More-Than-Human: Design After Human-Centricity
Ten alternative approaches to design and the three that are gaining traction in industry, government and academia.
Hello, it’s 2023, and one would need to live under a rock to be oblivious to the human-made climate and environmental emergency we are living in.
With not much of a surprise, a recent study by the World Inequality Lab in Paris confirmed that increasing temperatures, extreme weather patterns and biodiversity loss are first and foremost fuelled by the investment strategies of our global financial systems. But while the eponymous top 1% is responsible for almost a quarter of global emission growth over the last 30 years, lowering our per capita carbon footprints remains nevertheless a priority issue — with the top 1, 10 and middle 40% earners being responsible for 16.9, 48 and 40.5% of global emissions, respectively.
This means that while the 1% should be encouraged to update their investment portfolios (green hydrogen is great people), the world’s governments and private sector, as well as design, still need to accelerate our transition to a low-carbon and circular economy — because:
“To have high chances of staying below +1.5 °C global temperature increase, global average per-capita emissions should be 1.9 tonnes of CO2 equivalent between now and 2050.”
In case such metrics mean as much to you as they do to me, 1.9 tonnes of CO2 is the equivalent of a “round-trip economy flight between London and New York,” writes the author of the study. And if you look at the graphs above again, only the bottom 50% of global earners are currently living below this threshold. According to the World Economic Forum, we are talking about people living on an average of US$3,920 per year and per person here. What’s more, it is now assumed that we only have seven to eight years left before the 1.5C limit is passed. To put it simply, we need to acknowledge that, no matter what we do, and even though actions are still urgently needed to minimise average global temperature increase, remaining under the 1.5C limit is probably a pipe dream at this stage.
Now, if you’re reading this, there is a high chance that, like me, you belong to the top 50% of global earners. And we just need to have a quick and earnest look at our ways of living to know that we cannot continue as we currently do. Rather than assigning blame, however, let’s be proactive. We currently have access to dozens of viable strategies to decarbonise and circularise our societies and economies. The main problem is that we’re not using them. And if you’re still reading this and you identify as a designer or as someone interested in the field of design, you might be partial to what follows.
In a world plagued by human-made crises and their well-known impact on the environment and society, solely focusing on generating value for humans is no longer a viable strategy. Cue the increasingly familiar claim that design must decentre the human from the design process and consider the environment if it is to support our transition towards low-carbon, resilient, circular and regenerative futures. It must be said here that environmental considerations in design are not a new topic and that novel practices and terminologies regularly appear in the literature. In what follows, I will define and critique ten alternative approaches to Human-Centered Design, including the three that I believe everyone should know about.
1- Sustainable design. In 1987, the United Nations Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This definition of sustainability is associated with capitalist and neocolonialist notions of infinite economic growth and perpetual value extraction where nature is seen as a resource to be exploited and profited from. In addition, this definition does not take into account the well-documented negative impact of intensive resource extraction on ecologies and societies, and as such, is outdated. For these reasons, I tend to avoid using the term Sustainable Design, even though this is probably the term that most people would be familiar with.
2- Nature-Centered Design or Life-Centered Design. To put it bluntly, I find these names rather underwhelming. Nature is a large and complex living system, and systems, by definition, can only be centred schematically. If one were to truly centre their design on nature as a whole, there would be no constraints or boundaries, which would probably generate creative paralysis and/or inadequate propositions. In addition, if Design were to be centred on a subset of nature, or perhaps even a single species — like Human-Centered Design is — design would be oblivious to the complex symbiotic relationships and interdependencies between the different actors of the broader ecological system. I do not believe that Nature- or Life-Centered Design make any sense as terminologies.
3- Planet-Centered Design. Same as above, perhaps even more underwhelming as this approach to design would be centred on every constituent belonging to planet Earth: minerals, human infrastructures, and artificial intelligence included. The design of everything and nothing.
4- Pluriversal Design. A fantastic practice based on the plurality of human experiences rather than their universality. We, humans, are different based on our culture, gender, genetics, abilities, ideologies, social networks, economic power, etc., and as such experience the world differently. Ecological thinking is present in pluriversal design theory but the name potentially does not reflect this enough (see Arturo Escobar’s Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds to learn more on the topic).
5- Other-than-human or Nonhuman Design. Two good terms in theory that are sometimes used in rewilding and conservation projects where the human is not an obvious beneficiary of the design. The human, however, is always present, both as the actant and direct or indirect beneficiary of design. As such, I do not use these terminologies as their semantics obscure the omnipresence of the human race.
6- Multispecies Design. This is getting somewhat interesting but remains a bit vague perhaps. How many species is multi? And where do we draw the boundaries of inclusion or exclusion if we understand nature as an interconnected system of species across the various kingdoms of life? How widely different would a practice focused on the animals of a forest look compared to a practice focused on the human gut microbiota, which is invisible to the human eye? Now, considering that each animal in the forest also has a gut microbiota and possible interdependencies with the local flora, too, how can anybody objectively ostracise one group of species from another? When we think of multispecies, I also wonder how often fungi, bacteria, yeasts, nematodes, molluscs, marine sponges, spiders, insects, and even plants are included in this thought process.
7- Transition Design. Transition Design is a “transdisciplinary approach aimed at addressing the many ‘wicked’ problems confronting 21st-century societies,” reads the practice website. It also argues that “new knowledge and skill-sets are required to address these problems and that their resolution is a strategy for igniting positive, systems-level change and societal transitions toward more sustainable, equitable, and desirable long-term futures.” This isn’t a bad description at first glance, but I can’t stop myself from noticing the lingering anthropocentricity of the discourse in this introductory paragraph. The notion of sustainability is already critiqued above but “equitable and desirable” for whom? Are we talking about the human race? Or the living system we humans are simply a part of? In addition, the language around new knowledge and skills reminds me of solutionist rhetorics where innovation is seen as the answer to all of the current problems faced by humanity (see Laura Forlano’s The Future Is Not a Solution for an insightful read on the topic). My belief is that we need to move away from anthropocentric and solutionist narratives and as such, I do not use Transition Design to label my practice — even though practising Transition Design is, of course, far better than maintaining the status quo.
8 & 9- Circular and Regenerative Design. Two pragmatic approaches to design that are promisingly gaining industry and government support. I genuinely believe that circular and regenerative design principles can and should be applied to all design practices going forward. A minor issue is that the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably despite meaning different things. For example, the petroleum-based plastic industry could be somewhat circularised, but this wouldn’t make it regenerative. Similarly, regenerative agriculture is not necessarily circular. In addition, by focusing on the what and the how, the terms position the design process and outcomes above the design context, which is not ideal as this promotes the creation of seemingly replicable design formulas that are not contextually relevant (which is what happened to Human-Centered Design). Circular and Regenerative Design remains however two of my favourite alternative approaches to design focused on addressing our socio-environmental issues. And I use these terms to describe my practice, especially when talking to industry and government.
To describe my practice holistically, however, I also use the term More-than-human as Circular and Regenerative Design can still be practised from a human-centered perspective.
10- More-than-human Design is a semantic point of departure from the increasingly criticised anthropocentrism of current design practices yet clearly references the human — as both design actant and direct or indirect beneficiary of design. More-than-human design is also systemic (i.e., not centred) and yet, this terminology does not imply including all the actors of a system as Nature- or Life-Centered Design does, which would create impossible briefs to respond to. ‘More’ refers to nonhuman biological agents and can also pertain to landscapes and weather patterns, but does not necessarily include everything on, above, and below the surface of the Earth as Planet-Centered Design infers (*). Finally, the practice can be defined as sustainable, pluriversal, or multispecies, and aligns with some Transition Design principles without having the drawbacks and/or gaps of each of these individual terms. It may not be ideal to some but my opinion is that it is the best name we have come up with so far.
Based on the urgency of the situation we placed ourselves in, the socio-ecological impacts of any design should be considered before said designs are launched into the world. At a bare minimum, this includes carbon costing through lifecycle analysis but more can be done. Adopting circular and regenerative design principles allows practitioners to move beyond the current linear and destructive ‘take-make-use-throw’ paradigm and set up new benchmarks for sustainable living. Philosophically speaking, more-than-human design can also help us to question our position, role, duties and accountabilities within the broader system of nature.
If you want to know more about circular, regenerative and more-than-human design, please check my website manifesto and practice pages as well as this paper I recently published on Designing Conditions for Coexistence with colleagues from UNSW Canberra, Monash, Swinburne, RMIT and industry.
(*) Some theorists and practitioners include technology and artificial life forms in the definition of ‘more-than-human’. This, however, feels more related to other branches of post-humanist theory. More to come on this in due time.
Dr Olivier Cotsaftis (PhD, MBA) is a post-disciplinary researcher exploring pathways towards regenerative and more-than-human urban futures. At RMIT University School of Design, his work focuses on practical and scalable solutions for sustainable urban development, specifically in the areas of biomaterials and climate adaptation of the public place. Before joining RMIT, Ollie spent 10 years in Industry, engaging with start-ups, not-for-profits, governments and blue-chip companies. He was a design lead at Fjord Design and Innovation and the founder of future ensemble studio. Ollie is also an editorial board member for Research Methods: Biotechnology Design (Cambridge Press, UK).