Building A Rocket Ship for Steepening Change

Climate change is at its core a ‘steepening problem’—the longer it takes to transition to a low-carbon and climate-resilient future, the steeper the problem becomes. This is language put forward by Alex Steffen and, I think, is one of the better mental models for thinking about action.

The issues are non-linear and intertwined with other complex systems in such a way that the climate solutions we heralded twenty, even ten years ago, might not generate the most impact today. At best, our understanding of the changing situation must evolve our previous notions of ‘solutions’. At most, there is a need for new thinking, completely new ways of understanding the shifting systems and horizons.

As we hurtle through these shifting complexities, we have to build the future we want around us, rife with ambiguity and uncertainties. We have to iterate our ‘spaceship earth’ around ourselves—for our future selves—and hope that what we build can navigate the steepening predictions of a changing climate.

We have to build a rocket ship for steepening change.

Front cover of booklet

Interaction designers, with our ability to think systematically, our optimism for making better futures, and most importantly, our toolbox to rapidly prototype in existing contexts—to work with on foot in the realities of today, and one foot in our vision of a future—interaction designers can be a key support to building this rocket ship for steepening change.

Driving through the smoke of the Chetco Bar Fire in Oregon, on a vacation back to the US that was sandwiched between Huricane Harvey and Huricane Irma, I started an email. That email turned into a more personal book for the leadership of CIID, a starting point to generate conversations. The ideas here are not new. They are inspired by too many thought leaders and authors to list. Together, they frame a way in which actions could be seeded, something that can continue to grow as the issues, and CIID itself evolve.

Side view of booklet

The short booklet is composed of five main sections: Philosophy, Awareness, Skills, Practice, and Hygiene.


Set a clear trajectory for ‘Life Centred’

The shift to ‘life-centred’ is a crucial step forward for CIID. It mirrors trends in other fields, rejecting what Jeremy Rifkin describes as the latest empathic revolution in human consciousness—extending our empathy to the biosphere.

How we interpret this term, ‘life-centred’, will drive business development with partners and shape projects and courses across CIID. It is a signal that will be most powerful when clearly articulated and backed by a bulwark of doctrine.


Infuse deep knowledge of the complexity

As a domain, climate change is unconditionally complex with deep roots and ever evolving conversations across physical & biological science, economics & business, governance & society, and technology. There are entire conversations happening outside of CIID as many actors try to understand the moving issues and devise ways forward.

For our contributions to be effective we, as a house, need to be aware of these conversations and have an informed perspective. Entering into this domain is like jumping onto an incomplete rocket ship and then building it as we move up the steepening curves of change. It requires a CIID-wide infusing of basic climate knowledge and a continuing deepening of our expertise as the situation continues to evolve.


Build capacity as cutting-edge mutagens

Interaction Design already fuses methods across graphic design, product design, qualitative research, programming, business and storytelling. We educate our designers to be, at a minimum, fluent with the terminology and aware of each practice’s strength. The true magic happens when teams can effectively combine skillful mastery of these practices to achieve creative problem solving.

The shift to ‘life-centred design’ necessitates a further evolution of our skills and tools. Environmental issues straddle ecological systems and long-term social change. We must draw from these fields and intertwine methods and skills to add to our repertoire, in the language of Carlo Ratti, making us more effective ‘mutagens’—or agents of change. Good starting points include systems mapping, impact assessment, life cycle thinking, modeling and forecasting, statistics, and sustainable materials.


Focus our practice on areas of acceleration

Our knowledge and skills will be most effective when applied to areas that amplify radical system change, opening new value for our partners.

  • Area 1: Support partners that will be active participants in a low-carbon and climate-resilient future.
  • Area 2: Work on projects that directly shape radical new systems.
  • Area 3: Explore and visualise new futures.
  • Basics: At a minimum, any project should lightly incorporate (1) future climate predictions during research and opportunity framing, and (2) life-cycle thinking during the ideation phase to develop concepts with reduced impact (ex: nudge sustainable behaviours or material choices).



Reduce our own hotspots

Applying ‘life-centred’ thinking to our design practice requires us to ‘eat our own dog food’ and apply this thinking to our operating practices as well.

Undergoing an analysis of our operating impact can help identify hotspots—areas where we have the largest opportunity to reduce impact—and enact strategies and changes in our practices. It empowers CIID to transition our own business into a low-carbon and climate-resilient future.

Undergoing such a process is an educational opportunity to understand best practices, and provides additional business value by raising our credibility and boosting respect from partners.

Internal pages of book

Each section showed how engaged CIID is currently in this area, and I proposed one possible first step with additional actions that could build and grow our thinking and impact. Ideally, one of the next steps is to generated new actions and strategies with the wider CIID community, as well as getting their input to iterate and clarify the overall thinking.

As a personal exercise, this was a fun challenge to place a positive spin on how CIID can have a stronger climate theme in our work. At the end of the day, however, this is simply a glorified email. For any lasting change to occur, there needs to be much more effort to align stakeholders, build ownership and ideas through a bottom-up process, and ultimately invest budget and staff time from the top.