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Bruce Mau is a self-described radical optimist. He has an irresistible urge always to seek out challenging problems in search of the most transformative solutions. In a career of over 30 years as a leading design innovator and entrepreneur, he constantly challenges us to better understand the true meaning of contemporary design as he pushes the contours of debate around design culture and its impact on our daily lives.

In MC24, his latest offering in the ongoing Massive Change project founded in the early 2000s at George Brown College in Toronto, Mau identifies 24 guiding principles in a methodology toolkit for advancing design as the solution to the world’s social and environmental challenges.  One of the 24, “Always Search for the Worst,” is telling.  Of it he writes, “The greater the problem, the worse the crisis, the harsher the experience, the bigger the design opportunity.” Design is the ability to envision the future and then systematically, through inspired action, to make it happen. And it is up to designers to play a central role in solving the world’s problems with inspired solutions to these challenges. 

Critical problem solving in global health is one area where design can imagine the future and apply innovative thinking to create new, more productive outcomes. Recently, Bruce Mau took part in a webinar panel hosted by York University’s Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research in Toronto to look at the role design principles play in critical problem-solving here and consider the issues raised.

21st Century Mindset 

MC24 also draws attention to the profound disconnect between current conventional wisdom around the state of our planet and the pressing need to improve on it – upgrade our thinking, to make it more in tune with the 21st century.  In Mau’s eyes, we are very behind the times, still thinking of the world as having unlimited resources, and a place where waste is not a problem. “We treat nature like a pantry and a toilet,” he says, thinking in the short-term and passing the cheque to future generations.  The reality, he believes, is very different.  And our anachronistic, outdated mindset needs to go, and it needs to go right away.

The English historian Arnold Toynbee thought that the 20th century will best be remembered, 500 years from now, as the era when we imagined the welfare of the totality of the human race as an ongoing practical objective. 

If he’s right, and the welfare of humans is our primary organizing principle, then we can grasp the world as a whole in its proper light and be in a better position to fashion meaningful and appropriate design outcomes. Moreover, as we are now in the 21st century, this formulation needs to be broadened to include the welfare of all life on Planet Earth in our design thinking.  Our notion of life-centred design becomes the defining principle in the narrative of Massive Change project.  

Operating Principles

MC24 evolved as a set of operating principles toolkit for those willing to apply a new way of thinking and working with those sympathetic to this viewpoint.  Of the 24 principles presented, some are philosophical in nature concerning design and its place in the world.  Others are more practical, concerning themselves with issues relating to everyday circumstances and guidance on moving our work forward. Some of these include:

  • First Inspire Design is Leadership Lead by Design – a way of thinking and seeing the world, understanding the possibilities and what is our responsibility.  Designers can envision the future and execute that vision. That’s leadership. 
  • Begin with Fact-based Optimism – as designers take on the great challenges, they need always to stay optimistic.  Their task is simple: discover possibilities in people living together and caring for each other.  A designer’s world is fact-based optimism supported by data.
  • We Are Not Separate from or above Nature – outmoded notions of human dominion over nature and that it being endlessly abundant are dangerous relics from an age of ignorance. There is only one reality on the planet and that is life, an experiment in a variety of forms where humans are just one of the players. In this narrative, our long-term survival requires that we make changes that support harmony with the rest of life.
  • New Wicked Problems Demand New Wicked Teams – due to the vastness of today’s repository of knowledge, renaissance individuals need to be replaced with renaissance teams.  This calls for a new “renaissance team sensibility,” a new way of thinking and working embracing an individual’s willingness to lead and a willingness to follow.  It is new skillset to be acquired to embrace a new way of working capable of tackling the challenges to be faced.


In the course of human history, there comes a time when humanity is called upon to shift to a new level of consciousness in order to occupy a higher moral ground. When that time comes, Mau believes, we must shed our fear and give hope to one another.  That time is now.

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