Designing in the Anthropocene

Designing in the Anthropocene

Ben Reason
  • Ben Reason
  • Founding Partner

This article is the articulation of a personal journey. Over the years, but with recent added urgency, I have been trying to understand how to react to ecological facts that are becoming more and more present. Specifically it is an attempt to find purpose for myself and my design practice in the knowledge that a lot of the things that we hold true are not so true anymore.

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I have been involved in the application of design in relation to services – and the development of service design as a practice – for over 20 years. Developing this field – both methodologically and in the heat of running a business – has required understanding the qualities of this practice that make it valuable. I want to briefly explain these qualities before questioning their value and the value of design. At Livework we have distilled this into five things:

  1. Human centred
    Design brings a focus on the needs and experiences of humans – be they customers, employees, patients or business leaders – to a range of activities that aim to improve outcomes for businesses, government and individuals.
  2. Co-creative
    The design I practice recognises that service change and delivery requires creativity, engagement, input and action from a wide range of people; managers, staff and service users. The design process of understanding challenges, imagining futures and designing solutions is best done together with these people. “Do with, not to” is a common refrain.
  3. Reframing
    Design is a creative act and able to unlock solutions where more analytical approaches fail. It does this by reframing challenges to approach them from a different perspective and explore alternatives. Simply summed up by the question – ‘what if?’.
  4. Contextual
    Designers are not unique in this respect, but service design is very concerned with understanding the focus of our work in its context. It is about using a holistic view to inform the needs of the specific and create more relevant solutions and design.
  5. Experimental
    Design is about making and testing. Many organisations struggle to do this so we bring the ability and the freedom to experiment in ways that help us learn and also reduce risks.

At Livework we have distilled service design into five key qualities.


I will touch on this even more briefly as I am in no way the expert here. The anthropocene is a name given to the argument that humankind has had such an impact on the planet that it could be considered a new geological epoch. Epochs are generally measured in 1,000s of years. The current, or previous epoch was the Holocene that has lasted 11,500 years. 

Multiple factors contribute to the evidence that this is the case. Here are three that show the range and duration of these impacts:

  1. We have changed the carbon composition of the atmosphere from 280 to 400+ parts per million. Heating the climate by 1C and climbing. 
  2. Fertilisers have had the biggest impact on the nitrogen cycle for 2.5bn years. 
  3. Plastics are so pervasive that they will enter the fossil record of our times.

I am not trying to be scientifically accurate in my definition but to communicate the point that many aspects of human activity are at such a scale that the impact is global and more long-term than we are used to thinking about. 

The reason I am using the anthropocene as a term rather than other terms such as climate or ecological crisis is that I want to move from thinking that there is something we need to solve to something we need to adapt to. We need to adapt to the idea that we are so powerful that anything we do, at scale, has potential long-term impact on ecological systems. Therefore, we need to adapt to the idea expressed by Bruno Latour that we are not “on the earth but of the earth”.

Design in the Anthropocene

In this context design has to be seen as a sub-set of all human activity. Whether we think we have been improving healthcare or helping to sell more insurance, we have been a part of a human system that is changing the dynamics of the planet in ways that will severely disrupt life on earth.

More specifically, much of design is employed to enhance these human activities. We use our skills to optimise the performance of the human system. We enhance it by making it more desirable, feasible and viable whichever the focus of our work.

So whilst design often holds an ethical position as a driver of good for humans – meeting our needs and smoothing the experience – we need to acknowledge that this intention has flipped into a driver of consumption, enabling us to do more and be more effective as a species at the detriment to our life system on earth.

So we have to ask, how does design evolve from serving the industrial age? I want to explore if the things that I love about design; it’s humanity, collaboration, reframing, context awareness and experimentation, can be tuned to the new epoch? To do this I am going to lean heavily on a range of thinkers who have helped me on my journey.

1. More than human centred

There are many arguments for what has led humankind to a place where we are damaging the habitat we need for life. Philosopher Tim Morton dramatically defines something he calls ‘The Severing’. The Severing is a way of emphasising how severely we have separated ourselves from other life and matter. We have done so in such a way that we are able to do things to the world as if it were separate to ourselves. 

Morton uses the example of the microbiota in our own bodies to explore how we are not separate from other life but also how we are more than we think we are. Morton aims to develop a language that moves beyond the severing, using terms such as ‘solidarity with non-human people’ and the idea that our world is ending as we need to realise that we have denied the worlds of other beings.

Morton is both deadly serious and playful. He aims to shock us out of our assumptions and delineations. He blurs the distinctions between human affairs and the affairs of non-human people; other species or perhaps a river, a rock formation, or your own microbiome. Morton demands we create solidarity with non-humans. He defines the systematic oppression of farm animals as a form of racism. He believes that confronting racism among humans is a step to the kind of empathy we need for non-humans. 

Design at its best aims to blur the boundaries we create in human affairs. We bring the experiences of people into the boardrooms of corporations and governments to help them empathise with those who endure the dehumanising aspects of many services. This in itself can be a struggle as it goes against the grain. But it is powerful and can help develop an understanding of how closer alignment of the interests of people and organisations can lead to mutually better outcomes.

Drawing on Morton I imagine design bringing ‘non-human people’ into the empathic scope of design activity. But how do we create empathic connections with other beings, rivers, and the climate? Especially when there is so much work to be done at a human level. Morton suggests we start by being better at the human stuff – understand those whose needs are not met and build our empathy muscles. Perhaps from individuals we can expand to the collective to consider the overall needs of communities. I think we will find that these needs are intertwined with the needs of the ecosystems that we are all a part of.

2. Hugely collaborative

The fact of the anthropocene challenges the idea of sustainability. We have made an impact, things will change and continue to change. We can no longer simply sustain what we have had. We must take a more active role. More recently words such as generative, regenerative and restorative have come to the fore in the writings of people including Daniel Christian Wahl.

Wahl challenges design to re-design itself. He sees a need for designing to be done by everyone as a response to the reality that all our lives will either change or be changed. I see this as something that many environmental thinkers are now discussing, that the choice now is between actively transitioning our economies and lifestyles versus having the change forced upon us by collapses in our life support systems.

Design has played a role of being the representative or voice of the customer, user, whoever. Interpreting the needs and desires of people into the specification and creation of products and services. We are learning how this can be more effectively done with people but I feel that we are only just beginning and that designing will need to become part of the capability set of the majority of people to support them to adapt and thrive. Perhaps those of us with some experience can be of value here.

I imagine that with a less stable future people will need to find ways to collaborate to replace current individualistic and competitive modes. We will need to come together to develop ways to mitigate the worst and adapt to change. Businesses will need to partner with competitors, suppliers and customers to decide how to adapt together.   

3. Reframing prosperity

We come to the cornerstone of the challenge. Earlier I argued that design has generally worked on its reframing within the frame of human affairs and the optimisation of things around our needs and desires. In general this has been within the context of furthering human prosperity – in a myriad of flavours.

There is a raging debate around the concept of green growth and the possibility of decoupling growth from emissions etc. Economist Tim Jackson demonstrates the fallacy of growth on a finite planet but more importantly aims to alter the discourse towards a different framing of prosperity. He demonstrates how many things that we value highly – care, education, leisure and love – carry little economic value in the current system. 

What I take from Jackson is the idea of asking; “what if we up the time for care and dial down the need for stuff?” Then we have the beginning of alternative scenarios to work with. I believe this is where design has a huge role to play. We can work towards filling the void created by the limitations to our current way of life with rich and inspiring alternatives. In order for design to be relevant in the anthropocene it has to help reframe what we hold as valuable and dear to us, and how to unlock that value, without harming the ecosystem of which that value is a part.

4. Ecologically contextual

The context we are going to be living in at a macro level is the anthropocene. When we usually talk about context we consider the ‘actors’ and ‘factors’ that influence choices.  Ethicist Clive Hamilton explores the choices we have in how we respond to the anthropocene. In his analysis the overarching factor will be how the planet changes in response to human activities. This is the Defiant Earth of his title. The key actor for Hamilton is humankind. Of four choices he sees ahead of us three; denial of human impact, retreat to pre-industrial ways of living, techno-futurism (escape to Mars etc), he argues would be wrong and ineffective. Hamilton argues that the option we are left with is to face both the power awoken in the earth through our actions and the power we therefore hold as humans. 

Whilst Morton and Latour make a case for our consciousness to be ‘of the earth’, Hamilton argues that we need to own our power and start to act in ways that take responsibility for that power.

Humankind will be making some big decisions at both a collective and an individual scale over the coming decades. Our governments and corporations need to make this decision in the full consciousness of this power but so will all of us as individuals or teams. 

Designers will need to find ways to bring acknowledgement of both a destabilised earth and a hugely powerful humankind into the ways that we explore challenges and create futures. I am exploring how we can use dilemma tools to ensure that these factors are on the table. How do we negotiate a path between the rock of the anthropocene and the hard place of human power in our decision making? Can we be creative in the ways that we navigate the dilemma?

5. Always experimental

How do you move into the future when you are uncertain about what it holds, are likely in for some significant shocks and also need to be aware of the power you hold? The only answer is trial and error. 

Nassim Nicholas Talleb argues that our fixed, complex and overconfident systems have left us fragile to shocks and poorly able to manage risk. He draws on history, nature and entrepreneurship to show how alternative systems thrive in randomness. Importantly, it is the system that thrives, not the individual people, beings or businesses. Talleb is ruthless. 

In a natural cycle when a forest burns it allows for a re-set. For the makeup of the forest to adapt to any changes in climate, soil etc and grow back in a better shape through the trial and error of each new shoot.The successful experiments come to define the new forest. 

Design has this attitude in its bloodstream. We occupy a fringe position when the dominant industrial logic is to fix and scale. When the time comes where we need to be in perpetual beta, looking out for insights and data points that lead us to alter the course or pivot. We should be ready.

Reframing the five key qualities of service design to fit in this new era.