Design By Belief

by Design Partner, Greg Hart (July 2020)

There is a continuous reckoning between the design process and the future. Design produces ways and things that alter our world in an untold number of ways. Design creates the conditions for success. Whatever that success is. 

Design is a response to the way we see the world and the way that we want the world to be. It is driven by aspirations that are rooted in the beliefs we have about the world and how it works. Most of those beliefs are hidden from our view, yet they colour and filter almost everything that we do and say. Design happens whether we are conscious of it or not.

Think about a car crash. The police show up after the incident and look for someone to blame. The question is: WHO is at fault. Typically they will consider some mitigating circumstances like weather. What they will not typically consider is how the design of the roadways and the intersection or the vehicles created the conditions for the crash. Nor will they look into the beliefs upon which that road or vehicle design was built. The design is supposed to facilitate the safe and efficient movement of people and goods. When it fails - as it often does - the result can be tragic. Some designs - including those in the North American urban mobility world - persist for a long time as we are unable to ‘unlearn’ them and ‘learn’ something new or ‘relearn’ something old, even ancient, that is still a great idea even though it isn’t on TikTok.

We are at a point in time where current stresses on local economies and the shifting challenges of global issues like income inequality, climate change, and the exponential growth of computing power, demand that we get busy designing a new future that responds to these challenges. Design plays a huge role in all of this because it is the engine of innovation and it can and will transform the world in the way it needs to if we are conscious of what the outcomes need to be and how our cherished notions about how the world works might be wrong or at least could contribute to a poor outcome. It is wise for us all to remember Phillip K. Dick’s excellent point that, ‘Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away. Physical reality does not require belief to sustain it, and belief will not modify the rules of the universe.’ This has been clearly demonstrated to us in the current pandemic.

What do we need to learn, unlearn, and relearn? If we see a system that isn’t producing the outcomes we were hoping for, let’s not look for someone to blame, and while we look at the design let’s not just look at the design. Let’s examine the beliefs that the design is built upon. It is there that we have the power to profoundly transform outcomes. Hold those beliefs up against reality and see what reality needs to be true, not just what we want to be true. This increases our chances of creating something that will fit with the future. A future we can live in and with.

We will talk more about what the fit with the future looks like to Thin Air Labs. In a previous post, my partner, Jim Gibson, introduced our grounding in regenerative approaches. This sets a new standard for the fit that design needs to achieve. Regenerative design creates the conditions for life. That is what is needed in the 21st century. We are living in a special moment where the design decisions we make - right now - will set in motion the future that generations will experience. What kinds of designs will make that possible? What beliefs will form the foundation of successful designs that avoid the worst ‘car crash’ of all and instead build a world of ventures and infrastructure that help us and our planet to thrive?