Sustainable Innovation with Life-Centred Design

Industrial Design focusing on the physical appearance, functionality and manufacturability of a product enables mass production. User-Centred Design improves the user experience and Human-Centred Design enhances the interaction based on emotional preferences and needs.

All these design approaches have greatly contributed to build better products and services. But they have neglected a topic that is becoming always more important, namely that of how innovative products can be designed so that they are sustainable for future generations and do as little harm as possible to our planet. As Life-Centred Design pioneer Bruce Mau puts it:

 “Practically everything we do today needs to change. We are still doing most things as if we own nature and have unlimited resources. We work as if waste is not a problem. We treat nature lake a pantry and a toilet. We think short term, party like there’s no tomorrow, and pass the check to future generations. We dump problems we can’t solve into places we can’t see. And many of our solutions create more problems than they correct. Things gotta change. Now.”
― Bruce Mau

Life-Centred Design Guiding Principles

Systemic challenges cannot be solved in isolation. Design must go beyond a narrow approach focusing on the physical appearance and user experience, instead it needs to develop a much broader perspective. Life-Centred Design expands the scope of responsibility for the long-term health of all life, society and our planet. It provides a holistic perspective for understanding the relationships between interdependent technological and living systems and adheres to the following guiding principles:

  • Human-Centred ➔ All of Life Centred
  • Me ➔ We
  • Human Supremacy ➔ Humans as part of the natural ecosystem
  • Capitalism ➔ Stakeholder Capitalism
  • Reductionist ➔ Holistic Systemic
  • Being unaware of system(s) ➔ Being able to see the system(s)
  • Lack of personal connection ➔ Purposeful connection
  • Feeling powerless ➔ Personal and collective empowerment
  • Future happens to us ➔ We can make the future happen
  • Extractive to ➔ Regenerative
  • Only growth and profit as value ➔ Include social and environmental value

The 7P Framework can be used as a starting point to prepare a Life Centred Design workshop:

  • Purpose – What is the purpose of the workshop?
  • Products – What are expected outcomes?
  • People – Which internal and external stakeholders should be involved?
  • Place – Where will the workshop take place?
  • Potential Pitfalls – What can go wrong and how can we mitigate the risks?
  • Practical Concerns – What should be organized for the event?
  • Process – How should the agenda look like?

Life-Centred Design follows the Double Diamond model also used in Design Thinking. You first discover the Problem Space to get a deep understanding of the challenge before designing a prototype in the Solution Space.

SAP Design Thinking Process

Life-Centred Design meets Theory U

Theory U is an action learning framework for awareness-based system change developed by Otto Scharmer which can support Life-Centred Design. Journeying through the U in iterative loops develops the following capacities:

  • Downloading – Suspend downloading past patterns to perceive more than you already know
  • Seeing – Go to the places of most potential with an open mind
  • Sensing – Immersing into the field with an open heart
  • Presencing – Connecting with your highest future possibilities
  • Crystallizing – Letting come vision and intention
  • Prototyping – Explore the future by linking head, heart, and hand
  • Performing – Shift your awareness from ego to eco to see the whole
Otto Scharmer – Essentials of Theory U

When we act in isolation from the whole system, we collectively create results that no one wants. The Theory U iceberg model reveals the symptoms above the waterline as ecological, social, and spiritual divides:

Ecological Divide
  • Massive exploitation of natural resources that depletes non-renewable resources.
  • The disconnect between self and nature contributes to symptoms such as climate crisis, deforestation, and pollution.
Social Divide
  • The ME takes precedence over the WE
  • Shift from community-based living to individual-centered lifestyles
  • Disconnect between self and others contributes to symptoms of injustice, discrimination, and poverty
Spiritual Divide
  • Spending too much time doing and not enough time being
  • Disconnect between self and Self as highest future possibility contributes to symptoms of lack of purpose, burnout, and depression
Otto Scharmer – Iceberg Model

Below the waterline are the hidden aspects that lead to our actions, including systemic structures and mental models. Most important is the source, our awareness and inner state from which we operate. We live in the age of the Anthropocene, where human behavior is having a significant and potentially irreversible impact on the planet’s climate, ecosystems and biodiversity. This cycle will not end if we refuse to look at ourselves in the mirror.

The quality of our future depends on the quality of our listening and the relationships we create. By learning to listen deeply to ourselves, to others, and to the unfolding of the world around us, we can tap into our own unique source of innovation and creativity. This also requires us to look at ourselves in the mirror:

“But if we look honestly at our reflection in the mirror, then we can begin to bend our perspective from a silo to a systems view, from a mindset operating with ego-system awareness to one that operates with ecosystem awareness. When that happens, we can change course as a collective, as a whole system.”
― Otto Scharmer

According to Otto Scharmer we have the capacity to co-create external conditions which are beneficial for the collective if we learn to cultivate our inner condition with an:

  • Open Mind – Curiosity to see with fresh eyes suspending judgment
  • Open Heart – Compassion to see from the heart
  • Open Will – Courage to let go the past and the future emerge

Theory U Practices for Life-Centred Design

Life-Centred Design starts by exploring the problem space with a beginner’s mindset. Theory U practices like Dialogue and Stakeholder Interviews can be helpful to open the mind and observe different perspectives with curiosity.

To create the future, it is important to look back in time to understand which key events, inventions, attitudes, beliefs, norms that led us to this point. We take a deep dive look at the underlying patterns, structures, and mental models. Shadowing and Sensing Journeys allow us to sense into the current reality with an open heart.

We also evaluate our current business model and perform a cause affect analysis to understand short-term and mid-term impacts. This gives us an idea what might happen if we make no significant change to what we are doing right now. Systems Scribing makes systems visible and enables a system to see and sense itself.

Life-Centred Design adopts the philosophy that the future doesn’t just happen – we have the power to create the future together. We assess three future scenarios to analyse them against the outcomes we aspire to:

  • Probable – most likely to happen
  • Plausible – might happen
  • Possible – seems unlikely but not impossible

In addition to this cognitive approach, embodiment practices like Social Presencing Theater developed by Arawana Hayashi help to understand the current reality and explore emerging future possibilities using our body. They foster an intuitive knowing that does not focus on mental processes but a physically integrated and shared understanding.

“But if we look honestly at our reflection in the mirror, then we can begin to bend our perspective from a silo to a systems view, from a mindset operating with egosystem awareness to one that operates with ecosystem awareness. When that happens, we can change course as a collective, as a whole system.”
― Arawana Hayashi

The 4D Mapping and Stuck embodiment practices have both visible and felt characteristics. The sculpture evokes a certain feeling in those embodying it and in those who see it. We can see people practising together which are visible as the social body. At the same time the activities create a quality of relationship that is not visible but can be sensed as the social field. After the practices reflections rounds are important to share our individual experiences and how we felt as part of the collective.

“The future depends on what we do in the present.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

After having explored different future possibilities we assess our preferred future scenario using the Life Centred Design guiding principles. We use a backcasting approach to find out what needs to be in place to create our preferred future. A visualisation using 3D Mapping enables us to touch and feel our prototype of the future.

Throughout the process reflection and iteration are key to ensure we learn and adapt our course as we go. Journaling is a valuable practice on an individual level, Case Clinic Coaching Circles can be used to engage with each other with an open mind and heart.

Using Life-Centred Design we can foster innovation which is not only technically feasible, economically viable and humanly desirable but also inherently sustainable – for future generations and our planet.

“Without inspiration, nothing moves. Inspiration springs from the belief that anything is possible – that the most challenging problems can be solved.”
― Bruce Mau
Presencing Institute –  Architecture of Connection