for then the central function of the family is the rearing and protection of children and the mutual support of the couple relationship, backed up and reinforced to a greater or lesser extent by their extended family.  On the other hand the individual needs protection and sanctuary from the family and regularly flees it entirely for “selfish” pursuits.  Conversely the state dictates the limits of family authority in some areas, especially where the protection of children is concerned.

The love hate relationships within families are the subject of many classic epics as well as the stock in trade of TV soaps.  The need therefore for the family to extend beyond the embryonic ‘couple’ and for human intercourse beyond the family is also clear and hence the importance of conviviality, the circle of friends and acquaintances with whom one maybe works but also eats, drinks, converses and relaxes.  Often the wider network of conviviality seems like a substitute for a lost tribalism, especially in male networks, which are often dominated by sport.  Furthermore, these networks can be the source of new families or family regroupings.  While we also depend on material things and more artificial types of communication (novels, broadsheets, radio, TV, films and the internet), which may or may not be a part of shared experience, the central, most authentic part of our lives is that which we share with our closest family and companions.

It is not surprising therefore that the next most fundamental area of concern for most people is their livelihood, the means by which they sustain their lone retreat, love nest or family home.     The notion of livelihood (means of sustenance) and related notions such as wealth and weal I discuss elsewhere, but the deep instinct for earning the desirable accoutrements of a good life for self, family and homemaking has been a central human preoccupation from the earliest tribal times when labour was first divided and differentials of power and wealth emerged.  The means of livelihood and quality of homemaking are also closely related to human notions such as respect and honour. At heart we are biologically programmed to be competitive as well as supportive, just as we more rationally balance our need for independence with our need for interdependence.   What we needin order to sustain our families and ourselves is, interestingly, largely determined by what is generally available and what our peers have.  Thus wealth and poverty are relative values.

History shows us that the family and convivial networks, with their potential for rich and rewarding relationships are only dependent on material props to the extent that honor on one side and envy on the other dictates.  The balanced view of honor and envy is vested in the notion of equality, a central tenet of our social mores.  But in our developed society, where it has become the norm to rely on so many material goods to support our personal and family lives, the means to livelihood becomes an arena for intense competitive activity in whatever area of work the individual’s livelihood is secured.  It goes even further in a society of plenty, where demand has to be created or at very least intensely stimulated so as to provide the work that livelihood demands.

Those who extend their means of livelihood to the accumulation of wealth will either gravitate to institutions that create or stimulate demand or do it directly themselves.  This constant pressure, seemingly proportional to the level of manufactured wealth within societies of plenty, to create and intensify demand is having a profound and far from positive effect on our lives, which I will return to later.  What needs to be repeated here is that the rich texture of the individuals life and the relationships of family, conviviality and society can be sustained at many levels of material support and do not inherently depend on material wealth or particular kinds and qualities of goods and services.  The first order life involvements depend mostly on health, safety and security, shelter, nutritious food and a place to enjoy life within a proper balance of community and privacy.

When it comes to health and longevity we have to understand first the condition of mortality common to all living things and second the necessary virtue of restraint, which balances desire with just expectation.  Thus we must at the outset see our mortality as an inherent aspect of our character as living creatures and as an essential key to unlock the full potential of sentient life.  To help with this disturbing truth, we need also to understand the power of ritual in our lives.  How strange that these most commonplace aspects of ancient wisdom seem, even to me, so much at odds with our modern attitudes.  It may help further if we remind ourselves that our only real hope of immortality is through dynastic continuity and our true link with the future is through what we bequeath to it or deny it.

The last remaining realm of experience and interaction in my first order group is nature.  Our attitude to and impact on nature is discussed at length in many sections of this essay, but I want to emphasize here the fundamental importance of our relationship with the rest of nature and why it is a first order consideration.  The history of society and technology is also very much the story of our increasing alienation from nature.  However, we remain a part of it and most people feel deeply deprived if they cannot commune with nature and the more than human world in some way or another.    Nature, with its vastness, its unfolding complexity, its infinite variety and its minuteness almost beyond comprehension, grants us a richness of experience and a balance of meaning in our lives that is beyond value.  The qualities of nature resonate within our psyche because we are a part of it and so we must respect it and value it on its own terms.  We must refrain from becoming a cancer within nature and this means we must consider a limitation to our unfettered desires and an acknowledgement of the ancient wisdom of acceptance.  It is thus important on many levels that nature, in all its aspects, is sustained and that we acknowledge the superiority of natural evolution over our more selfish, impatient and greedy activities. This is a little like acknowledging a greater power or god, but we should remember that the earth’s systems don’t think like us and don’t preferentially care about us!  This is not a god of sentiment, nor one that may be influenced by sacrifice, homage or petition.

We need a vision of the setting within which our first order life involvements can flourish as well as the artifacts needed to sustain them, acknowledging limits and acceptances as well as the existence of a greater order.  This requires space and security but not a hermetically sealed or sterilized environment, which might stifle our creature interactions.  Facilities are required to meet, eat, converse and exercise.  Sanctuary and privacy for aloneness and intimacy, a forum for gatherings and ritual, and the opportunity to commune with nature and maybe cultivate it are a part of this.  Shelter from climatic extremes and equipment to facilitate contemplation, communication, relaxation, sleep, grooming and ablutions will be essential, complimented by a magpie place for souvenirs and trophies.  At a not too time consuming or unpleasant distance places to work and places to play in surroundings not fouled by the processes of making things.  The means of self-expression, communication with others and an environment of clarity, sensory richness, meaningful symbolism and civility.


Learning, ritual, culture and sport

Beyond the family and social networks but also entering in and affecting all kinds of relationships is the next order of involvements that enriches life experience.  The involvements that make up this layer of experience are to do with the received wisdom, insights, activities, rituals and beliefs that make up a given culture.  They are often woven so tightly into the first order fabric of life that it is hard to differentiate them.  They form the bedrock on which individuals build their unique personalities and develop a way of understanding themselves. They offer at the same time both a framework for living and the fetters against which to rebel.

For many people formal religion plays a big part in these second order involvements.  Whether fundamentalist, orthodox, committed or casual, the epics, morality, ritual and belief systems of organized religion have for centuries provided the most holistic codes for living available to humankind and have consequently developed into institutions as powerful or even in some ways more powerful than states and empires.  Religions have been the crucible of morality but are based on the teachings of one or more prophets or teachers and embody a world view, a theology, a morality and a more or less ritualistic way of life bound into a cohesive cluster of meanings and rules.  The current religions mostly emerged during a period from 600BCE to 300AD and though they seem still to relate to the period of their emergence, do actually evolve over time, but very slowly.   A disjunction occurred in Western culture during the Renaissance with the emergence of scientific method and subsequent discoveries.  This undermined whole religious cultures, leaving them much less influential within the public sphere.  Within many societies, the traditions that developed within religions that bound together learning, ritual and culture and often counseled restraint, have been much weakened.  In others the state, legal and merchant institutions simply appropriated and absorbed the social and moral traditions, became selective about the ritual (often commercializing what remained) and rejected entirely the deep theology.

It is essential that we unravel and understand these component second order life involvements, many of which were hitherto tied to religious ideas that have become harder to believe in, but that are still relied on to enrich our first order activities or bestow an effective wisdom.  In particular they are learning, ritual and culture.  Learning, the measured expansion of knowledge, explanation and understanding offers the opportunity for a better interpretation of our life experience as well as an enrichening of experience itself.  Ritual substitutes for the need to constantly require active rational or creative thought to underpin any activity and offers formalities that structure our lives.  Culture is the whole enterprise of communication, sharing, self-expression, showing off, criticism and intellectual and sensory pleasure that by turns calms us and thrills us and that, on the one hand, entertains us and, on the other, makes us think more deeply.  It is shared in conversations over a million diner tables and through the media, in books, music and artworks.  It lives in bars and coffee houses and at galleries, concert halls and theatres. It shapes the buildings, transport systems, equipment and gardens we use each day..

Sport, an active, mostly physiological and usually competitive activity grew from a different root to learning, ritual and culture.  Competition is a common aspect of the herd instincts of mammals and the tribal instincts of primates.  Games and other forms of play are also common with these animals and no less so in any human society where competitive games of physiological skill and combat of more or less ferocious kinds have become woven into the fabric of society.  Ultimately, competition may lead to physical violence and even war, but in these cases there is usually a deeper cause in the form of anger, jealousy or the ambition to secure exclusive rights over a particular territory, resource, person or people.  In less extreme circumstances competition and the culture of sport lead to a concern for physical fitness, bodily control and balance, mental stamina, tenacity, and other admired skills as well as social virtues such as team spirit and a healthy conviviality.  As such sport is an enrichment of our experience and involvements that also has a non-competitive side that merges with the arts and culture.  These activities are often the province of large gatherings and the relationship of the masses to the valiant team with which many individuals can identify.


Curiosity, virtuosity, adventure, celebrity, power and wealth

The third order drivers very effectively dominate our current culture.  Within this group, many would consider some to be noble and others to be at least partially suspect and thus base in one way or another. However, all are tacitly accepted as necessary in our Western consumerist democratic way of life.

These drivers often override, or sometimes prey on, first and second order values.  There are, for instance many epic tales of the dedicated scientist, artist, lawyer or detective whose family life and other relationships are wholly subordinated to his or her life’s work. We blithely talk of people seeking fame and fortune.  It is not uncommon for people to put career before the needs of their immediate and extended families.  Our educational system is based on the idealization of all these driver, which in turn sustain the competitive tensions we are lead to believe ensure the quality and diversity of the products and services we desire.

A designer’s worldview may need to accept these drivers, since they are so close to the centre of our sense of humanity and form the basis of many of our myths and epics.  But it may need to take into account the fact hat it is these actually quite selfish values that dominate our culture rather than the more socially oriented first and second order values that relate to family and community.  It is those who are particularly driven by the third order values that we mostly read about in our Sunday reviews and that we all secretly or openly admire, aspire to emulate, bitchily criticize or heckle depending on where we ourselves have got to on the ladder of status and wealth.

Curiosity and virtuosity, we might bracket together as motivations we would consider mostly noble and also quite central to a civilized way of life.  Curiosity is the great engine of learning that has opened up the wonders of the earth and the universe to us through scientific enquiry as well as expanding our understanding of ourselves both as organisms and as sentient beings.

Virtuosity, though a valid motivation in almost any realm, has given us the thrill of appreciating great musicians, composers, sculptors, painters, playwrights, actors, sportspersons and a whole host of poets, artists and crafts persons.  So much is the appreciation of virtuosity a part of our lives that we often take it for granted.  It is an important cause of the migration to urban life where culture is expected to be more accomplished and it is fundamental to the media industry.  Inevitably it is also bracketed more often than not with celebrity.  There have been warrior heroes and legendary rulers, travelers and artisans from the dawn of recorded history.  The emergence of renaissance artists of all kinds created a new kind of personal celebrity and this was recast yet again in the great years of American cinema. The commercial manufacture of celebrity as distinct from hearsay reputation based on appreciation of the art or virtuosity of the performer has brought us more recently, via Andy Warhol’s notion of 15 minutes of fame and more recently reality television, to celebrity as a stand alone quality in its own right.

Adventure is another driver that, like virtuosity and curiosity, is symptomatic of our fundamental human need for stimulus, novelty and challenge.   Young people seek new horizons beyond the safety of their family, tribe, country or civilization, depending on how deeply the need to prove themselves cuts.  From an historical perspective the need for adventure has driven people to war and to discover or rediscover new lands.  But the notion of adventure is also played out in a minor key in our day-to-day lives through the arts and media from which we constantly seek drama, risk, thrills and novelty.  We can participate in realms of virtual adventure where we might, in reality, fear to tread. Thus the portrayal of very realistic violence and adventurous sexuality in the media allows us to indulge our spirit of adventure (though other predilections too) without taking physical risks, which is similar in some ways to our interest in programmes about single handed sailing, survival in extreme conditions or mountain climbing.  We remain creatures that react against the overly familiar, easy, comfortable or stable.  Most of all we fear boredom and within the most conservative of us a rebel seeks to escape.

Celebrity, power and wealth somehow come bracketed together.  They can be the natural consequence of curiosity, virtuosity or adventure but they can also be seen as a means to an end or, for some, as ends in themselves.  The big figures on any stage cannot be other than driven by ambition for one or other or more of these prizes.  This is so obvious as to need little elaboration here.  It does need to be pointed out, however, that the attainment of power and wealth has historically required the domination of one, large, group of people by another, smaller.  It is of course the fine balance between power and politics that sustains civilized order and the rule of law.  We accept wealth and power for their collateral functions in our systems of economics, culture and governance, but we must constantly review the balance of individual against collective gains and avoid the degeneration of acceptable ambition into unacceptable greed and tyranny.  The line between acceptable wealth and power and greed and tyranny may be subtle. Things that are presented as benign and justifiable, but which are acknowledged to have unpalatable consequences that we are lead to believe we must accept as inevitable, may be wholly avoidable if a different equation of wealth, power and ethics is allowed.  Put simply, we know that much of what is done in the commercial and political spheres is driven hard by the profit motive.  That this is a quest for an imbalance of wealth and power in favour of over privileged minorities, rather than the broader interests of investors, consumers and citizens, let alone the planet and our fellow creatures, is understood and accepted only to a degree.

These third order drivers are very strong in our current society and culture and to a large extent define it. A rounded view of the human project must roll them all in, just as any viable political theory must take account of the fact that not everybody will play according to the defined rules.  Humanity as a whole as well as individuals is driven by instinctive, evolutionary, dynastic and self-preservational motives as much as by the rational and compassionate ideologies that its intelligence presents it with.   This is not intrinsically a bad thing, but requires a vigilance to ensure avoidance of extremism and abuse.


Resource extraction, manufacturing industry, life support and other services, transportation, trade and commerce

The first, second and third order drivers of human satisfaction and wellbeing discussed so far seem mostly to do with society and culture and though some of these involvements do generate specific technologies (musical instrument making, food technologies, buildings are but a few examples) they generally have existed in one form or another over long periods of history and during times when substantially different kinds of technologies prevailed.  The fourth order drivers suggested here include, on the other hand, the generators of technologies themselves. The unfolding development of these technologies has been closely associated with the course of human history and over the last 300 to 400 years at an accelerating pace.  During these times also, patterns of trade and commerce have underpinned the quality and diversity of life by providing specialized, different and ever new commodities and services.  Identified here as the fourth order drivers, they are generally regarded as the engines of comfort, choice and well-being. We have become so used to the powerful position that they have assumed that their self sustaining logics now dominate the language of public life.

“The Economy” is what these drivers are collectively known as.  And the economy is a system that has gradually come to be regarded as the armature on which not only our wealth but also our well-being is built.  But “the economy” is a system driven by finance and trade and actually has, since the eighteenth century, developed an ethos that stands subtly apart from the more holistic culture of society as a whole and has consequently generated its own specialised value system.  It is a powerful system because it seems to deliver prosperity.  It must not be totally demonized either since in recent years there has been a move towards corporate responsibility.  The extremes of capitalist exploitation of both people and the environment that were commonplace during the industrial revolution have been addressed in this country at least.  However the economy is our servant not our master and at some level or other we have choices about how these drivers might be managed in a way that best serves us and fits best with the earth’s systems.  At some level, ethical and aesthetic considerations, still mostly currently seen as, at most, only of secondary concern to industrialists, entrepreneurs and economists, need to be factored in.

As individuals, as consumers and as designers we must accept that we have a part to play in influencing these powerful drivers.  There are two fundamental benchmarks for the ethical judgment of technological and commercial activity and these are, firstly, the ensurence of a healthy and egalitarian society and, secondly, respect for the natural order.  Since commerce operates globally these issues must also be considered in a global context as well as nationally and locally.  The consideration of these principles is an important responsibility for the designer and they are looked at more closely when I come to consider what we should be making and how.

Hunting, farming and extraction of resources is where we start.  There are three distinct kinds of resource available to us.  First we have the resources of nature, second we have our own wit, skill and energy and that of our human collaborators and third we have tools and technology.  The ultimate measure of the cost of human capital is time, since time is our most limited human resource. However for the other cost, which is the cost of extraction from the bank of natural resources, at this time we have no adequate or agreed universal means of measurement.  We can only talk about individual impacts and then mostly qualitatively. To measure any impacts requires specialist skill and prolonged and intensive study and observation.  Because the systems of cause and effect are often complex and difficult to visualize there are inevitably disputes about fact and relevance. If any of the things that we do are disruptive of nature to the extent that we compromise the quality of our lives or those of future human generations or are likely to cause irreparable damage to any aspect of the earth or its flora and fauna, then such activity is surely unacceptable.  And if we are not sure, then the cautionary principle should apply.  Put simply, natural resources should be used sparingly and with a true understanding of the effects and impacts of their use.  Such ideals are of course subject to judgments of value and require the prioritizing and qualifying of human motives, desires and demands.  They also demand an understanding of the effect of scale on the impacts of human activity on the natural world.  There is consequently a need for the constant revision of our attitudes to what we manufacture in the light of the size, quantity and pace of resource extraction and cropping.

Manufacturing industry lies at the heart of industrial societies.  Now operating within a global market, manufacturing has migrated across the globe seeking cheap labour and resources.  Free markets, again courtesy of conventional wisdom, the guardians of our prosperity, have resulted in the specialization of national economies. Even the supply of highly perishable manufactured or processed food has become global, based on price differentials in different markets and our insatiable appetite for limitless choice and novelty.

There is no doubt that in one way or another manufacturing industry is the source of our material wealth and as such will continue. The constant need to re-evaluate the impact of manufacturing processes remains, however, just as with resource extraction, even though the processes may seem remote from our day-to-day lives.  The extraction, use and disposal of material things, be they organic or inorganic, is the basis of all manufacturing industry. The way it operates, its scale and pace, environmental impact, waste production and drain on resources all need careful and constant review.  It is the designer’s responsibility to consider carefully how the products of his imagination will draw on both resources and manufacturing industry.  The more restraint we exercise the better, but there is also the obligation to use everything we do extract as efficiently as possible, both by making the best possible use of these resources and by disposing of the byproducts and end-products effectively.  The notion of zero waste encapsulates this obligation.

Life support and other services include the massive bureaucracies and industries we have become accustomed to rely on as both citizens and consumers.  The traditional weekly market, individual high street trade shops, post offices, banks, grocers and ironmongers as well as the local general practice doctor and smallish hospitals, the theatres and cinemas, lidos and football grounds that were a feature of most towns up to the middle of the twentieth century have all but been replaced by much larger and much more sophisticated institutions including the high street chain retailer (often now with a global presence), the managed shopping mall (also in the United Kingdom a haven for chain stores), out of town hypermarkets, retail warehouses, medical and vetenery group practices, a massive national health and private healthcare industry, personal banking and home finance and the purveyors of mass entertainment, which first went into the broadcasting based media and then returned to the commercial realm through records, LPs, CDs, DVDs, Computer games, Multiplex cinema and globally networked cell phones.  These are the burgeoning big players in both the real and virtual economies.  In a free market, education has also become an industry, which merges ever more closely with the worlds of commerce and industry as a whole.

Also there is a very lucrative, intensive, highly competitive and consequently well financed research and production industry behind the life support services that is constantly bumping up against ethical and environmental boundaries as well as through the non prescription and prescription pharmaceutical markets promoting sophisticated surgical and medical solutions to life quality enhancement and life extension desires.  Even in these areas there are cost, benefit, lifestyle and ethical issues that need to be addressed.  The sophistication of medicine and surgery have made it hard to distinguish between therapy and enhancement in practice and it is often hard to decide whether the limited resource of high cost treatments should be distributed through the open market or through state run health services.

The biotechnology industries are also well established in the area of food production, firstly through the production of pesticides and then the suiting of these with genetically modified crops.  The scale, intensity and pace with which these service industries are moving need careful monitoring and the designer increasingly needs to develop clear goals, values and priorities in order to address the lifestyles changes these genetic revolutions spawn.

Transportation, trade and commerce fit together historically.  Though overland traveling merchants had been bringing luxury goods such as silk, semiprecious stones and spices from China and the East certainly since medieval times and trans-continental trade may even be prehistoric, the wealth of Western Europe started out on its exponential growth curve during the Elizabethan period with seafaring expeditions across the Atlantic.  England, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands were in the vanguard of this global oceanic adventure and the piratical conquest of the West Indies, the Americas, parts of Asia and beyond.

This expanding net of conquest and trade supplied a growing market for exotic goods, sugar, tea, coffee, animal skins and slaves.  It forged a mercantile culture, a fusion of expedient diplomacy and tolerance with a carpet bagging ruthlessness about making money as the prime objective.  We can imagine how this culture easily aligned with the views of the exploitative capitalists of the industrial revolution.  The birth of the trading nation, a state that cannot sustain its citizens lifestyle expectations without very extensive trade also saw the birth of similar but subordinate trading nations whose much more meager wealth depended on a single cash crop.  In countries like Britain, a polite and genteel society, which eventually became an egalitarian society, owed its wealth and wellbeing to a global network of colonial farmers, servants and slaves.

The commercial cannon was, thus, at birth essentially amoral and unaccountable since it was largely out of sight.  And the theories that underpin today’s economic systems first emerged against this background and were developed within the seemingly resource and labour rich climate of the industrial revolution.  Rapid technological development in transportation and communications during the twentieth century consolidated the globalization of trade and commerce and has also further reinforced its self serving liberalism, which has infiltrated all aspects of the movement, exchange and supply of goods whether local, national or international.

From our current perspective these aspects of the fourth order drivers may be in need of substantial revision in the light of changing views about global equity, climate change and resource depletion.  Transportation is   a voracious consumer of fossil fuels and producer of pollution.  Trade and methods of distribution need to accommodate within their networks the ethical and social value of local producers and suppliers.  Commerce and in particular the mechanisms of finance and shareholding need to become ever more transparent and subject to a more accountable holistic perspective as opposed to one that promotes the pragmatic but ultimately bleak path of profit at any cost.

Law, governance and war

All human relationships of power and wealth are ultimately dependent upon land-based institutions set up either by war or by treaty.  We regard national boundaries as maintained by agreement, but most have been established by war at some time in the past.  During the twentieth century wars and revolutions resulted in substantial reconfiguring of national boundaries in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.  The rule of law exists where a state establishes a degree of stability.  What we have come to call terrorism or insurgence is often a residual war being fought by an isolated minority against a powerful state.  It depends where your sympathies lie as to whether such groups are regarded as freedom fighters, heroes or violent criminals.  The modern over-layer of treaty and agreement that emerged in the twentieth century following the second world war and which was intended to avoid the human and financial costs of increasingly disastrous wars, aimed to work with national boundaries for the most part frozen as established at the time, influence the power centres within these states towards democracy, equality and tolerance and create a world parliament that could act as a world police force as and when necessary.

All democratic institutions are thus subject to the threat of influence by powerful minority self interests and the form of an effective world treaty must consequently be subject to rules of conduct that demonstrably apply to all members, just as within a democracy the state must be seen to act equitably.

Thus where once it was a matter of course that the rich and powerful seized power for themselves and dominated society and state, running them essentially for their own benefit, democracy has over a period of time, in some countries, turned this system on its head.  The individual in his or her family and convivial context is, at least in theory, now regarded as the object of law and governance.  This is not to say that individuals may seize the wealth and power available to them indiscriminately and without accountability.  That would be a kind of anarchy.  The individual has to accept a duty of respect and stewardship in relation to both human and natural law.  Having inherited power -the power of a citizen of democracy, an owner of property and a consumer of goods and services- the individual has to acknowledge the obligations that power bestows. Only then, can we and society as a whole truly regard those we elect by the ballot and those to whom we relinquish power and wealth through our consumer habits as our true servants.

Democracy, described by George Monbiot as the least worst system, is the system that underpins our governance.  But democratic government is only a part of the power structure within industrial and postindustrial democracies.  National and multinational companies have comparable power, which can be overwhelming in the case of small, weak or poor states.

Thus the state, civic corporations, other institutions and commercial companies must ultimately be judged as servants of the individual/family/conviviality cluster.  Partial allegiances, to say shareholders or to political parties, will of course continue as long as our current conventions of power, investment and wealth distribution hold sway, but these must be judged also in the light of a just democracy.

To work with integrity, the designer should tackle design issues taking account of the order of priority suggested by the five orders of involvement outlined above.  Articulated in this way it becomes possible to develop a design process that is grounded in a humane and nature respecting worldview and value judgments that might otherwise have been glossed over or confused can be fully addressed.

The five orders of experience and involvement give the designer a framework for answering the question “How do we want to live?” in a comprehensive and prioritized way.  The essence of humanity and of human values lies within these involvements as set out here.  They are the source of the values we adopt and it is within these areas that the essential qualities of life that we seek to sustain will be found.  Our continuing success as individuals, institutions, societies, nations and as a species requires that we act within the context of a holistic understanding of the health of these communities and networks both within themselves and in the context of their relationship to other species and earth systems. Because the answer should result from careful reconsideration of the issues relevant to a given time and place, it might be considered wrong to try to set out a single comprehensive set of requirements that answer the question raised, but it is worth trying to distill a set of appropriate global ambitions as a background to design effort.

I would suggest that we wish to live:

  • in a state of peace
  • as long as possible, in good health, free as far as possible from pain
  • in a just, equitable, safe and democratic state
  • in a just and sustainable relationship with other species and the earths systems
  • in an open, civilized and safe community
  • in a way that is emotionally, sensually, physiologically, intellectually and spiritually fulfilling
  • within a nation that is viable, but which acts responsibly, respectfully and compassionately in its global activities and relationships
  • in a safe, healthy, convenient, stimulating, accessible, and meaning rich environment
  • in a society that stimulates and encourages personal ambition and respects the freedom of individuals and corporate bodies to trade in goods and services, but requiresthat this  be in the light of a holistic and compassionate view of community, society, other species and the earths systems
  • in a state of intellectual freedom, communicational and behavioural tolerance, but within a public realm that eschews offence, intimidation and violence
  • with sufficient space, facilities and resources to realize personal, family, material and social ambitions, compatible with an equitable distribution of wealth and sustainable use of natural resources both locally and globally
  • with the benefit of technological and biotechnological developments that have been subjected to adequate comprehensive, holistic and objective consideration from social, ethical and ecological viewpoints


What do we need to make and how should we make things?

Though quite different questions, the “what” and the “how” of making must be considered at the same time.  What we need to make is a short form of “what we need to make in order to sustain the way we wish to live”.  This should be a considered, holistic and long-term view rather than merely the expedient and improvised management of fads, desires and addictions.  How we might make things cannot be divorced from the form and content of the material things themselves.  Any objective view of manufacturing and its impacts will show that there is a price to pay for everything we make that, though not necessarily accounted in monetary terms, is real in terms of environmental impact and resource depletion. The benefit and value of the made things themselves consequently needs to be viewed in balance with this price.  These are difficult areas to deal with at a time when the conventions of our society are amoral, since a large part of this discussion is about responsibility and restraint i.e. moral issues.  In contrast, our current attitudes and the messages from our politicians, the purveyors of the goods and services we consume and the media, pander basically to selfishness and indiscipline.  If there is to be a serious consideration of the “what” and the “how” of manufacture, we need to be clear from what standpoint we are arguing. Though of course there may be many others, some of which such as Marxism, have had significant influence, five possible broad standpoints come to mind and will be discussed here:

  • Liberal hedonism
  • Market economics
  • A holistic view of weal
  • A reverential perspective
  • A just eco-democracy

These were not necessarily all going to be seductive standpoints, since some challenge the vision of an easy good life that we have become accustomed to expect as only one aspect of the human condition and not necessarily the most important.  To suggest valid standpoints other than liberal hedonism or the demand, supply and growth equation of market economics is to court the opposition of the consumer, voter and shareholder. The consequence feared by anyone who adopts a more challenging view, but needs the support of these groups, is the loss of votes or customers or financial support.  The designer may also loose clients, but the risk is worth taking!

A holistic view or a reverential perspective is not what our political and commercial communities are currently about and increasingly anyone who takes a moral stance is charged with nanny-ism, utopianism, doom mongering or worse.  However, these more accommodating points of view lead us increasingly to reconsider the roots of human wellbeing and suggest that ethical and moral issues are an important part of what constitutes meaning in life.   It may be that we need to remind ourselves of the value of norms: what the majority might expect not only for themselves and but also of themselvesThere will always be those who deviate from the norms and are tolerated, but there will also be limits to what is tolerated.   What I am discussing here however is a shift in the norms themselves: the need for a new conventional wisdom.

Determinist explanations of physics and evolution, explanations of the origin of humankind and our world, suggest a mindless, purposeless and amoral force behind reality that knows only mathematical law.  Many books have been written to prove that physical and biological processes can be explained without the need for any driving or underlying purposefulness or capability for choice.  This may well be so but, even if purpose and ethics are purely inventions of the human mind, they remain real aspects of experience that cannot be disregarded.  They are a part of reality that, like colour and sound and thought, appear to exist in an apparently non-physical realm and seem only to become manifest through the agency of human experience and activity. Objective science struggles with such ideas, just as it struggles with the validity of belief, but I shall argue here that the notions of both ethics and aesthetics represent areas of human experience, value and choice that are both real and unavoidable parts of our experience.  It is a part of our nature and evolutionary state that we wrestle with obligation and restraint as well as need and desire.  It will follow that these human values should be brought into play, even when dealing with entities that themselves appear to operate under different or unknown motivations.  This includes other life forms and earth systems.

Liberal hedonism would appear to be a major component in the orthodoxy of current western societies.  It has replaced cultures of restraint and honour.  The presumptions of this stance are that the principal objectives of human endeavour are self-preservation, enjoyment and happiness. Progress is also an important element of this view and is seen as a quest to increase the scope and availability of all possible means to achieve happiness and enjoyment.  The corollary to this is absolute freedom of human activity except where one person’s or an institution’s activity endangers other people’s health or security, or unacceptably curtails another’s ability to achieve happiness and enjoyment.  Liberal hedonism can take a prudent, well-informed and long-term view and can be compassionate when considering human relationships, but the morality it eschews is measured wholly in terms of anthropocentric values.  Liberal hedonism does not demand a particular economic and productive system though it is likely to tend towards industrialism and a free market economy since these systems seem to deliver the objects of happiness in abundance.

Market economics. The demand, supply and growth philosophy is the basis of the market economics based stance.  There is no doubt that, in the guise of capitalism, it was one of the factors that underpinned the wealth of the Western nations through the twentieth century even though it was also accompanied by widespread human exploitation.  It is a development of liberal hedonism, though conceivably not the only one.  It presumes that the engine of our society and consequently the source of its dominant values is the creation of materialwealth.  It has come to be based on impersonal “mass” or statistical human behaviours, relationships and ambitions that derive from a combination of the division of labour, economies of scale and capital-intensive industrialized production methods.  This ethos almost crept up on society as a result of the aggressively commercial goals and values of the industrial revolution.  It is also inextricably tied up with the culture of the joint stock market that financed industrial growth.  The art of the industrialist is to identify demands and then find a wealth generating way of meeting them.  The supply of goods and services to the public is a means to another end, the generation of wealth for the industrialist and his shareholders.  The financial market, by now driven by the demands also of investors (many of whom of course are ordinary citizens looking for a secure pension), requires increasing value from shares as well as profit in the form of dividends and consequently looks all the time for growth in its investments.  The ideal of an equilibrium between demand and supply is shattered by the need for growth.  This creates the guiding myth that overall growth within the state economy is essential and an important measure of economic health.

Closely associated with the free market philosophy is the notion of competition.  In a competitive economy it is essential to sustain public awareness of a given product, its importance to the consumer and the fact that it is better than or cheaper than its rivals.  Advertising is thus a fundamental part of the equation.  While any modern economy is likely to incorporate these elements, the demand, supply, growth philosophy specifically places these systems at the core of society and their values are written large as the essential and unassailable drivers of our society.  Ultimately culture and morality become subservient to them.  The strength of this stance is its capacity to demonstrate how seductive improvements to the quality of life are a result of the application of its beliefs and principles. Nevertheless its seductiveness should not be allowed to cloud its self-sustaining circularity (virtuous or vicious though it may be), its increasing triviality, its aggressively anthropocentric values and the often hidden paradox of wealth creation through wealth deprivation.

 A holistic view of weal would offer a more rounded view of human wellbeing and equilibrium with nature.  Such a perspective would not necessarily be in contradiction with liberal hedonism, since it is still essentially anthropocentric, but it might go a long way towards putting human activity into a better relationship with the earths systems while at the same time curing some current cultural, social and political ills.  Weal is an old word, probably actually archaic, but one that has a greater depth in describing the human condition than does the concept of wealth.  Wealth is really about material things, essentially about purchasing power.  Weal encompasses spiritual, cultural, social and political, as well as economic and material values.  It deals with the whole human being and his or her rights, expectations and relationships as well as the extent that these conditions facilitate self-fulfillment.  It promotes a worldview that can challenge the demand, supply and growth philosophy by questioning both the quality of life it delivers and its effect on the whole living world and its natural resources.

 A reverential perspective is often a crucial part of traditional religions.  In today’s climate of freedom and independence for the individual it seems to many people to be an anachronism.  The liberal hedonist stance is a great leveler of people and once we regard everyone as no more than our equal and with the modernist challenge to the idea of a deity, to whom or to what should we ever owe reverence?  This is, perhaps a central problem of our current culture.  In Christian religion, which I know most about, and others too, I believe, the individual is thought capable of establishing a personal relationship with God.  This is a reverential relationship, which varies from a simple respect for a sentience more wise and powerful than ones self to a placatory or plea-full activity.  For the agnostic or atheist this personal relationship with a deity is one of the central difficulties of the religious concept of God along with the closely associated cultures of anthropomorphism and interventionism, notions now seemingly undermined by science.

But, if one were needed, the only antidote to hedonism must be the acknowledgement of a power and therefore a morality beyond humanity and its enlightened self-interest.  Religion is based on belief and faith, not scientific proof, and while this does not (as many scientists, often fighting old battles, argue passionately) undermine its legitimacy it does leave traditional theistic religion as a partisan culture since agnostic and atheist views are also tenable and not of necessity amoral.  In a world culture we need a morality that allows individual or partisan religious beliefs, but which also allows an overarching reverence.  If one cannot help but feel awe in the face of the magnificence of the universe and the intricacy of biological phenomena and evolution, then reverence of a kind must surely follow, whether one believes in a metaphysics or not, whether one believes in a teleological universe or not.  Such a reverence would place human activity back within the context of a greater power, albeit possibly ultimately one that is impersonal and non-sentient.  It would also allow us to enter back into a personal, spiritual relationship with nature and the cosmos.     

A just eco-democracy provides a perspective that is perhaps more immediately powerful than the last two stances considered above because it springs from the heart of our human existence, experience and relationships.  It does, however, embody a moral code, but because it is to do with human and social relationships and inter-human justice, it should be easy for fair and liberal people to accept and can thus sit more comfortably with current economic, scientific and political convention.

In a just democracy any human activity that is to be allowed to affect nature (the more than human world) would need to offer a legitimate benefit to at least one sector of humanity while demonstrating that:

  • It would not compromise the right of humanity as a whole or any other sector to avoid its effects
  • The benefit cannot be achieved with less impact
  • The manipulation will not result in the irrevocable loss of any biological species or irrevocable change to any earth system
  • It involves neither overt nor covert violation of accepted human values of justice, stewardship, compassion and aesthetics with respect to the land, biota, sentient creatures and other members of humankind

In a just democracy, the first principle of behaviour would be that no one sector of society would be allowed to destroy the absolute freedom of opportunity of another.  There are two difficulties with the practical achievement of a truly just democracy and they are nothing to do with morality or ethics, one is to do with the limits of human knowledge and the other with differences of value.  Because of this the other important cornerstone of a just democracy should be the precautionary principle.  There is also the difficulty of cumulative or scale effects of human activity, where for instance, while fishing is in principle not wrong, fishing to the extent that the balance of a given species is threatened with extinction is.

What stance should the designer adopt to secure a just democracy?  I would advocate the rebalancing of the designer’s stance in favour of the last three of the stances described above.  Clearly the human condition is complex and simplified ideas such as these are partial interpretations of the human condition.  Over emphasis or over simplification of stance leads to ideologies that can become unhealthy. Neither is evangelicalism attractive to the majority.  In a world driven by the twin ideologies of liberal hedonism and market economics I suggest that it is essential that designers (and indeed all purveyors of professional services) face squarely and honestly both the world they perceive and the stance they adopt in response as the basis of their practice.  This alone would raise the level of any debate about design principles or design quality.

 At the moment, it’s hard to say that we make things that we should not.  It’s more that we have lost the criteria by which to holistically judge the true value of the things we do make.  Thus, I am not advocating a restrictive society, but more one that is so confident of real value that the citizen and consumer naturally adopt holistic values and bring them to bare on the choice the artifacts they prefer to have made.   This is especially relevant with respect to the products of mass production. This would not be a society that punishes a fall from grace or a rebellion against norms -these are human foibles- but a society that remains confident that certain products actually do represent a fall from grace or a rebellion against what remain justifiably tenable norms.

Some might argue that such values are bourgeois, but maybe this is where the problem lies.  The essentially rebellious nature of the Renaissance and its scientific, cultural and industrial consequences has lead to a kind of continuous culture of rebellion and revolution.  There has been little attention given to the re-centring of norms.  This can lead on the one hand to an anarchic bohemianism and on the other to cynical selfishness.

In our judgments about the making of things, we need to be cautious about the easy route.  Those who are glib about virtue, can easily trip up the cautious by arguing the obviousness of their case.  “I’m a straightforward guy making the best of an imperfect and competitive world.  Naturally I need to protect my own self interest and seek personal direct gain.”  But, if a product unashamedly seeks to be the agency of wealth, celebrity or power, it is no longer the pinnacle of virtue.  Pleasure, the most profound kind of pleasure does not spring from instantaneous gratification.  It springs from a satisfaction that acknowledges amongst other things also discipline, prudence and manners. The value we see in things made should relate to the virtue we see in human behaviour, since things made, products, are merely the agency of our survival, purposes, comfort and culture.  It should be remembered that here we are talking about ideals, because without ideals, we can have no norms and without norms we toss our values into a tempestuous sea.

Thus when we ask ourselves “what do we need to make?” we must answer the question holistically. Wildernesses, landscapes, cities, quarters, buildings, shelters, enclosures, settings, equipment, food, art and entertainment, objects, tools, pharmaceuticals, vehicles and weapons are all things that we need to consider.  Put another way what we need to make as a matter of priority are the effective foundations of an inclusive civilized society and a rewarding way life. We need to rediscover the way to formally express an explicit citizenship as well as how to nurture an inclusive but open community.  This can be aided by the creation of symbolic and authentic built environments that subscribe to a coherent worldview and reinforce a tenable ethical stance.  Such an embodiment of life values and attitudes would suffuse the full gamut of environments, facilities, tools and cultural artifacts while leaving open the opportunity for (non-threatening) extremes of behaviour and would establish the Priorities for the resources, facilities, equipment and setting of a rewarding and meaningful life.

We should be able to determine the way a holistic worldview affects our choices when designing the physical and virtual accoutrements of our day-to-day lives.  The designer’s priorities will be guided by an honest approach to purpose, enjoyment and obligation.  This will permeate decision making with regard to the design agenda, physical, social and ecological context, cultural gesture and constructional logic.  The norm of our cities, towns and villages, of our dwelling, work, market, cultural and leisure places should be polite, civilized and inclusive.  It should also be accommodating of and in symbiosis with the earth’s biota and systems. Constructional logic should acknowledge the impact it has on the more than human world and the form and formality of buildings and building complexes should also encourage a sustainable lifestyle.  The aim should be to emphasize locality, seasonality, diversity, stewardship, density, permeability, transparency, and accessibility.

When we discuss norms we are talking about the ordinary, but not forgetting that the ordinary is also the important.  Neither must we forget that we do however constantly strive to lift ourselves above the ordinary, either a little or a lot.  This is the subject of many lifestyle guides, secular, philosophical and religious.  So any design philosophy and each design solution has to address ordinariness seriously, but it also has to address excitement and calm.  The balance of these tensions is the stuff of the designed quality of artifacts.  Our holistic idea of city/building/room/things will therefore take account of our needs for excitement, ordinariness and calm and the fact that the balance of need in these areas is different for different people. Thus the extremes of experience in either direction will likely be more than any one person wishes for or that any one person may seek at different times in their life.

Which leads us naturally to the consideration of norms and excesses.  Desire can distort one’s view of need and obsession one’s view of desire.  The extreme of distortion is addiction, which in the end can distort all our values and judgments.  Where do we draw the line in considering excess?  What should be allowed as acceptable of ourselves and of others?  These more extreme forms of need and desire lead, if not into ill health, then certainly to a lesser state of wellbeing and a paucity of experience, in which fantasy and gratification replace authenticity and satisfaction.  Such excesses are bad for the individual but also bad for society if the individual’s behaviour becomes antisocial.  The definition of extreme also needs to take account of the individual or collective effect on the earth’s natural systems.

While the qualities of life I am advocating and the obligations I wish to see fulfilled seem to suggest a relatively dense settlement of the landscape, this should not be at the expense of contact with other living creatures and the benign aspects of earth systems, which can act as reminders of our place in a greater order as well as directly enriching our life experience.  Development should not be so dense as not to allow for trees and gardens, at very least within the public realm.  Neither should density be so great that space and fabric is not owned or adequately maintained.  Land is the ultimate resource of land dwellers and it has many uses and many owners all with a claim on it.  So we must further colonize it only sparingly and with care.  If we live in balance and synchronicity with nature there will surely be a resonance that will sustain a sense of wellbeing, improve our state of mind and sustain our spirits.  Would this lead to a hassle free and crime free existence? No it would not, but it would help us understand that hassle and crime come from within ourselves and an improved lifestyle should allow us to develop our finer characteristics more effectively.  What does balance and synchronicity with nature mean though?  It means living as much as possible like a natural life form.  Not scarring the earth in a way that cannot be readily healed.  Not destroying the habitat of other creatures.  Not hunting, fishing or cropping excessively and certainly not to the brink of extinction.  It means trying to develop production methods that do not constantly require extraction of new natural resources or create waste that cannot be effectively assimilated back into nature.  Of course there is an aesthetic dimension to this as well as ethical.

As we welcome nature into our new environment in new ways, so also should we encourage the development of community in our buildings and cities.  This becomes also a matter of balance.  Sometimes we wish to be on our own.  Sometimes only with one other person. Sometimes in small groups and sometimes in great crowds. This is the whole gamut of human experience.  This is what a great urbanism should offer us.

We will seek compact and inclusive but open communities that are based on accountability but that also allow the individual to come and go.  We need to respect and support communities, but not to the extent that they have unreasonable claims over us.  We must accept also that “communities” may only loosely be connected with place.  In fact, in modern life, for many the idea of “community” has largely been replaced by the notion of “networks” or communities of loose and variable association spread over (sometimes considerable) intervals of time and space.  Networks are effectively communities bound together by alliance, interests, enthusiasms or goals rather than by the arguably accidental factors of events or places.  However the quality of places themselves, as well as human relationships and life experience, would be also enhanced by effective location-based communities.

The environments that sustain such communities will need to be safe, convenient and comfortable but must not eliminate risk.  Even danger is a necessary dimension of life.  Then there must be sanctuary.  One must be able to retreat to a place of collective as well as individual tranquility.  It must be possible to experience calm as well as agitation in the company of others, contemplation as well as sport.  Seriousness, grief, detachment as well as humour, happiness and conviviality need their place.  While we wander almost obsessively, we also need to have a sense of rooted-ness.  It is not possible for most of us to look constantly for new places to be or to exist forever outside of a commitment to some location or another.  Maybe there can be more than one place of rooted-ness, but there must be at least one and certainly not many more.  Too many locations leads to superficiality again, but “too” is an individual value.

Such lifestyles will not demand a closely fitting shell.  We will want to stretch and move about.  Close fitting and highly integrated solutions to smaller artifacts can be all right but the built environment is best when it can accommodate and be adapted without wholesale change.  This is often not the way of comprehensive schemes, which need to be planned and created as a single often huge enterprise, especially if land is to be conserved.  But the hierarchy of structure, enclosure, services, linings and equipment must always allow a separate cycle of use and obsolescence for each.  This suggests, of course, a long life, low energy, loose fit philosophy.

 An alternative to the question of what we should make is the question “What should we not make?”  Obvious first candidates for the list of what we should not make are armaments.  It would be naïve to suggest that nations do not need weapons to protect their sovereignty or keep their peace, but the type and extent of the proliferation of armaments needs to be kept tightly under control and the commercial dealing in arms for profit is both imprudent (circumstances change and the arms may be turned on the supplier) and unethical.  While the world is nominally governed by a limited number of rich democratic countries through the Security Council of the United Nations there is a legitimate argument that what is good for one nation is good for another and this argument can be used by different countries to seek to arm themselves more effectively through for instance the acquisition of nuclear weapons.  There is of course a tension here, on a global scale that is only just acceptable because the powerful nations tend to exercise the least oppressive forms of power and subject, for instance, to democratic process and a free press.  This is far from a guaranteed just system and needs continual revision.  Such caution might be seen as cascading down to personally held hand weapons, which can always be used in anger or to aid crime, where “less effective” means of defense or aggression would have less distressing consequences.  We cannot avoid kitchen knives or hammers though and human nature will not change.  Murder as an aspect of human relationships is different to indiscriminate killing.  Otherwise, it is not so much what we shouldn’t make as how much of anything we really need.  The public will not be persuaded to give up their comforts and pleasures easily and anyway these are entrenched in global, national and local networks of trade and culture.  What they may be persuaded of though is the extent and quantity of the exploitation of other people, animals, the rest of the biota and earth systems that is needed to deliver these comforts and pleasures and maybe that there are alternative comforts and pleasures that are more friendly to nature, more authentic and ultimately more fulfilling.   This may suggest that we be cautious about making things that needlessly consume land, resources and energy, that encourage social isolation, that offer quantity in lieu of quality, that replace the current and potential diversity of our world with monocultures, that substitute real experience with virtual and that replace the authentic with the surrogate.  The designer needs to explore these issues in each project and also in the way project briefs are formulated.

I must here touch on two aspects of manufactured reality that we have become accustomed to.  I must also confess a degree of addiction in these areas myself.  In that I would guess I am not alone.  First I mention gizmos, gadgets and toys: the seductive technological accoutrements of our lives that are based on the development of a superficial need into a device of seductive mechanism, materials, design or arrangement.  These have become a part of our culture exploiting an endemic dependency on novelty.  Similarly my second aspect, the whole virtual world of manufactured experience, has a telling grip on us.  From the collapse of time and space that contemporary audio and video devices offer to the fingertip accessibility of skills, information, entertainment and games that the computer brings, this stacking and packing of virtual reality into our lives can become a serious drain on our availability in the real world, leading ultimately to its dangerous neglect.

 There have been virtual worlds since the beginning of civilization.  These worlds must have existed in the minds of humankind before recorded culture.  In fact the capacity to imagine might be one way of defining what it is to be human, since without the vision of an improved world our behaviour might have remained instinctive.  Imagined worlds are thought to precede great art.  But these imagined worlds then started to be embedded into external media.  Paintings on rock, records on papyrus, velum and paper, the great epics, the novel, the manifesto, the great works of philosophy and science are all in a sense virtual worlds created by one person and entered and explored by others.  The audio and video technology and the power of the digital computer that emerged in the twentieth century and then rapidly developed spawned an exponential increase in the numbers and types as well as the verisimilitude of virtual worlds.  Cinema, TV, video games, internet, all have a call on our time, appearing to collapse time and space to bring everything and anything we desire to our personal space, putting incredible power at our fingertips.  But while such aspects of information technology have hugely liberating advantages for the individual this can only be healthy when seen in balance with the rest of life experience.  Like all our great inventions it can lead to exploitation, excess and addiction.  The virtual universe is one of communication, explanation and simulation and can only live off the real world with all its dimensions of pleasure, monotony and pain.  The danger is that virtual worlds can be so seductive, so much within our control, offer such short cuts to our pleasure centres and so undemanding of us that we starve or abandon our enjoyments and the obligations in the real world and gradually move closer to a surrogate existence.  The linking of the excitements, comforts and sentimentalities of some virtual world to consumer products is of course an extension of the virtual experience into the real world and a way of influencing our judgments about real quality.

 While all is potentially immediate, or at least where time and space are within our control for minimal effort, within our individual virtual universes, the real world is not similarly tuned to our desires.  The vast cosmos and the miniscule microcosm, the earth systems and the more than human living world do not generally respond to human desire or will.  First we invented Gods who had the power of intervention and about he same time those people who were powerful enough exploited slaves or beasts of burden to do the work they couldn’t or didn’t want to do to adapt the earth’s systems to their needs and desires. Then technology took over these roles.  But technology, we have seen, is an adaptation of the tightly interlocked natural order to meet the demands of some rationalized human purpose.  The paths of these selected and abstracted elements through time and space are channeled away from their natural physical or evolutionary path into a technological space and timeframe that fits with human will.     This becomes problematical when the cumulative effect of technologies is destructive of the systems they or other perceptions or species depend on.

Time is the elusive dimension.  We travel in a single direction through time.  We “consume” our allocated time-span.  We use technology to collapse time.  We cram ever more into the time available with longer waking hours and more time allocated to applied pursuits or absorbing “condensed” experience.  The reaction against this frantic tendency has emerged with the “slow” philosophy and the “simple” philosophy.  These possibilities are attractive conceptually but do not come naturally to generations trained through normal education and the entertainment industry alike to cram.

 The environments, settings, resources, equipment and tools that we make need to satisfy both mind and senses.  It is the cultivation of a reflective attitude to life and our part in the activity of the biota and earth systems that should form the basis of a median culture. Artists and intellectuals may feel the need to rebel against such a culture and may make such challenges the basis of their art.  Similarly political activists will always call for change and others will live by more extreme values of a religious on the one hand or on the other criminal nature.  But these will be on the fringes of a new orthodoxy.  Objects and environments that are made will always be required to add to the meaning of day-to-day life and more symbolic ritual.  Thus the role of aesthetics in our lives will be regarded as just as central as economics, ethics and ecology

 An essential part of the reflective and meaningful approach to the evaluation of the things we make must be the considered and efficient use of resources.  I have demonstrated elsewhere that our needs and desires are capable of being served by artifacts of many different physical forms.  History demonstrates this.  Environment, available resources, technology and social convention have in the past determined the kinds of things that are made and the consequent systems of values in given societies.  In the current world, for the rich nations, there are far fewer constraints on what is available since global markets can be tapped into and technology and in particular transportation seems to know few constraints if a particular product can find a wide enough market.  The trading world has become very complex and the products it offers are also often complex in their own right.  However it is this very complexity and apparent abundance that we should be cautious about.  Any artifact we make and use should be subject to the considered and efficient use of resources no matter what its origin.

In our living environment we should question monoculture.  Monoculture here broadened to mean mono culture in a cultural rather than horticultural sense.  The opposite is diversity, or in a cultural sense richness or depth.  But multi-culture does not necessarily mean mixed cultures, though this will happen too.  Cultural fusions are very prevalent in our society as are new cultural emergences.  Part of multi-culture or polyculturewill be the inclusion of the biota and earth systems in our man made environments.  But it will also have an inherent complexity and aesthetic richness.  This cannot come from a “dipped-into” culture.  It can only come from a “lived-in” culture.  Because of amazing communications systems we can so easily dip-in and this ease, baring in mind our inherent weakness for novelty, makes live-in so much harder.

It is important that, in the main stream of the things we make, we can recognize and differentiate between authenticity and surrogacy, the substantial and the trivial.  Once again I am not arguing for the elimination of the trivial or even the surrogate but only an acknowledgement of their true place in a holistic value system.

Any mainstream culture should emphasize values of restraint and good manners. These qualities are after all the marks of a civilized life.  They are the qualities that can make life in densely occupied cities tolerable. Temperance rather than excess in all things has been recognized as a source of good manners, equality and balance in social habits from time immemorial.  Accomplishment as an ideal allows for differences of habit and interest but acknowledges that satisfaction in life ultimately derives from seeing ourselves in human relationships.  In recent times the appeal to the mass audience has been over done. Virtue, in a traditional sense, must relate closely to both accomplishment and temperance, but will also be coloured by consideration and compassion.  Thus in human behaviour, but also in the things we need to make, a reflection of such human values would raise them up and make them of greater value and significance than goods that pander to baser instincts.


How things should be made

The difference between things made by homo sapiens and the products of nature lies at the core of any definition of technology.  Human artifacts are the result of abstraction and extraction.  They selectively remove elements from the biota and/or earth systems and adapt or work them with a particular purpose in view.  The extent of the working can be limited and local, such as the erection of a shelter from locally gathered materials or the setting of a trap to catch an animal for food or extensive and or complex such as modern agriculture and food production or the building of an oil refinery or five star hotel.  Most artifacts today are created by employing complex and diverse technologies and operate on a global or at least national scale.  Our primordial unhappiness and impatience with our evolutionary lot was the spark that ignited human culture, technology and civilization and still lies at the heart of all artifacts.  We cannot return to the “Garden of Eden”, or perhaps more truthfully we have no desire to return to a life that other animals unquestioningly accept, but that we interpreted in our dawning consciousness as intolerably at the mercy of the unsympathetic (interpreted as vengeful) activity of the earth’s mindless systems and an apparently insentient biota.  What we can do, and need to develop the desire to do, is leaven our technologies and design our artifacts to take account of their effects on the intricate and interlocked biological, ecological and simply physical aspects of our experienced world.  Rethinking the complexities of each new artifact at all levels each time we act cannot achieve this.  We would become moribund with thoughts and incapable of acting.  What we can do however is to develop a mindset and habitual approaches to the ways we make things that will lead to a more effective and benign relationship between humanity, its artifacts and nature.  Some of these habits and mindsets seem intuitively right, though in current society we learn to question and disregard them.  Some were woven into the fabric of vernacular societies, but we have come to regard them as primitive or archaic.  Some of them make sense in conventional economic terms but we have become too rich and indulgent to bother about them.

The way we make things, and the way we design things to be made will have to be influenced by an acknowledgement that their origin lies in the act of (human) conscious creation as opposed to the (insentient) process of nature and the consequent way that technology involves abstraction, manipulation, transportation and assembly.

 Conventional wisdom has currently swung towards enthusiasm for the new and a kind of revolutionary optimism about a better future that can be delivered by a constantly advancing technology.  This is driven through the agency of commerce and the media, both of which amass wealth for their various stakeholders by delivering wider ranges of ever more technically sophisticated products and services.  This is not in itself wrong, even though not perhaps the best of all possible worlds, but it is an immensely efficient self-sustaining system that needs constantly to be challenged.  We need to question the extent to which it in fact delivers the opportunities for wellbeing and the fulfilling life experience it promises, but also whether the products and services delivered are at an acceptable and equitable price to ourselves, humanity as a whole, the biota and the earth’s systems.  Thus when we choose the component technologies to make something new we should, quite apart from questioning the need for the artifact in the first place, see the systems of manufacture in the light of a reverence for nature and in a different way, heritage.  To say that these are limited and priceless resources is to completely undervalue their complexity and profundity.  These words seem to have an uncomfortable edge in the light of our basically liberal hedonistic view of life.  But such a viewpoint is only fully sustainable in the light of a cornucopian interpretation of the earth and its systems.  As pointed out earlier, reverence is the form of respect reserved for the more powerful forces in the cosmos and even for those who cannot believe in a personal relationship with some spiritual manifestation of these forces (maybe now the majority) the most impersonal view, the most scientifically objective view should not preclude respect for the physical and evolutionary processes that have delivered and continue to sustain the rich panoply of the world in which we find ourselves.  Our tastes, our lifetime habits, our sense of accomplishment and propriety should take all of this into account.   The reverential attitude to nature and heritage therefore goes beyond the enlightened self-interest resolve to conserve precious and irreplaceable resources to one of a non-anthropocentric view of the universe and its power.  We have of course to look after ourselves, all life forms do this, but we, because of our “gift” of sentience and the potency this has given us means that we have to learn to revere nature and exercise restraint in its exploitation.  Thus in the way we make things the aim should be to use the earth’s systems wisely.

I have rolled heritage into the discussion of respect because, while it is a completely man made aspect of experience, it deserves in a quite different way to that I am according to the natural world.  Heritage offers a fund or bank of created artifacts that have mostly already taken their toll on natural resources and thus can be enjoyed with a minimum of further depletion.  Also they are often reminders of technologically less sophisticated times and appropriated less from their environment.  They can be reminders of the mistakes of the past too.  Heritage, in the context of ecological design, should not be regarded as immutable but rather as a valuable resource to be used in efficient, effective and respectful ways.

What does “using earth systems wisely” mean.  Currently there is a panic about global warming, which means that energy use is getting serious, though probably still inadequate attention.  This is driven by self-interest though, rather than a reverential attitude.  All products and resources need to be considered in the light of their own depletion, the knock on effects of their extraction or cropping on landscapes and ecologies, the extent and kind of transportation employed in supplying them, the risks to human health and the more than human world, their divergence from a zero waste philosophy and the employment of renewable sources of energy.

The global economy following on from the accelerating growth in international trade can have an effect on the cost of technological solutions due to the imbalance of national economies.  The search for cheap labour markets has been a major concern of competitive multinational companies and has resulted in an abundance of cheap manufactured goods in the richer countries.  This continues with imports from China and India, but remains a temporary phenomenon that is likely to correct itself with time as these countries improve their productive output and their standard of living improves.  While there are arguments in favour of the utilization of cheaper labour sources in that the trade is good for the countries involved in selling their services and the pay received by workers meets the expectations of the local economy, there remains the possibility of trading beyond a limit of fairness, resulting in the depression of the living standards of workers.  Equally, if the labour rates being offered or the price of a commodity involves the violation of basic human rights or other forms of exploitation then that too should not be accepted.  Whatever we make should involve only fair trade and healthy, dignified forms of employment with fair and reasonable remuneration.

 All the things we make require material inputs and sooner or later result in material outputs.  The raw materials we use can deplete rare resources, destroy landscapes and habitats and result in pollution.  The by-products of manufacture and the manufactured article at the end of its useful life can in themselves be toxic or polluting or may place further demands on the environment in the form of landfill or the discharges from incineration.  It is the volume of throughput of these materials and their disposal that has become entirely out of kilter with the earth systems.  All of the processes of making we use require energy and mostly this comes from non renewable sources that are highly inefficient in their yield of usable or used energy and contribute to rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  The aim therefore for a zero waste, zero non-renewable energy technology should be behind all our designs and manufacturing and assembly processes.  This is undoubtedly a matter of restraint, but it needn’t be a matter of unacceptable regulation if the spirit of a sustainable lifestyle suffuses our culture.

 Regulation of the throughput of material in our industries is exercised either through the forces of the market place or through the making of laws and statutes.  Laws are made to define the limits of behaviour that are acceptable to society at large.  The point we have currently reached is that such law should be tolerant and guided mainly by the rules of the forum and market place.  The forum is almost completely dominated by the media, which increasingly is the agent of commerce and industry through the funding of advertising.  In this way the market place has taken control and uses the language of economics to lend gravitas to the less than noble values of profit and expediency.  There have been many moves to couch what are actually aesthetic and ethical issues and values in economic terms, such is the strangle hold that the commercial ethos has on our culture.  Similarly science and technology have worked hard to subsume reverential viewpoints.  While the current orientation of society towards the individual must be better than its converse (the individual simply being regarded as a cog in the machinery of the state), it requires that we all exercise the full gamut of human sensibilities in making judgments and choices.  It follows that professionals need to give society at large the benefit of their professional expertise in the form of positive advocacy.  For the design professions this is the burden of the holistic view that acknowledges a mixed economy but effectively points up not only the needs of the present but also the needs of the future in a holistic way.  This way must be rooted in a reverence for the cosmos, the earth, the biota and other sentient creatures, while sustaining the wellbeing of humankind.  There will always be a need for regulation, but regulation is in itself regulated in a democratic society by the power of conventional wisdom and the habits of the populace.  It is conventional wisdom itself that will need to shift.

Regulation is enforced against the background of popular habits and conventional wisdom.  These change with time and are as we know driven in part at least by the unfolding of new technologies.  On balance new technologies seem to have increased our health and wellbeing as well as our material wealth and so we have been less questioning of them than we should have been.  It is unlikely that the possibility of a radical technological U-turn exists, but the evidence suggests a need for radical reform.  Progress and by this today we usually mean material progress has come to be seen as depending on the economic model of growth.  Standing still is not a state that life experience suggests as the model for our activities.  The arrow of time is implicit in our understanding of the universe and the earth.  Big bang theory and evolution put us in a moving time frame that has been reinforced by the last two to five hundred years of the history of humankind and the apparently rapid change that we have witnessed.  But nature, as I have tried to indicate elsewhere, operates on many timescales, some tens or thousands of orders faster or slower than we can directly appreciate.  The idea of growth is implicit in the world of living things, but only as a part of a cycle linked to the inevitability of mortality.  Growth as the basis of a large-scale plan for our future now looks like a dangerous proposition and needs to be replaced with notions of equilibrium and synergy.  This in the way we view our relationship with nature and earths systems.

 Progress is something we have come to regard as an inevitable part of life.  In the last six thousand years or so of civilization there definitely appears to have been an accelerating improvement in the way humankind conducts its social and political life and in the comforts that it enjoys.  Science and technology builds on the work of preceding generations and its comprehensiveness and subtlety as well as its potency evolves in a seemingly progressive way.  Since the Renaissance and the birth of the scientific method, technology seems to have driven progress.  However, at the leading edge there is always the question as to what progress is and how should we respond to those aspects of the current situation presented to us as progressive.  Certainly in nature also, as I have discussed above, evolution, and indeed time itself, appear to be progressive in the sense that flux is continuous and changing and the arrow of time points in a single direction.  The lesson of evolution, though, is that not all paths continue in perpetuity.  Not all species continue to thrive and not all societies continue to sustain themselves.  Our constant problem is to evaluate the best direction for progress and indeed to exercise our individual choice to seek to influence trends in accordance with a legitimate and convincing system of values.  The best of all possible worlds, the good life is not necessarily without rules and restraints.  Progress may not necessarily lie in more and better.  It most likely lies in social cohesion and human values for the currently rich and securing intellectual freedom, material comfort, justice and opportunity for the currently poor.  Human values exercised on a global scale are essential to real progress. The activity of the individual, institutions of all kinds including pressure groups and NGOs, governments themselves and multinational corporations will only lead to real progress if the human values they subscribe to are consistent and holistic.  While we may individually feel impotent in the face of seemingly all-powerful forces it is good to remind ourselves that reality is always partly intractable.  It’s hard enough to keep ones own house in order, harder still to influence others, progressively harder to change the course of institutions and governments but possibly hardest of all to influence conventional wisdom.  That is where vision comes in, for without vision there is no true progress, just a messy and mindless sploshing about in chaos.    So progress should be monitored at all levels of engagement, but it is unlikely to be monitored effectively, let alone directed, until there is once again a holistic common wisdom.  While we have come to think of progress almost exclusively in material terms, a relative slowing down of material progress would almost certainly be no bad thing, always provided that we continued to make progress in the human values discussed above.  If material progress is simply based on ever increasing consumption of natural resources for an ever more instantaneous life experience, then progress needs to be brought to a swift halt.  Such a view confuses human progress with economic growth.  The current addiction to the philosophy of economic growth is the result of a blind faith in the capability of the economic system to keep delivering ever-increasing material wealth without ever a thought for the earth’s systems that material wealth ultimately depends on. It is the application of corporate planning and capitalist ambition beyond their logical limits.  This type of growth faith will lead sooner or later either to a totally surrogate existence or to environmental disaster and along the way to either resource wars or increasing military/political suppression or both.

Ultimately the new conventional wisdom must be one that values ideas like synergy and equilibrium above all others.  These values must be given the priority they deserve if our value system is to lead us into a just and sustainable democracy as opposed to a politician driven statuteocracy or media driven advertocracy.  Finding a path to a more fulfilling life is, we intuitively know, beset with pain as well as pleasure, the acquisition of skills as well as material comforts and hopefully a sense of fair play as well as self promotion.  If values were well enough established then the management of progress would seem less

What is the whole meaning of the things we make?

The range of artifacts that are currently made and which form the material environment we experience has become mind bogglingly vast.  There is no real boundary between utility and enjoyment anymore with all products entering the highly competitive arena of the commercial market place.  However it is demonstrable that the resulting level of throughput of materials is unsustainable.  Unless conventional wisdom shifts, we are on a path towards, at best a surrogate world, the high probability of resource wars and almost certainly environmental disaster.  The politicians will aim to regulate and legislate but they will be reigned back by financial, commercial and industrial interests all blinkered by their denial of what is happening, unjustified faith in the power of systems that are actually limited by the capabilities of human action and interaction and ultimately faith in a technological salvation. Only a shift in popular moral values will bring about the necessary changes, since though we collectively grant power to our politicians, our influence on them is not only through the ballot box but also as a result of our day to day habits, how we live and what we purchase.  This drives industry, which in turn drives politics.  However the consumer and citizen can only make choices from what is made available and this is where the designer comes in. Only designers offering holistically considered solutions to design problems can shift the whole meaning of the things we make in the right direction.  Thus what might be considered by others to need to be dealt with through constraint and regulation might be demonstrated to be capable of being dealt with through creativity and opportunity.  There are some simple markers for the holistic meaning we should be seeking in both the things we make and the way we make them.  The following two questions and five ambitions provide a guide:

  • How does the artifact being designed fit into a holistic vision of human wellbeing
  • Does the value or significance of the product justify the resources it consumes
  • Aim for zero waste and zero non-renewable energy in manufacture and use
  • Eliminate the negative effects of sourcing raw materials on landscapes, habitats, species and earth systems
  • Minimize the ecological footprint of the designed artifact whether, object, system or environment
  • Avoid sometimes hidden unacceptable means that can never be justified by acceptable ends
  • Ensure that manufacture entails only fair treatment of fellow humans and avoids the abuse of all sentient and living creatures

We have come to be short-termist and opportunist in our lives. The capacity of industry and commerce to keep dishing out seductive diversions and entertainments keeps us occupied and comfortable.  So much so that we forget that we are no longer considering what might be the best future.  We tend to just let it happen, driven by the chaotic progress of technological research and the pressures of corporate tactics to achieve growth and wealth.  Philosophical speculation about what might be the best of all possible worlds has fallen away with the discrediting of utopian thought.  It is a t this level that designers, artists and indeed technologists and scientists should instigate debate and start to consider their individual contributions to such an enterprise.


What should be the designer’s role in this?

There has been a great deal of debate on the subject of design quality.  Design quality is thought to lie in the special qualities that we find in certain artifacts that raise them above the banal.  The debate has tended to see design quality as a kind of abstraction, divorced from functionality and associations.  It cannot be so. If there is a social and cultural judgment on design quality then it must take into account the moral as well as the aesthetic aspects of a product of human endeavour. Thus the professional duty of designers is to participate in the debate about the value and significance of the products of their work in an ecological and sociological context and with a holistic view of human wellbeing. This will of course still include aesthetics, a system of judgment that I am promoting as an integral part of that holistic view.

The ideal of the professional is to give the best possible service to his client that is consistent with his professional code, current conventional wisdom and the laws of the land.  But the professional must also be an advocate for those issues that fall within his or her area of expertise.  Often the broader thrust of advocacy is through professional organizations, which take up and promote causes that are supported by a consensus of their members.  However political and particularly party political opinion can sometimes cut across the issues promoted both by the professional organization and the individual professional and this can undermine advocacy of radical measures or lead to apolitical posturing.  The fact remains, however, for the design professional, that it is important to promote a holistic approach to design problems and aim to promulgate solutions that aspire to the highest levels of social, cultural and ecological value and the most noble principles of economics, ethics and aesthetics.



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