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Ecological Literacy in Design Education: A Foundation for Sustainable Design


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'Ecological Literacy in Design Education: A Foundation for Sustainable Design' paper presentation at the DRS//CUMULUS Oslo 2013 - 2nd Int. Conference for Design Education Researchers. More information and paper available here:

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Ecological Literacy in Design Education: A Foundation for Sustainable Design

  1. 1. Ecological Literacy in Design Education:A Foundation for Sustainable DesignDr. Joanna (Jody) BoehnertEcoLabs, London, UK&CIRESCooperative Institute for Research in Environmental SciencesUniversity of Colorado, Boulder, USA
  2. 2. Mecklenburgh sq off
  3. 3. Over the past 40 the Living PlanetIndex has fallen by 30% in NorthernCountries and 60% in the tropicalworld. During this time there has beena doubling of demands on the naturalsystems. At a global level, the yearlyecological footprint of consumptiontakes 1.5 years of regenerative capacityor ‘biocapacity’ to replace.
  4. 4. Contents1. Ecology Literacy2. Ecological Literacy in Design3. Ecological Principles for Design4. Criticality in Ecological Design
  5. 5. David Orr coined the concept of ‘ecological literacy’ in1992 in his seminal book titled: Ecological Literacy.The ambitious aims of ecological literacy is to createthe frame of mind that recognises human relations andinterdependency with the natural world and supportsthe development of new capacities to create sustainableway of living.
  6. 6. Ecological literacy is a philosophical and educationalprogramme that recognises humankind’s essentialrelationship with the Earth and re-visions educational,social, political and economic priorities for the design ofsustainable ways of living.
  7. 7. Epistemological ErrorEcological theorists suggests that our current way of knowing,our dominant epistemology, is a result of a reductive,fragmented approach to knowledge. This epistemologicalerror determines that we are unable to understand oreffectively respond complex problems.
  8. 8. The notion that the dominant epistemological position isa poor reflection of reality was first proposed by GregoryBateson in his seminal book Steps to an Ecology of Mind(1972).Bateson claimed that the dominant map of reality is apoor reflection of reality itself; “most of us are governed byepistemologies we know to be wrong” (p. 493).
  9. 9. The theory of epistemological error suggests that humankindis undergoing a crisis of perception, based on misperception.Ecological literacy supports a radical shift in perception tofacilitate an understanding of interdependence. Designerscan also strategically nurture ecological literacy by creatingpractices that reveal interrelations.
  10. 10. Epistemological error in a technologically advanced society islethal – since the technology we create will destroy the basisof existence. The basic epistemological fallacy is that humansare separate from the natural world.
  11. 11. “The dominant Western epistemology, or knowledge system,is no longer adequate to cope with the world that it itself haspartly created” (Stephen Sterling)Epistemological error becomes a serious problem when it isembedded, by design, into the world we inhabit.
  12. 12. Ecological learning is not simply a bunch of new facts, butchallenges many assumption basic premises. Ecologicalliteracy requires a interrogation of the way of thinking.
  13. 13. 2. Ecological Literacy in DesignFour prerequisites to ecological literacy (David Orr)1.Ecological literacy is “to know that our health, well-being andultimately survival depends on working with, not against, naturalforces”.
  14. 14. 2.Ecological literacy requires an understanding of the scope and speedof the current crisis through a familiarity with “the vital signs of theplanet and its ecosystems”.
  15. 15. 3.Ecological literacy requires a historical understanding of how wehave become so destructive.
  16. 16. 4.Ecological literacy requires a practical and participatoryapproach; “the study of environ-mental problems is an exercisein despair unless it is regarded as only a preface to the study,design and implementation of solutions”.
  17. 17. SeeingKnowingDoingEpistemologyOntologyMethodologyConfrontationwithinformationregardingenvironmentalcrisisSelf-examinationofpersonalattitudesinregardtotheenviornmentAcriticalassessmentofassumptionsandbasicpremisesRecognitionofdiscontentandpossibilitiesfortransformationExplorationofsustainabilityinasociallearningcontextPlanalearningprocessforsustainableeducationAcquirenewknowledge&skillsinforsustainablewaysoflivingDevelopsustainablemethodsoflivingandworkingBuildconfidencetoactivelyembednewvaluesintolife&workIntegrationofecologicalliteracyintoallspheres(professional,personalandpolitical)❉ O ❉ ❉ ❉=▲❉❉ N w ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉❉ O x❉@❉OO❶ ❷ ❸ ❹ ❺ ❻ ❼ ❽ ❾ww@@==▲▲ pppxw = p@ ❋rr❋xx▲❋❋rr* Dominant learning level inticated by white symbolMethods• experiential learning• critical pedagogy• transformative learningThese practices create possibilitiesfor deep learning. Sterlingdescribes the learning necessaryfor sustainable education asthird order learning, i.e. learningthat emphasis capacity building,enactment and transformativepractice.
  18. 18. The world is a complex, interconnected, finite, ecological-social-psychological-economic system. We treat it as if it were not, asif it were divisible, separable, simple, and infinite. Our persistent,intractable, global problems arise directly from this mismatch.Donella Meadows, 1982Why? ContextPresently humanity’s ecological footprint exceeds its regenerativecapacity by 30%. This global overshoot is growing and ecosystems arebeing run down as wastes (including greenhouse gases) accumulate inthe air, land, and water. Climate change, resource depletion, pollution,loss of biodiversity, and other systemic environmental problemsthreaten to destroy the natural support systems on which we depend.What? Systems, Networks, ValuesProblems cannot be understood in isolation but must be seen asinterconnected and interdependent. We must learn to engage withcomplexity and think in terms of systems to address currentecological, social and economic problems. Images can be usefultools to help with this learning process.How? Transformational LearningThe value / action gap permeates education for sustainability and isobvious in environmental coverage in the media. The gap betweenour ideas about what we value and what we are actually doing toaddress the problem is the notorious value / action gap. This projectuses transformational learning to move from values to action. Thisapproach is integrated into cycles of action research and practicebased design work.ReferencesFritjof Capra. The Hidden Connections. London: Flamingo. 2003Stephen Sterling. Whole Systems Thinking as a Basis for Paradigm Change in Education. University of Bath. 2003Stephen Sterling. Transformational Learning. Researching Transformational Learning. University of Gloucestershire. 2009Ecological literacy - the understanding of the principles of organizationthat ecosystems have evolved to sustain the web of life - is the firststep on the road to sustainability. The second step is the movetowards ecodesign. We need to apply our ecological knowledge tothe fundamental redesign of our technologies and social institutions,so as to bridge the current gap between human design and theecological sustainable systems of nature.Fritjof Capra, 2003Levels of Learning & Engagement1st: Education ABOUT SustainabilityContent and/or skills emphasis. Easily accommodatedinto existing system. Learning ABOUT change.ACCOMMODATIVE RESPONSE - maintenance.2nd: Education FOR SustainabilityAdditional values emphasis. Greening of institutions.Deeper questioning and reform of purpose, policy and practice.Learning FOR change. REFORMATIVE RESPONSE - adaptive.3rd: SUSTAINABLE EducationCapacity building and action emphasis.Experiential curriculum. Institutions as learning communities.Learning AS change. TRANSFORMATIVE RESPONSE - enactment.Stephen Sterling, | jody@eco-labs.orgThis poster can be downloaded on this website: LearningValues, Knowledge, SkillsA: SEEING (Perception)An expanded ethical sensibility or consciousnessB: KNOWING (Conception)A critical understanding of pattern,consequence and connectivityC: DOING (Action)The ability to design and act relationally,integratively and wisely.Stephen Sterling, 2009ECOLOGICALSOCIALECONOMICGOODDESIGNThe Visual Communication of Ecological LiteracyJody Joanna Boehnert - MPhil - School of Architecture and DesignActionsIdeas / TheoriesNorms / AssumptionsBeliefs / ValuesParadigm / WorldviewMetaphysics / Cosmology
  19. 19. 3. Ecological Principles for DesignThe ‘Nature’s Patterns and Processes’ concept developed bythe Center of Ecological Literacy (CEL) defines six principlesin natural systems. These patterns and processes of natureare: networks, nested systems, cycles, flows, development,and dynamic balance. Each of these principles will be linkedto a concept in systems design: resilience, epistemologicalawareness, circular design, energy descent, emergence and theecological footprint.
  20. 20. NetworksEcosystems are characterised by robust networks with manyinterconnections. Highly interconnected complex networksare resilient to shocks and failure because there is a diversityof means for achieving systemic goals. Nature’s networks areresilient – in sharp contrast to design in industrial systemsthat are often optimized for maximum efficiency and short-term profitability. Design principles of resilience systems asconsisting of small units dispersed in space, redundancy,diversity, decentralized control, quick feedback, self-relianceand appropriate scale.
  21. 21. Nested systemsNested systems refer to the relationship between systems.The concept is important because systemic dysfunction ariseswhen the relationship between the nested layers breaks down.The implications of dysfunction in nested systems aredramatice (such as the relationship now between theecological and economic system). Systems design requires anability to distinguish between different types of premises fordifferent levels of systems. Epistemological flexibility enablesconscious movement between different levels of abstraction.
  22. 22. FlowFlows, feedbacks, stocks and delays between cause and effectare central to understanding ecological processes and arebasic concepts of systems thinking. The availability and flowof natural resources will become increasingly important fordesigners in an age of increasing resource scarcity. Designersneed to be aware of basic energy concepts such energydescent, embedded energy and EROI to make informeddesign decisions.
  23. 23. CyclesIn nature’s cycles there is no waste as all elements areendlessly re-used. These natural cycles are a stark contrast tothe industrial production where 99% of materials extractedfrom the earth are waste in just six months. Designers mustlearn how to support the development and design of a circulareconomy in order to eliminate the concept of waste. Theimitation of natural processes in biomimicry has significantpotential here.
  24. 24. DevelopmentAs complex living systems develop they exhibit self-organizing properties. Development is a learning process inwhich individuals and environments adapt to one another.Emergence appears as the result of relationships whereinthe whole is greater than the parts. The phenomenon ofemergence is significant for sustainability because it impliesthat systems will exhibit unpredictable behaviour.
  25. 25. Dynamic balanceDynamic balance is created as systems organise themselvesin response to feedback from subsystems and meta-systems.Ecological systems maintain their processes through feedbackloops that allow systems to self-regulate within tolerancelimits. Ecological footprinting and planetary boundariesmust be embedded into the design education curriculum sodesigners are aware of the consequences of their practice andstart to create sustainable ways of living.
  26. 26. 4. Criticality in Ecological DesignCreating sustainable alternatives to current ways of livingchallenges hegemonic ideologies, cultural traditions, pow-erful corporate interests and public institutions. For thisreason, critical thinking about issues of power – and the po-litical dimension of design, is essential. Ecological design,situated within a unsustainable world, must be critically in-formed on the relationships between power and knowledgein order to address the interests that support ‘business asusual’ (or some slight variation thereof).
  27. 27. Institutions and corporations maintain their legitimacy bypublicizing green credentials, but are often far less likely todo the much harder work of building capacities to addressenvironmental problems effectively. Ultimately, ecologicallyliterate design must confront the cultural tradition anddevelopment frameworks that determine the systemicpriorities of the design industry.
  28. 28. Economic growth demands the constant increase in theflow of ecological resources, as mechanical engineerProfessor Roderick Smith warned in a noteworthy speechat the UK Royal Academy of Engineering:…relatively modest annual percentage growth rates lead tosurprisingly short doubling times. Thus, a 3% growth rate, whichis typical of the rate of a developed economy, leads to a dou¬blingtime of just over 23 years. The 10% rates of rapidly developingeconomies double the size of the economy in just under 7 years.These figures come as a surprise to many people, but the realsurprise is that each successive doubling period consumes asmuch resource as all the previous doubling periods combined.This little appreciated fact lies at the heart of why our currenteconomic model is unsustainable. (2007, p.17)
  29. 29. Ecological literacy informs the debate on sustainability byrevealing that ultimately sustainability is not a feature of aparticular product but the condition of a culture relative to itsgross impact on ecological systems. Since the cumulative impactof consumer lifestyles, or the ecological footprint of consumptionin the UK is 4.71gha and 7.19gha in the United States, nothingin our culture is sustainable. While the behaviour of certainindividuals is below the threshold, the gross impact of thecollective system is the indicator that matters.
  30. 30. In light of the severity of ecological problems,all institutional practices that perpetuateecologically harmful activities must be challenged.These challenges are perceived by those withinstitutionalised power as a threat to their ownlegitimacy and ecologically informed critiques(such as this one) are typically marginalised.Thus environmental problems continue tobecome more severe and often design studentscontinue not to be provided with the capacities toaddress these problems.
  31. 31. Dr. Joanna (Jody) BoehnertEcoLabs, London, UK - - Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental SciencesUniversity of Colorado, Boulder, USA - (upcoming August 2013)The presentation of this paper would not have been possible without generous support from individuals who responded to my crowdfunding campaign. Many thanks to: Simon Rafferty, Professor Gregory G. Stock, Jess Sand, Karin Jaschke, Alison Hodgson, HughKnowles, Ian Willey, Joel Davis, Richard Frost, Jonathan Crinion, Jennifer Boehnert, Paul Chandler, Orlagh O’Brien and several anonymouscontributors. I am also grateful to the Design Research Society for covering conference fees in exchange for a review of the event.