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When You’re Not the Center of the Universe

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Bob Priest-Heck
Bob Priest-Heck

President

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#5 We are not separate from or above nature

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes — at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

Most of us have little patience with people who act like they’re the center of the universe. Who has time for anyone with such a misguided sense of their own importance, right? Of course, in the 16th century, everyone really did think that human beings were at the center of the universe. No wonder they were so disoriented by Copernican heliocentrism, which challenged a story foundational to their belief system. The thing is, they became even more hostile 70 years later, when Galileo submitted irrefutable, scientific proof.

It seems we are hardwired to think human beings are the most important thing in the cosmos — separate from, and having dominion over the flora and fauna that make up the “natural” world. It’s not too surprising then that, while scientists were busy cataloging these “others,” Darwin rocked the world again in 1859 when he published his theories regarding natural selection. It threatened our sense of self-importance. It threatened our place in the universe.

Bruce Mau points to the 5th Design Principle — “We Are Not Separate from or Above Nature” — to illustrate how “many of the ideas we’re working with today are really Copernican in their disorientation.” Consider the issues surrounding environmentalism. Many of us today (okay, most of us of a certain age) think about sustainability as a nice-to-do gesture that avoids waste. Sure, we’ll recycle plastic bottles. Sure, we’ll avoid the conspicuous consumption of water. But this is still subject to our convenience as benign rulers of the planet.

Younger generations have already let go of the notion that, just because we wield opposable thumbs, our whims are somehow above the demands of nature and a sustainable ecology. Bruce tells about a time Massive Change was working with high school students in Vancouver, exploring the Toynbee premise that the true purpose of the 20th Century was to imagine the welfare of all mankind as a practical objective. The students insisted that the welfare of all life trumped the welfare of all mankind. This perspective caused Massive Change to shift their own approach. “It’s understanding that our responsibility as designers is to understand the impact of what we do on the ecology that sustains us,” Bruce explained, “and realize that we are not somehow exempt from the laws of nature. And once you start to see that, it makes you see everything that you do in a different way. Like Copernicus — who changed the universe.”

That’s the Copernican disorientation we face every day when we choose how we will go about our work. We can think about “ecology” as something separate from ourselves and our work, or we can make it part of our economy. We can think about any waste we generate as something that demands a high ROI on our balance sheet. 

At the experience FREEMAN event in August, Carrie declared that a commitment to sustainability was no longer an option. “It’s about more than reducing waste,” she said. “It’s also about optimizing opportunities. When organizations prioritize the health of the planet, everyone benefits.” We’ve amended our Freeman manifesto accordingly to read: “We work every day to inspire our people and partners to optimize our use of energy and material, minimize waste, and measure and improve our ecological impact.”

The truth is, over the years, our industry has put a lot of stuff in landfills. Without question, we are getting better at finding new ways to reduce, reuse and recycle. But how does it scale? Bruce reminds us that big challenges are rich ground for innovation, especially when we start to think about designing for perpetuity.

“When you’re actually creating the world that we live in, we have new responsibilities to manage it and design for it,” he says. “When you start to look at the business world today — all the work that we do — you realize that almost none of it is done in this new way. And the opportunity in front of us is really profound. Because the work it will take to reimagine practically everything that we do… every one of those problems, those challenges, is a realm of opportunity for innovation.”

That’s a disorienting thought — that every decision we make today could have repercussions in the amazing natural world of which we are a part. But it’s an empowering thought, too. Freeman has the scale to effect new procedures that will reduce waste and engender positive change. We work on more than 14,000 projects around the globe. We are thousands strong. And we are all design thinkers.

Where do you want to start?

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