Why Design, Social Innovation and Permaculture need to unify their efforts.

Machu Picchu, Peru — a beautiful example of intentional design in nature.

Machu Picchu, Peru — a beautiful example of intentional design in nature.

Written by Kyle Calian

I’ve been on a journey for the last decade to trying to combine my passion for design, research and nature into a career. There are no straight lines in design — especially not in nature.

When I was an undergrad I tried to customize a multidisciplinary degree in Sustainable Business. When I was seeking out a graduate program, I tried to decide between a forestry program or a program that would allow me to pursue human centered design.

I chose the latter. Now looking back at what I learned I still feel incomplete. This is not to say i’m not a much better designer than I was when I started, but I feel as if there is still so much more to learn.

The more research and discoveries I make about the work being around the world, the more unnerved I become trying to answer this question:

Why isn’t there a more practical education for people who want to do this extremely important work?

Who will emerge as our heroes?

Who will emerge as our heroes?

Traditional Design, Social Innovation and Permaculture are all branches stemming from the same tree of design.

Victor Papinek, one of my all time favorite designers to write about the topic, says that:

“Design is the conscious and intuitive effort to impose meaningful order.”

It must also be meaningful and solve a problem. In this chart below each of the yin-yang’s indicate a mix of left and right brain thinking in each of the outlying categories. These are all things to take into considering when setting out to create something which fulfills its purpose – otherwise known as its function.


Where the three disciplines aforementioned differ most, to me, is method. This is where I find the most challenge. You can’t set out to grow bio-dynamic food with your X-Acto knives and Micron pens.

What we do know is that people need to go outside — they need to interact with nature to remain sane. It’s crazy to me that people need to read articles like this one to remember that staying in the office all the time just isn’t good for your health.

In fact nature is what inspires us. It’s the air we breathe, the families we love and the sunset that amazes us that keeps us going.

There is a whole school of thought on our affection toward it and how it affects us.

It’s called biophilia – stemming from the Greek roots meaning love of life, was coined by the social psychologist Erich Fromm. It came into use in the 1980s when Edward O. Wilson, an American biologist, realized the implications of this departure from nature.

“Biophilia is the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms…life around us exceeds in complexity and beauty anything else humanity is ever likely to encounter.” -Edward Wilson

Permaculture then is the conscious effort and work of people who want to grow together to preserve the beauty of nature, to build community, grow food, share ideas, create social enterprises and support healthy people and planet.

As Delvin Solkinson defines it:
“Nature, and in effect, life and well-being, health and restoration, is the heart of permaculture practiced through conscious analysis and design.”

It is the application of natural principles, learning and observation through design. It is also a set of ethics and behaviors that enable how a community can come together.

Social Innovation on the other hand has more to do with user experience and human behavior. Much time is spent asking questions to people and observing actions, testing ideas and hypotheses, and then testing again. This outline can take any form, from a physical map, a technology or even something digital.

As Cheryl Heller, Chair of the Design for Social Innovation program at SVA defines it:

Design for Social Innovation is really interaction design in the broadest sense; it’s interaction between people that takes responsibility for positive, systemic impact. It can take any and every physical or visible form but it inevitably begins with the invisible dynamics and forces that drive human behavior. It takes place within the communities and systems it’s working with, not outside them.

So, how can we create a discipline that bring these three fields together? Maybe we simply need a school that has all three disciplines collaborating on a regular basis. I believe we also need businesses that can provide all three of these services. We not only need social enterprises but ecological ones as well.

“Let’s not embrace sustainability because we fear the future, lets embrace sustainability because we love the things we love about the present.” -Larry Santoyo

SOURCE: The Regeneration