MSc in Integrative Ecosocial Design
Gaia University

Richard Kühnel

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Design & Designing

"Ecosocial design is design for human activity and systems that is based on principles inherent in nature to sustain a vital and permanent human culture." 

Before continuing I want to share some of my thinking about design.

Design Cycles

Recently Andy Langford has published a document on design cycles (this is 6MBs!). It describes quite well and in some detail the idea and concepts behind design and design cycles. One of the design frameworks explained in this paper is called SADIE, which stands for Survey, Analysis, Design, Implementation and Evaluation. I am mostly following the SADIE model for this project, with a few modifications in terms and methods used. Over time I hope to develop additional criteria for evaluating how integrative a design is.
Design methods themselves are going through a constant cycle of evolution and therefore serve as a model, which, as one increases design skills, are modified to fit the purpose and situation.
There are design systems and cycles with varying number of phases in many different disciplines from engineering design to design of rehabilitation programs after injury, interior design or campaign design. I am quite familiar with developing software using various software design methodologies. It is quite interesting how, for example, design methods in Permaculture are similar or different to software design techniques. In software design there are usually a few more phases than compared to SADIE. Several years ago a to software development, on the surface, quite unrelated design framework, called "A Pattern Language", developed by Christopher Alexander, has entered the cutting edge software development arena, where now the word "pattern" describes the best code in a category for problems that occur repeatedly. Today Christopher Alexander, developed a much more complex system called "Generative Code" and I would not be surprised to find this soon in other design disciplines. Another fairly new development is "Extreme Programming" that has turned the understanding of the software design cycle completely upside down from the heavy weight methods employed 10 - 20 years ago, more so than an other method, developed earlier, called RAD, Rapid Application Development. One example of the crossover between these design methods. Testing in software development is a very common activity in the design cycle of a program. Some design methods advocate to test before coding, which is one of the corner stones of extreme programming, and we find something similar in natural building, make a sample plaster coat before actually using on the wall to be plastered.


If we consciously approach design we can choose from different systems and also develop our own. At the end of one design cycle, it continues at the beginning in ever increasing and decreasing loops and duration. Within in each of the design phases the another full cycle of a design is used and again within the phases of that cycle and so on, like in self similar systems. This can be done to any depth necessary, wanted or feasible. Even on the top level definitely on deeper levels, the clear separation of phases becomes artificial, as they start all to overlap, to jump around, which makes this a sometimes chaotic looking process.
Saying this in another way: One important aspect of design and the design cycle, is its fractal and recursive nature. Fractal in the sense, that each phase of a project's design cycle, goes itself through the same cycle itself. So the survey phase of the design cycle, goes itself through the SADIE cycle and it does not stop there, but goes down as many levels as one wishes, which means that at any level the smallest element of the whole is repeated at any level of depth. As a designer we will notice more and more, that every design process goes through this type of cycle and at one point we are not able to verbalize and, further down the path, even perceive consciously what the process is. Finally, as in recursive processes that have a criteria when to stop, the design process ends and "returns" the results, bringing them from the lowest level back up through all the other levels to the top of the heap, so to say, where we can express it (more on recursion here).


As a designer in any discipline, and in general anyone who is doing any activity, we see often the most skilled, learned and experienced people, doing incredible work and working hard and effective and still, at the end, projects do not work out. With all this incredible work and thinking, why do we have today created so much problems in our world? My believe is that our intentions, conscious or not, are critical in creating working designs. Unresolved personal issues on one hand as well as serenity on the other, will influence the result of a design. Conflict inside of us will in one way or another manifest in the project as well as will joy. As designers we will need to communicate well, one on one as well as in a group setting. To be able to do that, we need to learn about ourselves. We see reflected outside what we carry inside. Carrying a lot of emotional issues or personal conflicts, can we expect to create a peaceful world and communicate openly and honestly? In some way or another, even with the best intentions, the war or the peace inside of us, will show in what we do and manifest.
Any human activity can be looked at from a designers perspective. The intention, skill, experience, knowledge, intuition and purpose of the designer has a profound impact on the design. I would go even so far to say that the results of a design, definitely in the long term, are determined also by the persona of the designer . Without personal integrity, ethics and caring for this world, why even attempt to "design"? Inner fear or inner happiness will inform the design. Joy will inform the design, alone though, will also not make a design successful, but is a good part of a basis to stand on. So ultimately, to become a good designer, means to me, to become a true human being.
Some interpretations of quantum physics state that purely observing something changes the very nature of the observed, basically meaning by observing something we influence it. To my knowledge, how this really works is not understood yet. It is not the purpose to discuss details about this here, except to express my opinion that in everything we do we put a part of ourselves in - so if we observe in anger or happiness, it will have an influence on what happens and might contribute to the outcome more then we are usually willing to accept rationally.


Beyond the scope outlined so far it is also the intention to integrate an energetic dimension to this project - something that is potentially not scientifically reproducible and can take very different forms. This refers to design as represented in Feng Shui, Baubiologie or ideas from diverse sources, such as "The secret life of plants", the recent "Anastasia" books or the Celestine Prophecy. This, in an conscious effort, to allow for the non-rational parts of our being, to find expression, to connect to the earth in ways of tribal traditions and create spaces that have a special or sacred feeling about them. A place where one might find oneself inclined to converse with the plants and animals, where biodynamic methods can be tried out as well as some of the Perleandra research. One valuable resource for this aspect is the work of architect Tom Bender, for example represented in "Silent, Song and Shadows".

Ecological Design

I like the notion of William McDonough that "design is the first conscious intention of a human being". True or not, it reminds me that we have means to consciously reflect, design, put into practice, experiment and rethink our activity and observe intended and unintended results. In ecological design, principals are used as observed in nature. Nature has been very successful in its design considering for how many millions of years it has been able to support living systems of many different kinds on this planet. By learning from it and applying what is found, the assumption is that we will also establish systems that have many of the attributes of natural ones - long lived, resilient, adaptable, use of biological energies and nutrients, purification, closed cycles, feeding, etc.
In this project we are dealing with an existing house and a town lot, architectural and landscape design play a role. I will be using design concepts based on the work of Carol Venolia & Kelly Lerner as described in "Natural Remodeling".

Here a definition of design by Sim van der Ryn in "Ecological Design" (age 8):
"....let us define design as the intentional shaping of matter, energy, and process to meet a perceived need or desire. Design is a hinge that inevitably connects culture and nature through exchanges of materials, flows of energy and choices of land use."
and from page 18:
"Ecological design is simply the effective adaptation to and integration with nature's processes."

Another definition of Ecological Design from "From Eco-Cities to Living Machines- Principles of Ecological Design" by Nancy Jack Todd and John Todd (page 1, 2nd paragraph, line 1):
"...ecological design. By this term we mean design for human settlements that incorporates principles inherent in the natural world in order to sustain human populations over a long span of time."

Today, with our capability to change the very fabric on which much of the living part of nature is built on, the DNA, makes me ask a rather philosophical question: we, humans, as to the knowledge and understanding of many, have evolved out of the processes nature undertakes, are part of nature. So we are truly ecological, completely natural in essence. Can anything we do be not natural? Like in the animal world, we might find quite strange behaviors, but regardless what it is, it is natural. Now, as we can change nature and are part of nature, it is natural, too?
For the purpose of this article, I would define that not natural, not ecological are activities that result in the disease, destruction and death of organisms or in the pollution of water, air, soil and organisms (living or not) with substances and materials that do otherwise not occur or not in such concentrations without the interference of processes and behaviors humans have developed. And ecological therefore would be the opposite as well as the restoration to the former healthy and unpolluted state of nature as well the the stewardship to keep it that way.

........and beyond

Book cover, cradle to cradleReflecting on what ecosocial design is or could be, it occurred to me that a more accurate name even though harder to say could be "ecosocio(eco)nomic design" - combining all three legs of sustainability, respresenting a real balance between economy, ecology and equity (William McDonough).
EcoSocial Design brings two pieces, the environmental and social aspects close together and integrates then in the design process. - the economic, environmental and community aspects in our culture. Ecological Design, design based on nature, or better, of what we understand of nature so far, and imitating and informing our human design by it, needs to also account for human nature, culture and community. The best ecological design might fail if the social component is not "designed" into it, too, and therefore needs to be supported from the members of the community or who is effected by the design. Natural and biological systems don't work like technical machines, even though they can have a great resilience in face of big chances and once matured, can seem almost like automatic - like a plant growing by itself. Social design alone can bring us wonderful vibrant communities where social contact, arts, care for the young and elders, caring for each other, no crime, activity, beauty, social networks, etc. are all working wonderfully and at the same time, nature gets denatured - basically destroyed. This is what has been my observation in one particular "social" area, in the area of self-improvement, personal growth and development, following ones spiritual path. Many well known living representatives of a life of love, humanitarian work, help and service, teaching others of inner gifts and joy seem to have no care or understanding how the environment and nature fares in their wake. It is sometimes appalling what waste of resources and energy happens around activities connected to this human activity and how many actually destructive things are done, toxic materials are used, waste produced and released into the environment, etc. Similar in the area of arts and entertainment - art, beauty, creativity - what wonderful things - and then what un-compostable and toxic materials, energy hogging equipment and methods, unhealthy procedures and raw materials are used. There is a real need to bring those two together. And then of course the economic, financial aspect of design! Without designing right livelihood into all this, the ecosocial approach alone, I am afraid, will not work at all.

Future of Design

My vision is that in the near future, an ecosocial designer is considered one of the key members of any team in any area of human activity and endeavor. An ecosocial designer would be able to join any person, group, engineer, scientist or researcher, private or public organization, governmental and non-profit organization or business, bringing the aspect of genuine long term or infinitely long sustainability to the table and developing solutions and best practices, supported by rational research and applying intuitive creativity. An ecosocial designer, any designer optimally, would be able to apply this in any social, cultural and economic context, is trained in tools of working with groups, in conflict resolution, in resolving personal and group issues, self-empowerment and has, besides skills in ecological design, developed a high degree of integrity, openness and honesty, common sense, appreciation of planet earth and works well with the grassroots as well as with institutions, fosters participation, non-violent communication, equitable governance methods and local/regional development practices and is economical savvy.


We are in a transition where we have existing systems and structures designed with criteria of maximizing profit, convenience, speed, status, etc. parallel to the emergence of ecosocial systems. We have the task as designers in our work to build bridges from one way of doing things to another way of doing things. It is almost like using the energy created by the old and redirect it into the new. A fascinating challenge. I guess in every discipline and activity, there is or could be, design involved: architecture, landscaping, hydrology, physics, experimentation, cooking, furniture, sex, science, art, sleeping, breathing, walking, etc.
Ecological sustainability, the way I look at it, means to restore our natural environment to a healthy, vibrant state, which means reducing pollution in soil, air, water, plants and organisms, including the human body. Most of the chemical substances released into the environment (about 100,000 to date in the US), including many toxins, that are not natural occurring, can be found in our bodies and it is little understood what the effects of all the interactions between them in us or the environment are over the time of a life span. It also means to develop ways in which our way of living is within the carrying capacity of the planet (energy and material consumption), that it is based on renewable resources and on the concept "waste=food". It means applying ecological principles to our way of developing and using technology or any production and manufacturing processes, the understanding that indefinite unlimited growth does not exist in nature (and the universe, as far as I know, except for disease processes for a limited time or the size of the universe) and is most unlikely sustainable for the worlds population, economy, etc. Social sustainability means applying ecological principles to our communities, systems of governance and "invisible" structures, like health care, education, organizations, science, research, to our "inner ecology" and the same applies to economic sustainability.

"And of course, if the results are beautiful, appropriate to culture and place, there will be nothing in the way of a sweeping success."

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