Deep experience: design and ecology

Deep experience: design and ecology

Ben Reason
  • Ben Reason
  • Founding Partner

The philosophy of Deep Ecology argues that deep experience of the living planet is the source of ecological knowledge, commitment and action. What does this mean for designers who also talk about the importance of experience as a source of knowledge? What can designers take from this philosophy to connect our work to ecological concerns?

At Livework we are on a journey to understand our current ecological crisis and develop our role and response. We have initiated a program of talks from experts across the breadth of sustainability and ecology to inform us and spark reflection. Most recently we were fortunate to hear from Stephan Harding, ecologist at Schumacher College about the origins and key tenets of Gaia theory and Deep Ecology.

Gaia theory, developed by scientists James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis in the 1970s, demonstrates how the earth is a living system with emergent properties able to regulate itself. For example, how life on earth is able to maintain an even temperature whilst the sun becomes hotter. The theory is called Gaia in reference to the ancient Greek name for the living earth.

I invited Stephan because he had taught me 20 years ago on my Masters during a residential week at Schumacher College. Stephan led us on a deep ecology walk along the river Dart in Devon to experience original growth temperate rainforest in the UK. The walk was the undertaking of a key principle of deep ecology, that of deep experience.

Deep ecology is a philosophy that believes people in western societies have been separated from the natural world and lost the wisdom that comes from understanding we are part of nature. This lost connection is seen as the root of our disruption of the climate and biodiversity, enabling the exploitation of ‘natural resources’. Ultimately deep ecology argues that we are Gaia, all part of a living planet. Deep ecology suggests that we need to reconnect with the natural world through deep experiences and that this will lead to deep questioning of our actions in the world and result in deep commitment to action and responsibility.

A connection I had not made 20 years earlier was the word experience. Experience is an important word in the world of design to discuss the experience of people – users, customers and humans. But is there any connection beyond a common word?

On first reflection perhaps it is less a connection and more a contrast. Between the deep experience of interconnectedness with the living earth and the much more shallow experience of day to day interactions with products and services.

However, Stephan also talked about how the disconnection had its origins in the scientific revolution and the resulting dominance of thinking – over sensing, feeling and intuition – as our source of knowledge. That this imbalance led to a mechanistic view of the world that suppresses the other ways of knowing. This chimed with my understanding of the world of experience that designers inhabit. We also aim to draw attention to these other forms of experience, to give them value and show how they are important in shaping human decisions and what we value.

For me this strengthens the connection. I would argue that we have the tools as designers to bring these other ways of knowing back into the discussions about what we value and how we develop knowledge.

We have to acknowledge that most of the time we are focussing on the experience of people in specific roles. We discuss people as users or customers or perhaps citizens. The closest we get is in human centred design where we focus on human experience. This is seen generally as the manifestation of fundamental needs ranging from shelter to self realisation. It rarely touches on the ideas expressed by deep ecology.

At Livework we talk about this range from human to user as ‘design altitudes’ to encourage ourselves to be aware of the level we are working at. We talk about understanding both human and user needs and being able to move from one to the other in understanding experiences. We ensure that when we interact with people in research or design activities we strive to understand them as humans, to understand their life experiences, before we dive into treating them as users and asking them about how they interact with a service.

It strikes me that perhaps we need another level – the level of Gaia – that we could ask people what their experience is of being Gaia, being (part of) a living planet, before we ask them about themselves as individual human beings. We could engage them in questions about how we might meet their needs as a living planet whilst we ask if we meet their needs as customers. Perhaps we could ask the organisations we work with how they can meet their needs as Gaia too. This would be a radical departure for design.

Just thinking this is challenging – imagine asking the question and you touch on how weird that would be, how outside our cultural norms. This is a microcosm of the disconnection the deep ecologists talk about. We need to normalise these questions but also find normal ways to ask them. I am going to try to do this and invite others to do the same and share your experiences.

n.b. worth noting that we use a sky metaphor when we talk about altitudes as if humans are high above the earth whereas users are on the ground. Deep ecology does the opposite, suggesting that wisdom is to be found by going deep into the earth.

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