Ecological Design - design anything based on nature's principals
Updated: Mar 17
Use a value-led, collaborative, and nature-inspired process to design anything from experiences to products and green spaces
Have you ever worked on a project where the end-result didn't align very well with what you were intending? Do group projects often frustrate you because of unequal efforts, dominating voices or unclear expectations? Ecological Design is a beautiful process that can help you slow down and check for alignment along the way for any project, while empowering participants.
In 2015, at the start of my Leadership for Sustainability Education MS program, Dr. Heather Burns introduced this Ecological Design framework (Hemenway, 2000) prior to starting our first group paper. I imagine like most people, I'd had various levels of success with group projects and they often induced feelings of anxiety if not frustration... Will people do their part? If they don't what do I do? Who put this person in charge and why are they telling everyone what to do?
Going through this process, with the emphasis on slowing down by starting with Observation and Visioning completely changed my attitude towards group projects, as well as individual projects that feel messy or overwhelming. I now get excited and inspired by the process of thoughtfully creating!
I've recently been working with a friend and fellow yoga teacher in designing the scope of readings for a 300-hr Yoga Teacher Training. Prior to our second meeting I realized I was starting to feel overwhelmed by and a little lost with all the potential directions. When we came together, I asked if they'd be interested in trying this design process. We observed our personal experiences with yoga school, what success feels like as facilitators, the current yoga school format, and what we knew so far about applicants. We then shifted into visioning around how we wanted the learning space to feel. We spent more than an hour in these two stages and then spent another 30 minutes planning next steps. In our planning we were able to bring in additional observations and found excitement around how particular planning pieces really aligned with the vision.
After there's a clear plan, you move into developing the plan by fleshing out details and responsibilities, and filling in any cracks that emerge as you move further along the process. The "last" step is implementation - do the actual thing! 'Last' is in quotations because it isn't truly the last step. Like nature, we always want to be receiving feedback from our work and shifting so that we can work smarter and closer towards our intentions. This feedback circles us back to the first step - observation.
Tip #1 - Trust the process
Sometimes we get excited about a project and want to quickly start doing the thing, or we find it hard to be present because we have other things going on. Do not skip the first two steps - "observation and visioning" - as they will help you slow down to make sure your future plan is actually in alignment with what you know to be true. In the long-term it will actually save time and energy.
"The times are urgent, let us slow down."
– Bayo Akomolafe
Tip #2 - Give yourself plenty of time
A rose doesn't flower the day after the seed is planted. This process requires space and time to settle. As you're able, give yourself a half or quarter extra time than you normally would to honestly go through the process. If you're thinking "I don't have time" be curious about why that is...
Is the project actually needed by this date or is it an artificial time table?
Can I get rid of or shift other projects/expectations that are taking me away from this process? (think "less is more")
Will this process help me be more aligned with personal or organizational values?
What might it feel like to recognize myself as part of nature and integrate processes that reflect that reality?
Tip #3 - Resist linearity
Yes, this is a cyclical model AND nothing happens perfectly. If you need to revisit past steps, do that.
Tip #4 - Make a case
If you're worried about suggesting this process to folks that might be resistant, make a case for value alignment. If the organization values diversity and inclusion, share how this process can help diverse voices be heard from the beginning and shape the process throughout. If there's a value around transparency, you can make a case for how this process will show how you came to particular decision or choice.
Tip #5 - Come from a place of abundance, value diversity
We all have so much to offer and can create space to lean into our gifts as well as curiosities. In the observation stage of a group project folks can observe what they are excited about bringing to the group, or what skills they're excited to grow. By time you make it to the development stage, this is a great place for folks to volunteer the pieces they are excited about taking on. You'll find that the energy completely shifts when folks have had a chance to celebrate their gifts and then choose their assignment, rather than one person taking the lead and assigning people tasks.
Side note: This knowledge is not new. The Ecological Design framework and others such as Permaculture can be helpful in aligning decision-making with patterns in nature. AND, we know that people have been living in such close relationship to their surrounding environments since time immemorial, making decisions so in-rhythm that frameworks such as these would be redundant.
"Look closely at the present you are constructing. It should look like the future you are dreaming." – Alice Walker
Moving from extraction to regeneration
Dominant culture and capitalist economies take much for the few and give little to the mases. Social and climate justice realities are calling for a Just Transition from extractive economies and processes towards regenerative ones (framework below). This is not just moving from gas to electric cars, but a worldview shifting how we relate and care for each other.
Whether you're designing a new garden bed solo or a multi-artist instillation, give Ecological Design a try to help you build healthy soil for long-term growth. Comment below and tell me what you think!
Hemenway, T (2000). Gaia’s garden. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green.
Burns, H. (2011). Teaching for transformation: (Re)Designing sustainability
courses based on ecological principles. Journal of Sustainability Education, 2, 1-15.