David Orr, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Studies and Politics, Oberlin College
Life-centred Design (LCD) is best described as a design practice in transition. A work in progress. While still in the early days, life-centred designers are striving to go beyond the limits of human-centred design by embracing the environmental and social dimensions of all life on Earth in their design calculations. LCD takes us beyond the limitations of the human element by thinking holistically and considering the impacts of their work from every angle on our footprint of the planet. As humans, we happen to be a small but dominant part of the ecosystem but we are not the only player. LCD holds this fact at its core, with the primary goal of restoring nature and the primacy of natural life in our world. As a design discipline, LCD’s focus is on product lifecycle, rather than the products themselves, their use, ageing, recycling and evolution over time.
Our 21st-century global linear economy has numerous competing and seemingly irreconcilable goals. Economic growth is the priority but it also comes at a steep cost: excessive levels of pollution, more GHG emissions, greater resource depletions, and the inevitability of climate change and species extinctions in the biosphere. What’s even worse, the payoff for this “growth” is not positive for the health of the planet or effective in reducing global inequality or enhancing human well-being. More than ever before, the inhabitants of our biosphere, Earth’s layer of living organisms, are getting squeezed between those calling ever more loudly for inevitable deadly effects of pollution and growing resource depletion that come as a result.
In the 21st century, advances in technology and leaps in human economic growth are increasingly coming at the expense of other key infrastructure systems in the planet’s biosphere. As the name suggests human-centred design (HCD) is, by association, linear in its thinking and, therefore, closer to 20th-century priorities than those of the present-day. HCD has grown out of that imbalance, with its raison d’etre to create an ever-growing array of products, services and solutions exclusively for the short-term benefit of people. Highly effective and productive in its time, HCD is known just as much for its inability to deal with the growing social and ecological issues, such as global inequality, deforestation, species extinction and climate change that our planet now faces.
Simply put, we urgently need a design to restore the balance between emerging technology, the growth of human society and the integrity of the natural world. From the design perspective, we need to get behind LCD to go beyond the human centre of our industry to a new design paradigm that is “life-centred,” where all life on earth are targeted beneficiaries.
LCD is an emerging design approach that goes further than its human-centred equivalent by considering in equal measure the sustainable, environmental and social dimensions of its work. It draws a line between micro-level design, such as UX design and product engineering, to the broadest global goals by expanding its stakeholder base from just users to users, non-users, local and global communities, ecosystems and planetary boundaries.
LCD’s panoramic stakeholder view connects the micro-level with global economic, environmental and social goals through alternative economic model scenarios like the Doughnut Economy and the Circular Economy, for example, that emphasize the ecological component of economic development, with a strong focus on results beneficial to the environment.
In the first case, the Doughnut Economy, from economist Kate Raworth’s book, Doughnut Economics, conceives of a doughnut as a safe operating zone between two of its rings – the outer ring of the planetary boundary that is not to be encroached, and the inner ring that is home to a safe and productive existence. The area between these two thresholds within the Doughnut is the livable space where all human activities should be focused.
In the second scenario, the Circular Economy, the brainchild of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, focuses on the idea of circularity and constantly circulating economic resources without creating waste. Resources, either organic or inorganic, are regenerated back into the ecological system or recovered and recycled in an endless loop back into the manufacturing process. Both processes aim to keep raw materials in use for as long as possible to prolong their lifecycle, extend their value and minimize the need for more extraction.
The Doughnut Economy constantly reminds us of the importance of the balance between human development and nature, demonstrating that nature-human coexistence is desirable and possible. The Circular Economy gives us strategies for staying beneath the ecological ceiling that are being adopted by numerous businesses worldwide as the circular economy gains traction. At present, global circularity is at around 10 percent, but it is growing, most notably in Europe. Countries like the Netherlands, France, Italy, Spain and Germany are leading the way with initiatives for recycling and waste reduction and new business investment.
LCD is catching on. In the past few years, the design community has begun to question its reliance on HCD and the wisdom of prioritizing people over all of the other needs of our planet. The current linear economic model of growth at all costs that has been in place since the Industrial Revolution still dominates though is showing signs of giving way to a new way of doing things that is different – collaborative, inclusive and committed to environmental conservation.
As the LCD practice begins to take hold, observers are identifying its defining characteristics and operating principles. Among them, Johnathyn Owens has identified 10 key principles for life-centred design:
The social and ecological challenges of the 21st century demand we adopt a design philosophy more holistic, inclusive and better able to serve all of the competing needs for achieving preservation of Life on Earth. Unlike the limited linear economic models of the 20th century, we urgently need to embrace a new strategy that balances the forces of technology, human society and the natural world. For far too long, economic models dedicated to growth at all costs have held sway, resulting in the detriment of our global ecology and the health of the planet. The “business as usual” for economic survival is clearly no longer an option. The time has come for a new paradigm of alternative “life-centred” strategies to come to the fore – strategies capable of balancing human-centred development with those found in nature, to ensure the long-term viability and health of the planet.