Designing the Ecocene: Mapping the Political Economy of Design

Joanna Boehnert

knowledge visualisation
ecological literacy
political economy

As the dynamics of the Anthropocene break planetary boundaries and create global instability with increasing risks to human civilisation, ecologically informed design strategies are in development. This movement in sustainable design must be accelerated. Design sits in a pivotal sense-making and change-making space to facilitate ecological transition – once informed by ecological literacy and critical perspectives. Yet while design has the potential to transform ways of living in emancipatory and sustainable ways, it is often involved in reproducing the unsustainable and in obfuscating power relations around this process. For this reason, critical thinking and attention to power and the political economy of design is a necessary part of creating conditions for redirected, regenerative design.

The concept of the Ecocene (Boehnert 2018) describes an era of where the generation of new futures is driven by ecologically literate ways of knowing that inform the design of sustainable transitions. The Ecocene concept shifts focus from analysis of the problems to development of solutions. An ecologically viable future depends on a new understanding of human-nature relations and the design of new ways of living that emerge from this perspective. It also depends on designers with the critical capacities to identify unsustainable ideas, system structures, practices and products. Additionally, sustainable design and development require new agencies, process knowledge and practices. With these perspectives and types of knowledge, designers can work towards an Ecocene by propelling the cultural change necessary to survive and potentially flourish in the Anthropocene.

One of the ways that design can do this work is with knowledge visualisation. The practice of knowledge visualisation facilitates interdisciplinary collaborations and learning on complex, multi-dimensional and often controversial problems as a prelude to the design of sustainable alternatives. It bridges disciplinary silos and sectors to address communication and learning challenges as it displays information of different types (temporal, geospatial, topical, statistical, networks) on various scales (micro, meso, macro). By visualising multi-faceted conceptual propositions, complex systems and future scenarios, knowledge visualisations can help designers help clarify system-level threats and opportunities to sustainable transitions.

Despite process innovation and deepening and widening knowledge base, the design industry continues to struggle to contribute to slowing down and reversing the trajectory of accelerating planetary crises conditions. The political economy of design can be understood to include system-level obstacles that inhibit the wide-spread development of sustainable futures (Boehnert 2014). This paper will describe the early stages of a research project using knowledge visualisation practices to map the political economy of design. The research will use knowledge visualisation mapping practices with interdisciplinary groups to identify barriers and opportunities to and for sustainable transitions. It will provide an overview of the political and economic dynamics that are relevant to designers concerned with sustainability. The Mapping the Political Economy of Design project will make system structures visible while identifying spaces of intervention. New visual resources will help designers and policy makers respond to some of society’s most challenging problems with design and policy interventions.

Boehnert, J (2014) Design vs. the Design Industry, Design Philosophy Papers. London: Bloomsbury, 12 (2), pp. 119–136.
Boehnert, J. (2018) Design, Ecology, Politics: Towards the Ecocene. London: Bloomsbury.

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Suggested Citation Format (APA)

Author(s) (20XX). Article title. Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSDX) Symposium.