Manuel Lima | Books

The New Designer: Design is Local

The New Designer

Editor's Note: The New Designer: Rejecting Myths, Embracing Change is the latest book from Manuel Lima, is out now from MIT Press. The following is an excerpt from the book, published with permission of the author and publisher.

"Truly understanding design requires both an expansive mind and a compassionate heart, qualities Manuel Lima generously brings to this important book, and to our imperiled world." —Jessica Helfand

The world has always been a small place, connected in limitless ways through its natural highways and ecosystems, the extent of which we haven’t fully figured out. And human innovation has simply mirrored this flux, as we can tell from the multiple exchanges and appropriations of the past between communities separated by seemingly impenetrable barriers. In a way, human design has never been local. Today’s intricate air transport network means that ideas, people, and inevitably viruses are much quicker to spread, as witnessed with the Covid-19 global pandemic. Advances in technology and communications are accentuating this sense of closeness, making the world smaller. While most communication tools of the past, such as the telegraph and telephone, used the Greek prefix tele-, which means “over a distance” (first applied in the word telescope from Galileo’s Italian word telescopi), modern-day digital tools have abandoned the prefix altogether. The time it takes for a message to leave a computer in Tokyo and arrive in New York City is roughly the same as the time it takes a message to leave your next-door neighbor’s computer and arrive at yours. The difference is measured in milliseconds. Geography and physical distance have become irrelevant in the new world order. They have been overcome.

The digital realm is also changing the very nature and availability of design. Today, the same digital tool is used by billions of people in almost every corner of the globe. People in Bogotá, Colombia, see the same icons, press the same buttons, and complete the same tasks as people—who are different from them in every way—might do in Jakarta, Indonesia, on the opposite side of the planet. Whatever the design update or new feature might be, it is updated and experienced almost simultaneously by both individuals. Design, like any good idea, has always been able to spread like wildfire, contaminate other minds, and influence behavior. Yet now, these things seem easier than ever to achieve. Design has never been so far-reaching and truly global. But being global means there are also universal consequences. As designers, we must understand that the large-scale repercussions of our work take place in the vast multisymbiotic system of our planet. We must understand that a change here, no matter how small, can have a disproportionate effect across the globe. While design can certainly align with a circular economy—a sustainable model based on ideas involving sharing, reusing, and repairing existing products and materials— that alone might not be enough. It is not just that the world is getting smaller. We also must look at some of its global problems from a different angle.

The New Designer

In 1992, the devastating collapse of the cod stocks in Newfoundland led to the partial closure of the region’s fishing industry and quickly became a widely cited example of failed management of a natural resource. More than thirty thousand people lost their jobs, and many communities are still recovering today. Instead of pointing a finger at overfishing and despite opposition from the scientific community, the federal government announced that seals were mainly responsible for the disaster because their overconsumption of cod was preventing its natural recovery. One of the immediate actions by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) was to increase the kill quota, which led to the slaughter of thousands of seals. Between 2003 and 2005, near a million animals were killed in an effort to bring back the golden days of cod fishing. However, as suggested by many studies, the indiscriminate killing of seals had an opposite effect on the ecosystem by contributing to the spread of bacteria on the ocean floor, which in turn led to hypoxia—a condition where areas of the ocean lose their dissolved oxygen and are unable to sustain any type of fish or marine life.

In an article published in 1995 entitled “Seals, Cod, Ecology and Mythology,” research scientist Peter Meisenheimer exposes in great detail the failure of government procedures to fight the collapse of cod stocks. Even though early humans had to face the constant thread of large predators, says Meisenheimer, “today, humans only very occasionally lose resources through direct competition with wild predators (...), and even less commonly are preyed upon.” Notwithstanding, “the belief that humans interact in a competitive way with wild predators remains widely accepted.” In his harsh assessment, Meisenheimer states that the use of seals as scapegoats is symptomatic of the broad mismanagement of fisheries and wildlife and, sadly, is the result of a prevalent view that sees predators as problems to be controlled and not as integral parts of a functioning ecology. Even today, many decision makers have a naive view of nature and look at food webs as simplified trees of dependencies. However, when we talk about ecosystems, we are dealing with highly challenging problems of organized complexity, where thousands of species shape an intricate mesh of interdependency.

The renowned zoologist David Lavigne has long been fighting against this misconception. To prove that seals were not the only intervening agent in the cod collapse, Lavigne produced a visual representation of the vast Northwest Atlantic cod food web, showing close to a hundred different species in a dense network of interrelation. This intricate aquatic lattice shows how infantile our conceptions of natural systems—like the linear predator-prey diagrams we learned at school—have been. Lavigne’s work has been essential in exposing how obsolete this ingrained simplistic mindset is. To solve some of the largest ecological problems we are facing today, we must start with a deep understanding of the underlying reciprocal webs that abound in any healthy ecosystem. We must unravel the different relationships among the largest number of agents in our wide biosphere. Through a responsible effort at mapping such structures, future simulation models can be developed that replicate variations in the ecosystem and the consequent effects in individual species. Network thinking in this context is a remarkable ally. Thinking nature is to think systemic—to think in networks.

“The current understanding suggests that sustainability is a system property and not a property of individual elements of systems,” write design researchers Fabrizio Ceschin and ─░dil Gaziulusoy.

Therefore, they argue, “achieving sustainability requires a process-based, multi-scale and systemic approach to planning for sustainability guided by a target/vision instead of traditional goal-based optimization approaches.” Ecosystems are not the only domain that requires a radical shift in perception. We still treat our cities, social groups, supply chains, human conflicts, and knowledge as hierarchical, rigid, and centralized structures. We tackle problems individually, expecting, somehow, that the greater whole will be better as a result. We don’t understand the multiple factors at play and the degree of interdependence between them. We also fail to grasp that, like sustainability, many of these multifaceted subjects are a moving target. Not only is it difficult to untangle all intervenient actors and forces, but the entire system is constantly changing and adapting. They are dynamic, multivariate, and highly codependent organisms. To decipher such complexity through a top-down decision-making process will never work, whether you are a politician or a designer.

The New Designer

Design can help bring clarity and transparency to some of these convoluted domains, since it has the power to make the invisible visible. Yet information visualization and communication are just one path. Eventually, designers must change the way they think about design itself. Although confined in scope, human-centered design is not necessarily a wrong place to start—if we expand it outward to decode the myriad of interactions and dependencies between humans and other species and between different species and the entire ecology that supports them. Thinking in networks ultimately means thinking about reciprocity, causation, symbiosis, and interdependence. It also means asking big, unusual, and often uncomfortable questions. What is the connection between weather and human conflict? Between the availability of a product in Miami and a storm in Asia? Between deforestation and hunger? Between plastic production and human health? Design thinking should become synonymous with network thinking. This is the only way for us to fully understand repercussions, to design more consciously and sustainably, and to have a long-lasting, positive impact on our planet. As Bruce Mau, Jennifer Leonard, and the Institute without Boundaries write in Massive Change, “When everything is connected to everything else, for better or worse, everything matters.”

Posted in: Books, Social Good

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