Design for Future: A Call to Action

In conversation with Thought Leader, Architect and Vancouver Design Week Co-Founder, Jennifer Cutbill.

Cutbill took time out of her busy schedule to share with CMCJ’s Advisory Group member, Viviane Gosselin, her views on the power of design to transform the way we think about people, place and the planet. She introduces key concepts underpinning Design for Future, a design manifesto and call to action, and proposes ways by which museums can play a role in this major rethink.  

Design for Future ‘Seed Card’ (VDW engagement tool)

VG: What is Vancouver Design Week and how does it converge towards and differ from other Design Week events around the world?

JC: Vancouver Design Week (in its current form) was launched in 2014, as a vehicle for connecting people across disciplines and sectors with several objectives in mind: to raise awareness about the power and potential of design and showcase local talent creating it; to cultivate curiosity, inspiration, and a common language for critical discourse; and to empower design as a tool for creatively solving problems and enabling regenerative potential.

In 2014 Vancouver Design Week (VDW) launched the Mayor’s Urban Design Awards and included over 90 events – ranging from interactive museum exhibitions to in-situ studio and building tours, to talks and hands-on workshops. Despite being run (thus far) by a small team of volunteers off the side of their desks, our biennial festival has since grown annually, including more events, broader audiences, and assuming an increasingly regional focus – a (metro) Vancouver Design Week.

While the growing number of Design Weeks worldwide (between 50 – 100[1] at the time of writing) generally share common threads as collaborative platforms, creative incubators, and inclusive invitations for public participation, one of the things that sets Vancouver’s apart (and select others, such as Helsinki, and Mexico City’s), is an eco-social ethic and an understanding/use of design as a tool for advocacy and activism.

Compilation of images from previous VDW festivals

VG: How do you define the world-changing power of design?

JC: As an organization (VDW) we define design as creatively solving problems and realizing new potentials. We view art and design as integral parts of a rich spectrum of creativity; in which, art asks provocative questions, while design translates complex challenges into tangible realities – solutions that are not only functional but also beautiful, inspiring, enabling and regenerative for people and planet. As a verb, regeneration means healing and renewed vitality. As a design practice, it means approaching projects as catalysts for holistic healing and revitalization, increasingly referred to as ‘regenerative development’. Beyond reducing harm, regenerative development focuses on building the evolutionary capability of people and place, so they can thrive – as empowered members of interdependent living systems – now and through time.

We are all impacted by design every day. Design shapes our interactions with others and the environment, our identities, our everyday behaviours, and ultimately our future – from the products and interfaces we use, the clothes we wear, to the buildings and cities we inhabit. Paraphrasing Winston Churchill, ‘We shape our (built environments) and thereafter they shape us’ and, as founder of the non-profit agency MASS Design Group, Michael Murphy, asserts: ‘design is never neutral, it either hurts or it heals’. 

Today, there is no challenge more complex or more in need of design’s inspirational and regenerative power than our twinned crises of climate (ecological degradation) and equity. Now, more than ever, we must work together across disciplines, sectors and silos to leverage our ability to re-imagine and realize a future that is thriving, inclusive and equitable for all.

VG: Could you tell us more about the origin of Design for Future as a sort of manifesto and call to action?

JC: In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released their landmark Special Report asserting we have (now) as little as a decade to make transformative reductions to our carbon emissions before critical ecological thresholds are tipped. This ignited a fire of urgency for me and other members of the local design community, and for countless others the world over. The scale and speed of systemic changes required across our global societies are unprecedented; yet, the limiting factor is neither creativity nor technological capability, but a lack of belief and will. We need to believe that we CAN make these changes to our current patterns and harness the courage to empower them at scale. 

Renowned architect and systems designer Buckminster Fuller said: “You never change things by fighting against the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete”. This is the power of design. The capacity to give form to new realities; a positive and proactive antidote to the paralysis of fear and hopelessness, and an inclusive vehicle for inspiring and empowering, meaningful place-based transformation.

I believe we must mobilize at a scale commensurate to the task, ensuring that no one is left behind and doing so with radical inclusivity and compassion.  We need to come together as a global army of proactive system-changers, working under a common banner towards a common goal: to co-create a future for our grandchildren that is thriving, inclusive and equitable for all!

From this vision, Design for Future was born. A call to action to unite; what Paul Hawken calls the Blessed Unrest – the abundant and ever-growing diversity of thoughtful committed creative citizens building new models for social and ecological justice that make the current broken systems obsolete.

Diagram by J.Cutbill based on Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) landmark Special Report

VG: How do the “three prongs” of Design for Future movement help reframe design practice?

JC: While Design for Future anticipates an infinite diversity of solutions that reflects the infinite diversity of social and ecological communities, the proposition calls for three unifying strategies: Storying Potential, Cross-Pollinating Support, and Synergizing Action. 

Storying Potential

Stories are how we understand the world around us and our agency in relation to it and each other. Like design, stories can either constrain us, or they can empower us to realize our potential. The intent of Storying Potential is to leverage the power of the latter – to use stories to ignite our imaginations, rewrite our driving narratives, and bolster our sense of agency for making transformative change.

In 2016 Italian authors Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo published a children’s story book called Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls[2] – a compendium of stories of heroic women from across the world and throughout history, illustrated by female designers from across the world. Inspired by this platform, and others like TED, StoryCorps and the World Economic Forum’s video shorts; this prong of the Design for Future initiative seeks to leverage the power of multi-media storying[3] to inspire young and old alike. To shift our dominant narratives – and consequently our mindsets – from ones of fear, scarcity, competition and strife, to ones of courage, abundance, compassion and collaborative interdependence. This participatory platform celebrates inclusive and interdependent diversity; an open access library that is both a seed bank of knowledge and a garden for the imagination.

We envision two companion streams: Goodnight Stories for Rebels  (in collaboration with Favilli and Cavallo) to celebrate stories of courage and collaborative transformation already realized, and focusing on voices too often unheard (women, people of color, LGBTQ, and First Peoples); and Future Tales for Mother Earth focusing on inclusive participation, holistic healing and revitalization. Together these stories can help daylight the incredible abundance of unique place-based approaches and patterns of complex interdependence. They can also empower our innate sense of wonder and agency to design a future we want. For, in the more poetic words of female Maori leader Te Puea Herangi, “If I dream it’s just me dreaming, but if WE dream, anything is possible”.

Graphic compilation by J.Cutbill with images from Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls and the  World Economic Forum (WEF)

Cross-Pollinating Support

Agency refers to our capacity to effect change within systems, whether they are social and/or natural ecosystems. Lateral agency is the capacity we have to effect change when working horizontally (i.e. without hierarchy) across boundaries of states, sectors, schools, (species) and other limiting silos. Philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari used the term rhizome to describe this form of transversal collaboration. This model is used ubiquitously in nature: from the roots of grasses to the neurons in our brains. These models ceaselessly create new connections – to optimize flows of nutrients, energy and ideas – forging new pathways and empowering new patterns, while remaining rooted in place. The Design for Future (D4F) initiative seeks to do this through Cross-pollinating Support and Synergizing Action.

Storying gives us hope for a thriving future, bolsters belief in our potential to bring our dreams to life and seeds the fields of compassion necessary to steward them. Support – in the form of mentorship and shared resources – builds our individual and collective strength, confidence and capacity, and facilitates the cross-pollination of ideas and knowledge, and creates safe spaces and fertile grounds for collaborative creation and evolutionary development. This branch of the D4F platform seeks to cultivate and nurture reciprocal relations between emerging and established leaders; to level access (based on curiosity and commitment rather than alma mater or affluence); and to bring together the deep wisdom of Indigenous peoples and leaders with the fresh perspectives and unrelenting energy of emerging voices. Like storying platforms, mentorship networks exist across cities and sectors but their rhizomic eco-social justice agency has yet to be fully deployed.  D4F is a call to all (g)local change agents to help co-create the empowering network our future leaders need!

Synergizing Action

Two patterns I see – in both not-for profit and for profit organizations – are the proliferation of inspiring ideas and designs to better people, place and planet. These creatives often live in close proximity but don’t know of each other’s work. This situation engenders unnecessary competition for limited resources between them and steals time to achieve common goals.

In a 2016 TED talk, Pritzker Prize winning architect Alejandro Aravena said: “If design has any power, it is the power of synthesis”. In other words, the power to bring things – ideas, resources, stakeholders – together into coherent harmony; to build systems that are greater than the sum of their parts. Cyclists use the term peloton to describe this type of synergistic action. Derived from the French word for platoon, a peloton is a pack of cyclists riding together in line as an integrated unit (akin to a flock of birds), enabling them to save energy by slipstreaming – taking turns leading the charge into the wind, and riding in the leader’s wind shadow. Riding in a line of 2, each expends approximately 1/2 the effort; in a line of 3, each expends about a 1/3; in a line of 10, a 1/10 and so on. In this pattern of collaboration, riders organically adjust to compensate for the unique strengths and capacities of the larger whole. As such, it is a model and metaphor for working together, holistically to get further, faster towards common goals, while using fewer resources, and making feel everyone a vital part of the effort. This is what Design For Future is proposing.  If it resonates with you as a creative working in design, museums or other fields, we hope you’ll join us!

Design For Future prongs (diagram by J. Cutbill)

VG: How do you think museums can engage with Design for Future and play a role in regenerative development?

Museums are poised to become great ambassadors for Design for Future. By engaging a broad spectrum of the citizenry and acting both as repository and rhizome for cultural knowledge and creative ideas, museums can be hubs for storying potential, cross-pollinating knowledge and ideas, and incubating synergistic action. More specifically by:

  • fostering eco-social literacy, a foundational element of civic life, grounded in factual realities of climate, ecology and equity;
  • storying potential by daylighting transformative actions of the past, and creating platforms for co-creating new visions for the future by nurturing curiosity, inclusivity and hope;
  • hosting safe and inspiring spaces for dialogue to further build common ground and collaborative agency while celebrating and supporting diversity;
  • facilitating cross-sectoral partnerships with mission-aligned organizations (from academic institutions and governments to non-profits and social enterprises) to further connect visionary ideas to transformative action. 
  • and by promoting, hosting, and co-creating Design for Future efforts.  

To know more about Design for Future email info@designforfuture.earth. Watch for the launch of their new website this fall!  www.designforfuture.earth

Preview of designforfuture.earth (image by J. Cutbill)

Jennifer Cutbill is a registered Architect, Founding Director of Lateral Agency, a Vancouver-based regenerative design and development practice, Co-Founder of Vancouver Design Week and the Vancouver Design Foundation, instructor at the UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, and mother of a feisty three-year-old girl.


[1] Depending on whether counting only Design Weeks, or the broader spectrum of city-wide design festivals.

[2] This series of two children’s books aimed at ages six and up was published in 2016. Both were funded through the crowdfunding website Kickstarter, and broke site records for fundraising publications.

[3] ‘Storying’ as a verb not just a noun foregrounds the participatory nature of sharing – important for combatting what Nigerian author Chimimanda Ngozi Adichi calls “the danger of a single story”.

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