By Joanne Tippett of Holocene Design

As a society, we must discover how to meet present human needs and improve quality of life without diminishing the Earth's capacity to provide for the needs of future generations. This challenge forms the essence of sustainability. The concept of sustainability emerges from the integration of economic vitality, environmental health and social equity. Few people disagree that sustainability is a good idea, but most find it difficult to think through its complex implications. Where do you start and what questions should you ask? Many of the social and environmental problems we face will not be solved without a fundamental re-thinking of how we interact with the environment. In this endeavor, the skill of design, in which new possibilities are generated and integrated in a particular context, is becoming increasingly essential.

I have incorporated several models to create a process that can help us to meet this challenge. SUNstainable DesignWays™is a design, communication and training tool, which was first developed for the application of permaculture 1 design principles, and has evolved with other techniques to form a practical methodology for applying principles of sustainability. We coined the term SuNstainability in 1998 because the term Sustainability is often used without reference to ecology and the vitality of the biosphere. SuNstainable implies the capacity to continue within the sun-driven cycle of ecology, without which there would be no economy or society. This capacity for continuance is a dynamic process that requires the global economy to work within the earth's life-support systems.

Design is the creative process of developing new ideas and possibilities and integrating them within the context of a particular organization, place and time. It is the active process of engaging with the environment and others to achieve desired outcomes. Through our acts, we are engaged in design. Thinking about the long view, we ask the question is this process of design one in which we imagine what a regenerative, sustainable future could be - and work towards it, or one in which we make changes to the environment through our actions - and end up with an unconsciously designed system which reduces our opportunities and choices for the future? That is the question.

The process was piloted in South Africa and Lesotho, a small mountainous kingdom completely landlocked by the Republic of South Africa. Lesotho has a high dependency on foreign aid, importing 90 % of its food and with few exports apart from manpower for the mines of South Africa. My partner, Buddy Williams, and I worked for two years in Southern Africa on a variety of projects, ranging from the design of affordable, ecologically-sound housing and permaculture-based school grounds to running 4 two-week permaculture design courses for professionals in education and extension work.

The ethical basis of the DesignWays method lies in exploring connections, encouraging creativity and articulating coherence among sustainability, meeting human needs and people's values. Its practical approach stems from three primary factors: use of patterns and living systems biology as a metaphor, a clear design process and increasing participation in envisioning and planning for the future. In the remainder of this article I will address each of these themes and illuminate the vision behind DesignWays.

In Southern Africa, we were working with people whose primary concerns were meeting basic physical needs (food, housing, warmth). I was faced with a challenge, in that most of the ways I was used to presenting information about ecology had very little meaning to the people I was working with. References to a forest would be met with blank stares. Lesotho suffers from massive ecological devastation, with almost no remaining native forest. I started to ask myself the question 'What do I really mean when I talk about ecology and principles of design?' The first step in making sustainability relevant comes from illustrating the fundamental ways in which we are not only of the earth, but intimately connected to it. We rely on the environment for the air we breathe, water we drink and photosynthesizing plants, which are essentially the only net producers of material quality on Earth.

The next stage is to make the link between our daily actions and sustainability (or lack of it) and see how this directly impacts on our quality of life and ability to meet our needs. In an increasingly complex world, in which many of the effects of our actions are hard to trace, it is often difficult to know what long-term impact our behavior has on the environment and social equity. This is particularly the case in the 'Western World', where many of our waste products are removed out of sight - and, thus, out of mind. In Southern Africa the effects of unsustainable actions are more readily visible, in the form of soil erosion, diminishing water supplies and ill health from pesticide use, etc. In either case, it is difficult to see how an individual can make any difference to the problems.

Teaching about sustainability in Southern Africa had many practical outcomes, such as the development of an agro-forestry system in the village of Ha Souru, Lesotho, which integrates natural pest control with simple water harvesting techniques to provide income and supplementary food for nine men. The design was developed as the farmers of Ketso ea Bua (Action Speaks) learned more about the connections among pesticide use and increasing health problems, and the role of trees in preventing soil erosion and increasing water absorption in the soil.

Human creativity represents a vast, and often underutilized, resource. In searching to improve quality of life, I find the most powerful tool lies in encouraging people to engage their own inventiveness.

The strength of this approach is exemplified in the work of Shirley Sifunda, a student on two of the SUNstainable DesignWays courses I ran at the Tlholego Development Project near Rustenburg, South Africa. In her presentation to the International Permaculture Conference in Perth, Australia in 1996, she talked about using this process to encourage 500 women in an impoverished region of South Africa near Swaziland to grow food and develop an income from the resources in their villages. They then turned to the task of reclaiming a degraded hillside, designing and implementing a productive agro-forestry system, with trees for fuel and fruit, as well as herbs for medicine and animal fodder.

DesignWays transcends an 'either/or' duality in thinking about options, instead encouraging people to ask - 'what is it we are really trying to do, and how can we design a better way to do it?' Creative thinking techniques aid the development of 'out of the box' thinking and innovative ideas. The focus is on the quality of communication, searching for areas of agreement and consensus, and encouraging each person to contribute ideas.

The DesignWays process aims to help people design systems that increase coherence (in the sense of a consistent and logical connection) among their actions, values and sustainability. Some of our most important work in Southern Africa consisted of helping people to think through their values, and to clarify what is deeply important to them. The DesignWays process encourages a focus on common goals and values. It also gives people tools to see how they can enhance those values and improve the quality of their lives at the same time.

Our educational system has not equipped us to understand long term effects of our actions on the larger system of the Earth on which we rely. The educational component of the DesignWays approach is therefore essential. It focuses on The Natural Step 2 framework, providing a shared mental model for understanding sustainability. Envisioning exercises that ask people what is needed without the framework of a shared understanding of sustainability often generate ideas, such as widening a road in order to decrease commute time, that in the long run will have a negative impact on sustainability.

The DesignWays process provides tools for assessing the effects of our actions on long-term sustainability. By focussing on waste reduction and savings, this process frees up resources that can be invested in longer-term productivity and possibilities. It also provides an on-going assessment of progress. An example of this can be seen in the work of Mike Masuku, a graduate of a DesignWays course, who uses the process to integrate the needs of poor rural schools in South Africa. By assisting schoolteachers and students to design and develop organic food gardens and forestry on school grounds, he was able to combine ecological restoration with improving nutrition and greater opportunities to learn practical skills.

An understanding of patterns is an essential link between insights into the interconnected nature of the world and design. A pattern language, or set of organizing principles, acts as a tool for thinking about sustainability. In developing the DesignWays process, I delved into the application of principles of living systems biology 3 as a metaphor and basis for design. I explored the way in which ecological processes (such as growth and development, exchange of energy and materials, self-maintenance and preservation of identity) are embodied in patterns (such as spirals, fractal branching and networks).

This pattern understanding is applied in layers, including: existing land forms and geology; wildlife habitat; methods of production, or how we meet our needs as a society; areas and spaces of social interactions, movement and activities; and organizational structure, money and economic systems. The same principles can be applied at different scales, and each design is recognized as a part of a larger whole. Ntate Maama Mosupha, a farmer, chief and poet in the village of Sefikeng, Lesotho, explored the integration of innovative water harvesting techniques and inter-cropping of herbs, multi-purpose trees and vegetables on his small farm. With this understanding of patterns, he was able to see how these techniques could be applied on a much broader scale to the entire rural area around his village, and thus contribute to a thriving rural economy in an area which is currently economically depressed and ecologically diminished. (A Pattern Language of Sustainability - read thesis).

A Pathway implies a simple-to-follow progression. I have designed this as a step-by-step activity in order to make it easier to cope with complex situations. Each stage builds on the previous ones, and feedback is used to reinforce lessons learned and make links among different aspects of the design. The use of a clear sequence with overarching patterns and principles provides a framework in which creativity is encouraged to flourish. As Jason Wilkinson of The Solar Living Center in Eugene, Oregon, put it: "DesignWays is an ideal method for communicating complex relationships and approaching sustainable design. It serves as a practical medium to involve everyone in the design process."

The more people are involved in decisions about future developments at various levels of scale, the greater will be the cumulative positive effect on meeting human needs in a sustainable way. Involving people from a particular place in the design process increases the local character of the design. The use of pattern-based Mind Maps 4 to create a picture of the group thought process makes it easier to identify areas of agreement and what is important to the group. Participants on previous courses I have taught spoke a variety of African and European languages, worked in many different fields, and had a range of education from very little formal schooling to University degrees. The use of patterns in the Pathway process, however, facilitated co-operation and communication amongst them. Thsedimosong Farm school, which is being developed as a model rural campus, was designed with the involvement of students, teachers, headmasters (from Thsedimosong and other schools in South Africa), parents and the staff at Tlholego Development Project. This broad base of participation not only led to a better design, it has also enhanced the sense of pride and ownership in the school and its future.

The most significant aspect of introducing the DesignWays approach into Southern Africa was the increase of hope and self-confidence in the participants, as they became aware of the possibilities for improving the quality of their lives by applying an understanding of ecosystems and patterns. This involved a shift in perception from thinking of sustainability as a problem to seeing it as a positive source of innovation and economic security.

It is a commonly held misconception that people in Africa will adopt sustainable measures in order to meet their needs, but 'Westerners' are less likely to change, as their physical needs are already being met. While this may be true to a point, this analysis does not take into account non-physical needs, such as leisure-time and good health, which are not necessarily being met by our current economic model. When we question how our current development will affect quality of life in the future, there is no room for complacency; the issues are different in detail from those in Africa, but there is still a large scope for improvement here in the 'West'.

The challenge, both in the 'Western World' and the '2/3 World', is to create opportunities for much wider involvement in decision making, and to teach more people about the interconnection of ecology, economics and social equity and its practical applications. As more people become involved in planning and envisioning a sustainable future, the roles of 'sustainability professionals' will include providing education, facilitation of vision and links among the concerned parties. SuNstainable DesignWays provides a proven effective tool to make this possible.

1. Permaculture is a design method based on ecological principles. The focus is on the creation of high quality, sustainable human habitats. (Introduction to Permaculture, by Bill Mollison)  return to text

2. The Natural Step™ is a practical communication and planning model for sustainability based on consensus-derived scientific principles, which provides a clear framework for strategic planning and decision making. (www.naturalstep.orgreturn to text

3. Principles of living systems biology are elucidated in Fritjof Capra's book, The Web of Life and in Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela's book, The Tree of Knowledgereturn to text

4. A Mind Map is a graphic technique for representing ideas, based on natural patterns and how we perceive information and think. (The Mind Map Book, by Tony Buzan). return to text