The Design of Things

human endeavor + the natural world

Category: the design of Change

Start practicing real politics

“Perception is strong and sight weak. In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close and to take a distanced view of close things.”

I found this quote typed on a card in a sweet shop near me called Nesting, where they specialize in selling charming oddities — like quotes typed on a card. It was being sold for a dollar, and so I plunked that down and took the card home.

In politics, the art of perception is to pay attention, deeply, to what the other person might want and where what they want is shared with you. In strategy, artful persons develop a vision of what they want to achieve and perceive how others might find it acceptable to come along with them.

Artless politics is the drive, drive, driving of a point without any sense of how to bring others along — which means, in the end, you probably won’t.

Liberal and conservative heroes have been both perceptive and strategic, and so they have passed large pieces of legislation, made shifts in U.S. foreign policy, and made the previously unthought-of accepted and expected – from clean air and water laws to restarting relations with previous enemies to ending decades-long civil wars to accommodating people with disabilities. These are just a few examples.

Much of what passes for politics right now is not artful. Politicians considered “darlings” or “leaders” of their parties are usually the ones shouting or disdaining. Social media encourages lots of posting and lots of scanning headlines without seeking information or nuance. We watch cable to feel righteous or pissed off. The hunt is for the thrill, for the spreading of the “Can you believe this?” headlines and memes of the day.

And so we are not armed with perception, and we can’t develop strategy. We can only react, and in turn the leaders we elevate become even more reactionary.

In our democracy we have many opportunities to gain perception and develop real vision – the kind that imagines many different constituencies moving toward common goals. This week, for example, The Washington Post is broadcasting the Cabinet confirmation hearings live online. Taking a ten or fifteen minute break to watch or listen to one is fascinating and far more informative than any news summary.

Senators signal their positions through their lines of questioning. Nominees betray ignorance or display thoughtfulness that is not always covered in the media accounts. And when you see something you like – like a Senator being tough on someone for a particular position or lack of knowledge – you can follow up by giving their office a call to say thank you, which shifts that office’s perception of what is important. Same thing when you don’t want a Senator to be soft on a particular issue, or you have concerns about the nominees’ ability to address it. You can participate as a citizen, right there and then.

As you begin to participate, you learn the issues and the players more clearly. You can ask more of your own politicians and others across the country. And you might begin to notice where there is some commonality you previously thought did not exist – as I found yesterday, when a Senator I did not expect to closely questioned the nominee for Secretary of State on climate change. Armed with that awareness, you might begin to think about how to turn the tide on an issue that has seemed so partisan and deeply entrenched.

That’s what the greats did. That’s what we should expect again of our leaders — but we will only get this from them if we expect it of ourselves.




Please explain

dead-spruce_133_600x450 In our internet-driven world, we are bombarded with petitions and memes, but can’t always easily find accurate information about the issues of the day. Like that factoid about our brains, web design seems to use only about ten percent of its potential to inform and engage.

Many major environmental problems – like global warming, acid rain, or the hole in the ozone layer – could be explained with simple and friendly interactive media. Yet most environmental groups’ websites present the facts in pages of text and a forceful, “the science is settled” tone. You’d have to be pretty committed to wade through it, and likely already convinced.

This allows skepticism to fester. In the case of global warming, the impression has grown that scientists have reached a foregone conclusion about human activity and so have missed other causes. The rest of us aren’t given a clear sense of how to answer those claims, which makes us hesitant to engage with someone who isn’t convinced.

Scientists have approached the question of global warming for decades, and through that process asked themselves all the questions people ask today: Is it natural? Is from it sunspots? Is it from water vapor? They’re not stupid questions: They’ve been asked and answered by some of the smartest people in the world. You wouldn’t know that now from the discourse, and yet presenting that process would help bring some people along.

I was once part of a team invited in to a prominent Republican U.S. Senate office, from a state that is being pretty drastically affected by climate change already, to present the science on global warming. We counseled the lead scientist to start with these questions in his presentation, to acknowledge that they are the right ones to ask and to convey that conclusions about global warming were reached only after extensive investigation. He did not. He instead gave a forty-five minute rambling presentation about global warming from the perspective of settled science. The first question from a Senate staffer was, “What about sun spots?” By then, the scientist had lost his audience, turned the conversation unnecessarily antagonistic, and hadn’t brought anyone together to look at what was really happening to our world and what we might be able to do about it.

A journalist friend of mine, Eric Roston, who is the sustainability editor at Bloomberg, tackled these questions in this beautifully and simply designed interactive graphic, which you can find here. The design is one of clarity, humility and unity in addressing the questions we all have. And you can share it, online, with your friends – believers and skeptics alike.

photo credit: Dead spruce from acid rain.

here and there, everywhere and elsewhere

fox--500x339A few months ago I read an op-ed in the New York Times that described two types of thinking – big context thinkers and immediate picture thinkers. Those weren’t the exact terms, but that was the idea. Keeping the environment in mind is context thinking. What leaves my house goes down the drain, into the sewer, into the pond, the river, the ocean… or into the garbage and out to the dump and eventually to the ocean. My yard is a landing place (or not) for birds and bees and butterflies. My heating and cooling bills are a reflection of my use of fossil fuels. When I pick up a head of lettuce at the grocery store, it reflects a chain of water, pesticides, and fuel for transport.

People who think in immediate terms think about all the details of keeping their families and lives afloat and the needs, desires, and threats to all of that. I need to get the kids to practice, drive to work, coordinate a car pool, grocery shop, cook, help with homework, take care of the yard, clean the house. When I pay someone to clean or do yard work they might use chemicals on the lawn or fossil fuels with the leaf blower, and I know I am driving too much and buying a lot of things from China, but I just cannot add that to my list of worries.

Both are defensive positions when manifested in this way – each is carrying a huge burden of responsibility in guarding against disaster, whether familial or planetary. We can instead make a subtle shift, taking something from each approach to make our lives more relaxed and meaningful in the here and now while expanding our ability to incorporate the big picture. Putting this together can be nurturing to ourselves, our families, our surroundings, and our souls.

The underlying driver is that we are constantly being told to hurry up. Hurry up and save the planet, or hurry up and do the million tasks of everyday life, or hurry up and become somebody important or do something amazing and famous. And the most radical change – radical because it really is difficult – is to slow down in the middle of that and simply live.

Not so simple any more. One of my friends has three children and she is constantly on her phone to text, arranging car pools and dinner for her twins while she is taking the eldest on a college tour, setting up appointments for her therapy clients, checking that no one needs her. Slowing down for her seemed impossible until her husband had a crisis – and suddenly it seemed ridiculous for the kids to play soccer on Sundays, despite the intramural league pressure to do so. They pulled out and now have a Sunday – the kids play with friends outside, my friend and her husband go for a run or a bike ride, they read the paper. It’s one day of the week, but it’s a day not spent in the car, not shopping, not consuming, not polluting. Yet that’s not even the point – it’s not a day of “not hurting the environment;” it’s a day of having a happy life.

The most radical way to help the environment and ourselves is to live rather than run around. Stay home and enjoy the garden. Go for a walk after dinner through the neighborhood. Work a jigsaw puzzle. Play cards. Play music. Put music on in a way that everyone can listen – not just through earphones. Sit on the patio or the deck with the paper, listen to the birds, notice the movement of animals in the evening. Plant a tree, or two. Make go-carts. Mow the lawn with a hand mower or pick up a broom or a rake to take pleasure in your own property, get a little exercise and breathe in the summer air.

When our lives become to-do lists and texts, and/ or a list of “shoulds” and “don’ts” to avoid environmental destruction, we create nothing memorable. No funny conversations, no inventive games, no kids playing by themselves, no magic and mystery of the natural world showing up: A butterfly in the garden, a bird nesting above a doorway, a fox in the backyard.

copenhagen ii: to ride a bike


Riding a bike at a UN climate conference can be more visionary than the talks themselves…

To get on a bike in Copenhagen is to enter into the stream of Denmark. You sit tall on a sturdy machine, equipped with fat tires and fenders, scarf around your face, hat on your head, boots covering your legs. You can ride, as I did, in a skirt or a suit under your coat and be dressed for work when you arrive. As one bike lane gives way to another, you are traffic itself, not peripheral to it. The bikes proceed as deliberately as automobiles. The bike lanes are delineated by concrete infrastructure – curbs or even parking areas between them and the cars.

I got on a bike in Copenhagen because it was my only means of transportation to the Bella Centre, the site of the UN climate talks in December, 2009. Protests around the talks had become violent, shutting down passage by train or taxi, but I had to bring my NGO pass to my colleagues.

The Bella Centre was built outside of the old city, on the flat former fields that support convention centers, hotels, and high rise apartments everywhere. Even design-conscious Scandinavia sports this cheap twentieth-century landscape. Yet here these wastelands -usually the sole province of automobiles – are made accessible and convenient by bike.

Biking there was not an athletic, scenic, or political act. It was utilitarian, a likely means of transportation no matter what the weather, the size of the road, or the density of the traffic. When I entered the bike lane outside my hotel, the streets were wet and cold and I wasn’t sure where I was going exactly. I was immediately swept along in the bike traffic, unable to easily stop or turn around without being run over. We crossed a bridge to the southwest of the city center to a minor highway split down the middle by the train track. The sun, already beginning to set at two p.m., was a vague smear of light over fields and small neighborhoods.

We crossed over a major highway. A windmill turned and farther out on the horizon stood smokestacks. Snowflakes flew. As I neared the Bella Center, the auto traffic stood still under beating helicopters. Giant sculptures of three Masaai rose out of the yellow grass as some sort of display for the talks. They had the emaciated, haunted look of the skeleton sculptures that protest groups had put near the doors of the convention center in somebody’s idea of inspiration.

At a UN checkpoint I saw how much I’d managed to assimilate just by biking. One of the officers approached, smiling, and addressed me enthusiastically. Maybe he was remarking on the craziness all around; I had no idea. I didn’t even know how to say “I don’t speak Danish” in Danish. I stopped, shrugged my shoulders, and laughed, pulling the pass hanging around my neck out from under my scarf. His eyes widened in surprise at a foreigner on a bike.

The people who had come from all over the world to negotiate reducing greenhouse gas emissions were stuck in traffic. Those who came to protest were behaving such that helicopters and SUVs had to be brought in and run all day. Seemingly unaware of it, they presented the world that is: noisy, clashing, exhausting of resources, inefficient. The world that causes climate change.

I continued on past the Convention Center to the Radisson, where NGOs and negotiators had decamped while waiting for their passes. I wheeled the bike up a narrow ramp etched in the concrete beside the front steps for just that purpose, parked it with the many others in the rack, took off my coat to reveal my work outfit, and went inside.

What I had just experienced was part of the vision and the infrastructure of the carbon-light world. The people around me huddled with their Blackberries while the protesters outside delighted in made-for-TV clashes with the police. But getting on a bike, within a city- and nation-wide infrastructure that made this a mainstream and convenient option, was the least act of protest and the most visionary. It was an example of structure and change we might implement to save ourselves. Nobody mentioned that.


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