What is your design paradigm?

Sustainability and Economics

As students, teachers, and practitioners in sustainable design, we are often questioning and reconsidering conventional design principles, processes, practices, patterns, and problems — the ones that have us consuming 1.75 Earth’s worth of resources. 

But in order to understand and apply sustainable design principles, processes, practices, patterns, and problems we first need to be clear about our underlying sustainable design paradigm.


What is a sustainable design paradigm?

In a previous post, Sustainability is Impossible in the “Real World” I wrote about the Conventional Paradigm, which is based on the assumptions of Scarcity, Individualism, Competition, Greed, Resistance, and Fear. Operating with this paradigm, designers — like most everyone else — assume that their work must adhere to the rules set by (corporate predatory) capitalism. Design decisions are driven by value over values. Exploiting people and nature is considered a necessary evil. Designs emerging from this paradigm result in unintended consequences that are the predictable result of intentional ignorance — consequences like climate change, poverty, slavery, and ecological collapse.

In a follow-up post, Nature is the REAL “Real World”, I wrote about the Natural Paradigm, which is based on the assumptions of Abundance, Synergy, Systems, Trust, Resilience, and Curiosity. Operating with this paradigm, designers — like everything else in nature — assume that their work must adhere to the rules set by nature. 

Design decisions are driven by values over value, by empathy and bio-empathy, by the goal of creating conditions conducive to life. Designs emerging from this paradigm can integrate into sustainable or regenerative systems, both human and ecological.  

What’s the difference?

Let’s look at designing with the assumption of Scarcity versus Abundance.

Designs emerging from the Conventional Paradigm depend on the use of things that are scarce or limited — fossil fuels, for example. This may not be intentional or explicit on the part of the designer; however, it is baked into the required supply chains and economic systems.

Why? Because things that are limited and increasingly scarce are considered valuable, even if they are damaging. 

Designers using the Natural Paradigm use tools like systems thinking and life cycle assessment to gain full knowledge of the supply chains and potential impacts of their design decisions. They intentionally avoid depending on things that are limited or scarce or damaging — like fossil fuels.

Why? Because nature values designs that leverage things that are abundant, including everything from solar energy to synergies to imagination. Nature would say that it’s crazy to design products — or entire systems — that are dependent on things that are limited, scarce, and damaging!  


Fossil fuels consumed per person per year in the US:
248 million Btu 
Solar energy available per person per year in the US:
526 to 6,183 million Btu 


What is your design paradigm?

What impacts might your design paradigm have on your design decisions and, ultimately, on the world?  These are not simple questions to answer. If you’d like to explore them, along with learning sustainable design principles, processes, practices, patterns, and problems, we invite you to explore our (fully online) MA in Sustainable Design program.  

[images courtesy of Stef Koehler,
from Re-Aligning with Nature: Ecological Thinking for Radical Transformation]

Denise DeLuca / Director

Denise DeLuca is director of MCAD’s Sustainable Design program and co-founder of BCI: Biomimicry Creative for Innovation, a network of creative professional change agents driving ecological thinking for radical transformation. Denise is author of the book Re-Aligning with Nature: Ecological Thinking for Radical Transformation, which was illustrated by MASD alum Stephanie Koehler.  She also teaches with the Amani Institute. Denise’s previous roles include Education Director for the International Living Future Institute, a consultant for Swedish Biomimetics 3000, and Outreach Director for The Biomimicry Institute.  Denise is a licensed civil engineer (PE) and holds a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering with a focus on modeling landscape-scale surface and ground water interactions. Denise is based in Montana.

contact:  [email protected]
Twitter: @MCADSustainDsgn