What is planet-centric design?
I was recently asked to be on a panel about planet-centred design by New Zealand design platform, Design Assembly. The question for the panel was;
Planet-centric design – What is the role and responsibility of the designer?
Throughout its history, the design industry has predominantly been concerned with two things; Promoting industry through the design of products and services, and solving problems encountered by people in the consumption of products and services.
There have been two critical contexts in which this has occurred; the age of the Anthropocene (where humans have been the dominant species on earth) and the capitalist economic system.
From design came the concept of human-centredness, where designers placed the desires and needs of the human at the centre of their design project. This creates a nested relationship of human at the centre of a capitalist system (which prioritises private ownership, wealth accumulation, competitive markets and the reduction in the cost of labour) in an epoch of human exceptionalism.
In hindsight, one can see how this could become problematic.
Planet-centric design aims to re-balance this arrangement by placing Mother Earth at the centre of design projects, prioritising its ecosystem and the creation of positive outcomes for the planet. Here the importance of the human changes, as they become another actor in the system, as opposed to the centre of it.
Implications for design
It will take major changes for design to become planet-centric. It remains difficult to see how this can happen in the current economic paradigm. Designers need to create new forms of value and value exchange to combat the inequalities we currently witness. They also need to minimise the extractive processes that are so prevalent in what they do.
Part of this is laying out their stall with integrity and presenting new visions of what could be different. There is a large educational-effort to be done with clients to help them transition to new approaches and ways of thinking. New visions cannot be delivered through meeting current expectations.
In being planet-centric, designers will also have to recalibrate the expectations of customers. Human-centred design has capitalised on creating "seamless" and "frictionless" experiences, whilst minimising inconvenience. In being planet-centric, people will have to accept more inconvenience in their daily lives.
Reducing travel and consumption, minimising energy and data use and focusing on local will all require smarter approaches to traditional design problems. It also requires a willingness on the customer to change and accept increased emotional, intellectual and physical labour.
Planet-centric design doesn’t only mean de-centering the human, it means exploring the future from not only multiple perspectives, but multi-species perspectives.
Through using speculative design and scenarios, we can look beyond current practices and imagine different possible futures. Here design is a mode of critique to broaden our horizons and scope of thinking, but it also stimulates us to think about what Dave Snowden calls “The evolutionary potential of the present”.
In the words of Anne Galloway, the potential of this approach is “getting folks past thinking about “better” futures and instead asking “better” for whom.”
From sustainable to regenerative
Moving to planet-centric means we should also be challenging and evolving our understanding and approach to sustainability. Terms such as “zero-waste” and “circular economy” are popular in relation to minimising environmental and social impacts in the production of goods. It is easy to see how these terms can be co-opted and used to make consumers feel better in the continuing purchase of products and services.
Consumer electronics giant Apple have been pushing a zero-waste policy within their supply chain and advertising their products as zero-waste. As debunked by Mashable, no phone is ever zero-waste, and this type of cynical marketing makes no effort in explaining the design approach of Apple, which is planned obsolescence in the persistent drive to sell the latest model of iphone or mac.
We should not only be wary of the misappropriation of these terms, but also thinking that the continuation of creating more stuff will help us solve ecological problems in the long-term. As stated by Bill Reed, “instead of doing less damage to the environment, it is necessary to learn how one can participate with the environment by using the health of ecological systems as a basis for design.” This is the concept of regeneration that has been evolving in environmental circles for many years, and more recently begun to hit the mainstream.
Now is the time that companies need to move beyond sustainability to create regenerative cultures, businesses and approaches.
Diversity, inclusion and decolonisation
As stated by panel member Miriame Barbarich; "Indigenous peoples makeup 5% of the global population, yet are responsible for 80% of the world's biodiversity."
One of the symptoms of capitalism is ownership. There have been different consequences of this, the most consequential being colonisation. (Colonisation being the process by which a central system of power dominates the surrounding land and its components).
To be planet-centric, designers need to be diverse and inclusive in their influences and practice. Understanding the colonisation of design education and exploring other ways of knowing will be critical to unlocking more interconnected, systemic design practices.
As witnessed through recent events like the global climate strikes and movements like Extinction Rebellion, there is growing awareness and outrage about the nature of man-made climate change. At the same time, climate change and planet-centric design are things that indigenous people have been warning about, and practicing, for hundreds of years. There is a warning in some quarters that the messages and practices of movements like Extinction Rebellion lack diversity, and are alienating towards people of colour alongside the growing danger of eco-fascism.
As identified by Miriame, this is where the tenets and principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi can provide a shared framework to work together as stewards of Aotearoa, New Zealand. It will only by through true partnerships, reciprocity and protection creating new visions and bigger ambitions that we will realise the potential of truly practicing planet-centric design.
If you are interested in exploring speculative futures beyond human-centred design, We Create Futures and Anne Galloway are running a one-day workshop during the Mindset of Design festival in Wellington.