Before making something new, a smart designer needs to answer a few questions. What is it exactly that we need? Who are the users? What conditions are we designing for? How long do we want it to last?
The answer to these questions forms the design basis—the conditions, needs, and requirements taken into account to create a facility, product, process, or organization. But figuring out which questions to ask isn’t always so easy.
Asking the right set of questions (and giving the right set of answers) can sometimes result in positive innovation and ideas that help us, as a society, to move forward while using less: Think upcycling, cradle to cradle design, and biomimicry. Innovators have successfully applied these new design limits and in some cases generated new insights that have further improved or altered design thinking.
But we can’t afford to play around: What lies before us is a herculean challenge that cannot be tackled one product or process at a time. While specific efforts are vital, they are not sufficient. The effect of years of designing society by asking the wrong questions (and giving bad answers) is cumulative and is degrading our ecosystem, society, and economy.
The real design basis that must be shifted, therefore, is our very definition of success. In a post-WWII drive to create robust economies and move people into the middle class, we accepted a design basis of success as growth and growth as throughput. The design basis of bigger being better is behind the idea of gross domestic product.
The human need that drives that design basis is domination and control. The need to dominate is a masculine trait that’s tied to survival in hostile environments. The trouble is that as the hostile environment changed, the ethos of dominance did not. Now we are overfed and under-hunted and upside down on everything from our mortgages to our health because of our need to dominate by always having more.
The female “counter” need is community and collaboration, driven by a desire to protect vulnerable children who are only safe when the entire community is caring for them. A shift to a more balanced design basis that embodies feminine principles would mean moving from dominance to harmony, from exclusivity to inclusivity, and from individual success to community success.
We are social animals. It is how we are designed. And our imposition of a design basis that has separated us from each other, our planet, and the future creates distress throughout the entire system. Infusing the feminine back into our design basis will create new outcomes in everything from the meaning of profit to the creation of products. If we begin to measure success not through how we dominate but instead by how we create harmony, we will encourage behaviors that ease our burden on the planet.