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Polar bears are at risk of climate change. Is human-centred design the best method for dealing with such a threat?

Towards a model of planet-centred design?

ThinkPlace practices human-centred design. We call ourselves human-centred designers. And we have long believed that this is the best way to design for maximum impact and for positive change in the world.

Human-centred design means using tools and methods to understand the needs of the people we design with and for. It means we go to great lengths to ensure that voices of people throughout the system are heard and included as we design better futures – including services, models and systems.

But recently, a few things have happened that are making us question whether human-centred design is the gold standard we hold it up to be.

Now we’re asking: Is being human-centred enough?

The first catalyst for our thinking was that a number of us from the Wellington studio attended the Design for Social Innovation Symposium in Ōtepoti Dunedin. ThinkPlace hosted the ‘DSI Lab’ – a visual and idea space to capture and pose some uncomfortable questions to our community of practice.

The symposium, held at the Otago Polytechnic, was attended by a range of designers, people working in interesting partnerships and collectives, forming new models of innovation and students practicing design, food design and leadership for change.

Among these design voices a question started to emerge, one which asked whether being human-centred could also extend to plants and animals.

What does animal-centred design look like?

The value of bringing communities of practice together is that we create a safe space to question our own position – the two days afforded us time to provoke, be inspired and dig a little deeper.

D'arcy Dalzell, Mondy Jera and Cassandra Ong  are ThinkPlace designers asking a question about human-centred design
If ideas of human centricity in the world are at least partly responsible for some of the largest challenges we face should human-centred design be the best method we have for tackling those problems?

The second catalyst was the release of the 2018 IPCC report on the state of climate change. The tone of the warning was alarming: Cut carbon pollution as much as possible, as fast as possible, and keep doing so until we reach net zero carbon. Or keep doing what we are actually doing now – on a household, community, civic, national and global-political level – and face dire consequences.

At the global level, without intervention, man-made climate change will impact virtually every species on the planet. It is predicted that sensitive forest ecologies will be altered dramatically until some are unrecognisable.

Polar bears will lose their habitat, and breeding and feeding grounds for countless creatures will disappear or change forever.

Given the nature of the impact and the breadth of species who will feel it, could it be time to ask whether being ‘human-centred’ is the right approach to solve such a human-made problem?

ThinkPlace recently held its inaugural Methods Jam. This global event brought together our designers and studios across five countries. It provoked us to design new and improved approaches, frameworks and methods to tackle the complex and challenging work we do with clients all over the world each day.




One discussion point was whether human-centred is the right framework for tackling problems that – in part – arise from humans’ overwhelming sense of their own centricity. As we continue our stated goal of designing better futures and ‘shifting the needle’ on the Sustainable Development Goals it is an interesting discussion to begin.

The good news is that design thinking, with its tools and mindsets, remains the best approach that is likely to help us. It involves a bias towards action and requires prototyping to test in complex system dynamics.  It can broker a multitude of methodologies, innovations, and behaviour insights to produce meaningful change.

At ThinkPlace we continuously learn and build on our models from our experience as co-designers, human-centred designers and designers for positive change. Founding Partner John Body has spoken often in recent times of being ‘humanity centred designers’. It’s a small but critical distinction that offers different potentialities for the future.

There are so many other exciting planet-centred models to explore, adapt and put into practice, such as the circular economy model (an industrial system that is restorative by design) and Kate Raworths’ Doughnut economic model (which proposes safe and just spaces within our social and planetary boundaries). Other available models draw from behavioural and cognitive sciences, communication and big data.

We are told we have twelve years before climate change results in the global warming of 1.5 C. We continue to witness the propensity for humans to ignore tough problems [Spinoff wrote a great article about our cognitive dissonance). Given that human-centred designers have the skills and tools to grapple with complexity, perhaps it is time to move to practicing planet-centred design, supercharging our bias towards action, to become a bias towards urgent action.

We would like to thank Billy Matheson for being the gentle leader of the Design for Social Innovation symposiums, to the people who shared their approach to making a positive difference to the world: Gael Sturgeoner from Auckland Co-design Lab, Dr Ingrid Burkett (TACSI) and Dr Prendergast-Tarena (Te Tapuae O Rehua) and Adithi Pandit (Deloitte) for posing critical questions that need answering; and all the participants who contributed to the conversations, ideas and learning. Thank you for challenging us to tackle the difficult issues and motivating the design community to question how we sustainably create better futures - one that considers both humans and the ecology we’re part of.


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