How might we…go ecocentric?

The best outcomes of professional events are always the conversations over food. I’m at a residential gathering of the Happy Museum community, and at last night’s dinner I had a conversation with Gemma, who works at Derby Museums.

Derby Museums are exemplary in working with the Happy Museum principles and their participatory, co-production models are inspiring museum workers all over the world. Recently, they launched a massively helpful handbook on Human Centred Design.

Human Centred Design – and more broadly ‘Design Thinking’ – has been pioneered by IDEO, has a longer history in Design Science that is covered in this great article, and has been more recently evolved by applying it to social change by people such as Deborah Szebeko. A definition of Human Centred Design on Wikipedia is:

Human-centered design is an approach to interactive systems development that aims to make systems usable and useful by focusing on the users, their needs and requirements, and by applying human factors/ergonomics, usability knowledge, and techniques. This approach enhances effectiveness and efficiency, improves human well-being, user satisfaction, accessibility and sustainability; and counteracts possible adverse effects of use on human health, safety and performance.

In Flow, a lot of our audience research & evaluation processes are informed by Design Thinking and we’ve been encouraging clients to put ‘users’ and ‘audiences’ at the heart of their organisations since 2006. When I first set up Flow, my business partner, Mark Stevenson, came from the technology sector and we focused more on digital strategies, bringing Service Design to the cultural sector. At the time, this was quite rare.

For me, seeing cultural organisations as offering ‘services’ that met needs was a real shift, as I’d been used to seeing them as magnets, as places of relief from any kind of functional need. With Mark’s provocations, I came to see cultural organisations as both ‘service’ (meeting needs that were both functional such as research or education, and undefined, such as relaxation and inspiration) and as ‘experience’ (holistic, multidimensional, cathartic and open-ended in its possible outcomes). Now that Susanne Buck is my co-director, we focus more on Experience Design, as this is her area of expertise. We help our clients think imaginatively and deeply about how experiences change the ways people feel, think and do, and also are ‘of service’ as they develop capacities so that people can have more agency to change their world. But I’ve been thinking and pushing about how this agency to change can be more informed by ecological ideas and the need for urgent response to our planetary emergency.

Back to the dinner conversation. Derby Museums see their use of Human Centred Design as building on the Enlightenment heritage of their city and collections (e.g. Joseph Wright of Derby) but applied to 21st Century needs. One of the tenets of Derby Museums is to ask ‘How Might We…?’ which comes from the Applied Creativity approach to questioning. So, when I raised a challenge to Gemma that perhaps Human Centred Design is now no longer relevant to the 21st Century, and that we now perhaps need to shift to Ecocentric design, she asked me ‘How might you do that?’

A very good question. I paused, rambled a bit, and realised it was hard to be both succinct and to show HOW you might do it. The dinner was also incredibly buzzy and loud with conversation, so I went and slept on it. And woke up at 4 am unable to get back to sleep. That’s what good questions do. So…how might we?

  1. An Expanded Perspective

Crucially, the first step is to address and expand your frames of thinking. Ecocentrism is thought of wrongly as a shift to look outdoors at nature, and can be interpreted as neglecting the needs of humans (as if humans and other species are waiting in two camps for the distribution of beneficence). Instead, ecocentrism is a greatly expanded frame that sees humans as part of the mesh of life, completely interdependent. The ‘centric’ part of the word has to be imagined as a massive and expanding circle.

How might we do this? Find ways to explain that ‘environment’ really means something like: ‘bigger, longer in time and more complex’.

2. Draw on history

Ecocentrism is already written into the DNA of Human Centred Design, because this DNA has passed on from the thinking of Buckminster Fuller, an architect who pioneered biomimicry, sustainable use of materials and ecological systems thinking. He saw himself as a Humanist. There should be no contradiction.

Museums are inherently about expanding the frame: By bringing together objects from different times and places they say ‘Not just this place, but that…’, or ‘Not just our species, but all of these…’, or ‘Not just this way of doing things, but 1000 years ago there was another way…’

How might we do this? Use collections and histories of people and places to explore beneficial interconnections between humans and other species, and where this has gone wrong.

3. Be possi-topian

An expanded perspective includes anticipating and imagining the future in ways that explore the full range of possibilities, both negative and positive. It means not fixing on either the dystopian or the utopian scenarios but considering how a path towards the preferable future means that every step and every relationship must be more ethical. (And more ethical means more expanded.)

How might we do this? Read this blogpost, based on a talk at a Museums and Climate Change conference about how museums can do ‘anticipatory work’. It explains that museums should do this more frequently, more rigorously and more imaginatively, in ways that both work with staff on organisational futures, and with their communities and visitors to envisage possible futures at a time of climate emergency.

4. Be precautionary

Rachel Carson was the first to write about the Precautionary Principle. It arises out of the basic moral tenet of Do No Harm. If you cannot be absolutely sure that interventions now will not cause harm to future humans or other species, you should exercise precaution. Carry out small trials to learn more about the risks and benefits. Stop and seek alternatives if harm is evident. The Precautionary Principle is applied in medicine somewhat, although we can now see the impacts of mass prescription of antibiotics, for example, in depleting our beneficial microbiome and triggering resistance to antibiotics. The Precautionary Principle has not been applied at all when it comes to agriculture, energy, manufacture and transport, leading to a panoply of catastrophic and intersecting impacts on our world.

How might we do this? Apply the Principle by being Precautionary through the design process. Always ask, can we be sure this content/experience/service won’t cause harm in future? How can we minimise harm? How can we contribute to minimising harm to future generations (of all species)?

5. Be intersectional

Without ecological justice…

…that is, compassionate, inclusive and systemic thinking that combats Ecocide…

there will be no climate justice…

…that is, egalitarian and rapid mitigation and adaptation to the climate emergency…

and without ecological and climate justice there will be no social justice…

…that is, the peaceful coexistence of all peoples by serving needs first of those who are most excluded, exploited or disadvantaged.

An intersectional approach is a systemic (or ecological) way to ensure that people who identify with particular beliefs, struggles, biological characteristics or lifeways are all validated and heard. Individuals may have multiple identifications and these may be fluid across times or contexts.

Humans are part of nature, which thrives on diversity. We assume that nature evolves through ‘survival of the fittest’ but actually mostly it’s aiming for the ‘sustainability of the fitting’. Species are geared to co-exist, peacefully, collaboratively, drawing on their differences (although changes to climate and habitat can disrupt this).

How might we do this? Build on existing work to create more inclusive museums and communities. Go beyond targeted programmes for highly defined ‘identity groups’ to ensure that you are broadly inclusive, that there are opportunities for people with different perspectives to actively contribute and connect with others, and that you see people as individuals who might identify across groups (or with none). Explore the intersections of human and environmental extraction and exploitation.

6. Be eco-entrepreneurs

There’s a growing set of movements towards system change for a more regenerative and ecocentric economy. There’s the Circular Economy (production and disposal in a cycle to eliminate waste and externalities), the Sacred Economy (slower, careful and more ethical than extractive capitalism), the Blue Economy (wealth and wellbeing through radical sustainable innovation), and the Regenerative Economy (perhaps an umbrella for all radical green approaches, foregrounding the regeneration of the biosphere). There is Transition, Commons movements, digital currencies and much more. An emphasis on economic alternatives is pragmatic and helpful, especially if combined with efforts to shift the underlying cultural paradigms that lead us to consume, pollute and compete.

How might we do this? Culture driven by public good (rather than by profit) is already ‘social enterprise’. This could be enhanced by a) putting even more emphasis on being enterprising – building up capacity by producing, commissioning, trading, selling services and products and b) proactively making this enterprise ecologically innovative, contributing to a Regenerative Economy (not just limiting harm).

7. Educate for life continuity

Change cannot happen without people learning. Learning is not just about taking in information but embedding it to develop new capacities and wisdom. Our education systems, formal and informal, are developing capacities to continue business as usual rather than for the wisdom needed to continue the thrivability of life on the planet.

How might we do this? Museums are perfect resources for the extraordinary kinds of learning needed for even the most rudimentary response to a planetary state of emergency. Learning goals will need to be ambitious, for example, cultivating bioempathy as a key human value and future skill.

8. Be Climate-responsive

Climate change isn’t the only environmental problem but it is the big one. It’s worsened by, and makes worse, all the other environmental problems. Being ecocentric is not about emphasising biodiversity loss over climate change, but fighting for the continuity of life against all threats.

How might we do this? Be alert to how much the climate emergency is advancing faster than even worse case scenarios. This is hard for any of us to face, but anyone in a position of civic responsibility must try. Be alert to the impacts climate change is already having and will have on our communities. Be alert to the massive political and cultural influence of the fossil fuel industries, and how entwined this is with erosions of democracy, peace and equality worldwide. Have plans in place to consider how to respond to these three alerts. Practice readiness to respond to uncertainties by being experimental and open-ended in your approaches.

9. Aware of paradigms

The systems theorist Donella Meadows proposed that of all the interventions to change a complex system, almost the most effective is to change cultures by seeding new narratives, frames or paradigms, and the most effective is to be aware of and critical about these paradigms. You can’t introduce new paradigms without fully understanding existing ones.

How might we do this? Cultivate awareness of the dominant paradigm that encourages exploitation and degeneration of nature’s resources, harnessing collections, expertise and the particular qualities of museum learning.

2 responses to “How might we…go ecocentric?

  1. Pingback: The Learning Planet·

  2. Pingback: As the world burns you have a choice | Climate Museum UK·

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