To meet the challenges of our time, we need to transform our ideas of agency – our capacity to bring about change. Rather than seeing the future as something that happens to us, we need to decide on the future we want and then set about creating it.
The idea of influencing the future ought to come naturally to designers, yet we've spoken to many of our peers who believe that their power is limited.
Some designers can't bear to think about the enormity of the planetary crisis when they need to focus on keeping their business afloat or supporting their households, while others assert knowing inevitability about the bleakness that lies ahead.
We believe that a key shift in thinking needs to happen
At the other end of the scale are those designers who claim to be hugely optimistic about the potential for technology to solve all our problems. This kind of blind faith is almost as troubling as the pessimistic perspective because it risks being delusional. When it comes to the future survival of human culture and all life on Earth, we need an approach that's robust and realistic with details that stack up.
There is a crucial distinction to be made between probable and possible futures. If current trends continue, the probable future looks grim, but that is all the more reason for designers to use our skills to chart a different course towards possible futures.
As entrepreneur and writer Margaret Hefferman reminds us, "While the uncertainties of life may make us uncomfortable, they also hold all its possibilities and richness. Not knowing what tomorrow brings gives me an opportunity to shape it."
We believe that a key shift in thinking from the insufficient sustainability mindset of ‘doing less harm' towards regenerative alternatives needs to happen. Empowering people to maximize their influence is going to be fundamental to addressing our planetary emergency of climate breakdown, biodiversity loss, the buildup of toxins and other destabilization of our living systems.
Rather than diminish or shrink our own agency and miss out on some of the most meaningful design work on offer, what if we turned this attitude on its head, embracing and creatively amplifying our potential – individual and collective; personal, professional and civic – to meet the challenges of our age? What if taking concerted action on global crises could also be positively contagious?
This mindset integrates the possibility of action despite uncertainty
The term possibilism was coined by the late Hans Rosling, physician and statistician, who asserted that both optimism and pessimism imply misplaced inevitability about the future and what we should be instead is "serious possibilists".
In our usage, this mindset integrates the possibility of action despite uncertainty. Stacey Abrams, the American politician and voting rights activist, links surpassing the optimism/pessimism binary with expanding a sense of agency: "[People ask me] Are you optimistic or pessimistic? I'm neither, I'm determined... optimism is nice to have, but you get what you need by working at it." An adept strategist, Abrams' achievements illustrate the power of coalition-building to expand impact.
A possibilist revolution would unlock designers' power to address our planetary emergency. Individual agency is nearly always most effective when directed towards some form of cooperation; Architects Declare and the Architects Climate Action Network, for example, are coalitions that strive to bring about systemic changes that are difficult to achieve at the level of an individual company or project.
Those of us who are professionally involved in shaping the built environment are neither saintly nor omnipotent
Some designers choose to expand their agency by taking on public roles. Trained as an architect and urban designer, M Ridwan Kamil rose from private practice to Mayor of Bandung province and ultimately Governor of West Java, Indonesia's most populous province, where his agency extends to improving the environment and livelihoods of over 46 million constituents.
Architect Nnimmo Bassey moved into activism, particularly in Nigeria's anti-oil extraction movement, and was then elected chairperson of Friends of the Earth International, subsequently earning the Right Livelihood Award for courageous change makers.
To be sure, those of us who are professionally involved in shaping the built environment are neither saintly nor omnipotent, and only a few may aspire to run for public office, yet we have manifold opportunities to shape a positive future: opportunities to radically rethink, and reuse, existing building types so that they improve wellbeing and conserve energy.
Opportunities to propose entirely new building types that enhance habitats and increase food, energy and water system health.
So many solutions are waiting for us to embrace them, such as those assembled by Project Drawdown, a ranked database of 100 "hands-on practices and technologies that are commonly available, economically viable, and scientifically valid" to draw down greenhouse gasses from our atmosphere.
Solutions as diverse as educating girls and installing smart glass in our buildings are solidly rooted in practicalities; the project links stories of what is possible to what is already happening. Jonathan Foley, Project Drawdown's executive director notes: "We think that our climate future is harsh because news and reports have focused on what will happen if we do not act. Drawdown shows us what we can do."
It is within our power to inspire clients by developing solutions that they never imagined would be possible, to pursue projects aligned with planetary boundaries and to decline those that don't.
Companies could choose not to fixate on growth and instead focus on developing a steadily more regenerative portfolio of work
Turning down projects may seem unrealistic as there may well be situations in which it would be too damaging to people's livelihoods. However, in any situation where a company is stable and would have to grow to deal with a new project, the decision to turn it down is far easier.
Companies could choose not to fixate on growth and instead focus on developing a steadily more regenerative portfolio of work. As they explain in their book How to be a Happy Architect, Bauman Lyons Architects not only regularly turn down potential projects, but also write politely to explain their reasons.
We've heard designers argue, "If we don't accept this (ethically questionable) commission someone else will and they will probably do it less well than we would. If we do get involved, we can make a positive difference."
This may be the case, but this defense does not represent leadership; it's trailership – trailing edge thinking that worsens our current situation and is clearly part of the degenerative paradigm of sustainability, which seeks to mitigate negatives. In a planetary emergency, making things less bad might delay collapse, but will not prevent it.
The disappointments of COP26 suggest it is unrealistic to expect the necessary leadership to arise at the national or international level unless adequately supported from below. This requires the impetus for change to start from all levels, including from individuals who cooperate in sufficient numbers to persuade their organizations to reclaim agency and, in turn, cooperate to compel their institutions to reclaim agency, and so on, in a rolling wave up to the level of international bodies.
If individuals and companies shrinking their agency can have a contagious effect on others then it seems clear that the opposite can also be true. In our book Flourish we make the case that if we, and most of the people we come into close contact with were to adopt a possibilist mindset that seeks to maximize our agency this could catalyze our collective shift towards regenerative practices.
What we know for certain is that when we refuse to accept the status quo as inevitable and strive to bring about change, we can have a powerful effect in inspiring others to do the same.
The photograph of the first UK Architects Declare Climate and Biodiversity Emergency event at the Battersea Arts Centre is by Fathom Architects.
Sarah Ichioka and Michael Pawlyn are the authors of Flourish: Design Paradigms for Our Planetary Emergency published by Triarchy Press.
Ichioka is an urbanist, strategist and curator who leads the Singapore-based consultancy Desire Lines. Pawlyn is an architect, systems thinker, co-initiator of Architects Declare and founder of Exploration Architecture.
Ichioka and Pawlyn host the podcast Flourish Systems Change, which extends the ideas from the book in discussion with leading thinkers on regenerative culture and development.