Towards a regenerative design toolkit

I have been working on a side project in the moments where I get the chance; a regenerative design toolkit called Where the light gets in. It’s a corruption of the Leonard Cohen lyric “There are cracks in everything, that’s how the light gets in”. I am less interested in the how, and more interested in the where. It’s a toolkit in three parts.

The second part, the idea of the healthiest environment, for the most in society, with the greatest economy, has just become more fully formed in the last week or so. I’ll talk about that last as a result.

The first part of the toolkit is the viewer we have used on the IED Innovation and Future Thinking course for years. Originally, the viewer was something I made to show the students how a laser cutter worked. Natalie Kane had just delivered a great session on how at the V&A they used a set of critical questions to consider the world for Rapid Response Collecting. I just took some of the questions, put them together in a file and sent it to the laser cutter to make a point. Very soon, I had to make one for all the students. It’s been a core part of the course since and students have been busy pointing them at things all over Barcelona.

Viewer in use during the course in Barcelona this year

The third part of the toolkit will be a set of 40 prompt questions. This idea came from the ongoing Regenerative Triangulation theme, which has been unfolding over the summer. Thanks to Lizzie Shupak, Rob Phillips and Andy Thornton in particular for ongoing conversations and contributions in this work.

I played around with various ways of coming up with questions that would work to stretch out the things people consider, and settled on a matrix that makes use of two things.

The first is the RSA’s 10Cs, a “capabilities framework fit for the 21st century”. These worked for me as tactical prompts, things to think, or about approaches you would take in the moment when looking at a challenge.

The second is the Design Council’s four roles from their Systemic Design Framework.

These work as a way of thinking about a longer term position to hold constant as you sift through different options you could use to solve the problem.

By using these two sets against each other in a matrix, I have been generating the kinds of questions that a person in a particular role might ask when applying a certain capability.

They aren’t finished just yet, but they are coming together nicely to form some very different angles into difficult challenges.


So that’s the first and third parts.

The missing middle was quite evident. I wanted a key central question which framed the Regenerative Design challenge precisely. Something that brought together the tension between the environment, society, and the economy. As is often the way, I got a bit stuck at this point, and found a possible answer halfway along a repurposed railway in North Wales.

I started thinking back to one of the 20th century’s most influential design mottos; the invocation that “we want to make the best for the most for the least” by Charles and Ray Eames.

Today, in a regenerative design context, you have to twist about a fair bit to caveat meeting the needs of the environment, society and the economy in the same breadth.

Perhaps it’s emblematic of the breadth of what design entails nowadays, when considered properly.

Instead of being focussed on the individual, strategic design instead considers the whole world they inhabit….


UPDATE

I had pointed to one of Dan Hill‘s diagrams from his 2019 essay The City Is My Homescreen here.

But he’s kindly sent me some updated versions of the idea he more typically uses nowadays, and promises he’s going to write them up properly soon too:

Designing Design, Dan Hill 2023
Design Timeframes, Dan Hill, 2023

Dan notes these are “a more detailed unpacking of how the different design disciplines (not all of them….) sort of have centres of gravity across the series of scales, or system dimensions…

Strategic design is stretched across them all — not to say that it does all of that design; but it’s role is to talk to all of those different disciplines (and other things of course), and make sure it’s a connected, holistic view.

So it needs to be able to speak the language of both interaction design and urban planning — without doing or replacing either — but primarily it’s about orchestration, and getting them to recognise they’re connected.


Given the purview and purpose of strategic design, I started rethinking what a suitable version might be today, and what marks out the regenerative and differentiates it from sustainable.

Let’s start with an economic stance.

I have taken inspiration from this passage in a recent William Keegan article; “Now, when they are not tying themselves up in statistical knots, my fellow economists from time to time remind us that what economics should really be about is the quality of life.

The end goal for an economy is to improve the quality of life of all the people who work in it and live under it.

It’s easy to start with this angle, and walk straight into this version of the Eames mantra:

The best economic life, for the most people in society, with the least impact environmentally.

As soon as I wrote that down, I realised you could use this mantra to describe the current state of affairs, especially as the environmental angle is last, and all we are talking about is really “doing less bad” rather than any good.

Various iterations later, and I am beginning to get to something which more adequately reflects the tensions at play here:

The healthiest environment, for the most in society, with the greatest economy.

As a second step for the field kit, it feels useful.

It helps shapes the field kit user’s job; balance the tension between these things. You certainly cannot just do one at the expense of the other two. And you shouldn’t pursue two at the expense of the third.

It should act as a useful bridge between what you see through the viewer, and the roles and capabilities they and others could bring to the task.

I’m now going back to sharpen the questions again, and then hopefully will get the first version of the field kit up on the Artefact Shop within the next few weeks. We will announce it first on the newsletter, as per usual.

But do have a play around with these tensions yourself, and get in touch with what you find, I would love to hear how it works (or not) for you.