Regenerative Design Manifesto

For four years I lived in a small village in the land of the one of the few unconquered indigenous peoples in the world.  There, in the Cordilleras of the Northern Philippines, I was confronted by the profound and thriving self-sufficiency of the Igorot people’s ancestral ways.  I was also struck by the insanity of capital driven designs and products.

Sure, that flashlight might shine great, and it’s plastic casing may fit ergonomically into my hand.  But, how well does it serve my community if after a year, the chemicals and metals of its discarded carcass have no where to go but to contaminate the land and water?

We live in a world where everywhere we look, every where we go, we are surrounded by capital-driven designs.  From plastic forks to concrete homes, each is designed to fulfill a purpose, and… make someone money.  The assumption is so entrenched in our world and surroundings that we take it for granted, and slowly but surely, the profit purpose has become more and more part of industrial design.  And why not?  After all, someone needs to turn a profit to keep the whole system going.

Right?

But it wasn’t always so– in other cultures (like that of the Igorots) where profit was not prime, buildings, forks, tables and chairs used to be designed entirely for their fundamental purpose, utility and well being.  Forks and buildings had longevities measured in centuries.  Curiously, the creations of our own age, aree discarded after a few years or even months.  Alas, with industry and manufacturing such concepts as ‘disposable’ ‘one time use’ and ‘planned obsolescence’ have been cultivated in the pursuit of capital.  Where once design was about creating pure solutions,  capital-sustaining-design (i.e. sustainable” design) has turned everything around us into eventual, inevitable, problems.

Today, with the detritus of capitalism washing up on beaches and clogging rivers and fields, we live in a unique context of crises, problems… and yet, opportunity.  I believe we can not only do much better by removing capital-generation altogether– we can solve our planetary problems.   My designs are first and foremost about regeneration– the transformation of what from one perspective is a problem, and from another, a transcendent opportunity!

First, we must get the right principles in place.

Inspired by my time amidst the Igorot people, I see clearly that far too many designs have one-way linear destinies—from the factory, to the consumer, to the dump-site, to their polluting grave.  In the Igorot culture their is no concept of waste.  There is not even the word for “trash” in the Igorots Kan’ka’nue language.  Everything, from tools to packaging to bags, recycles into something else, or biodegrades.

By thinking of the next life of a creation we can create indefinite circles of use and re-use.  By using local materials that are globally consistent, we can start co-creations that organically optimize designs. By working with the principles of the mandala we can ignite local mobilizations that spread globally. These designs can then get to the very root of the biggest challenges of our age.  Together we can rework dead-end lines to circles, transmute problems into solutions and regenerate gray to green.

Hand made solar backback made from rainforest rattan and coke bottles using the ancestral weaving traditions of Barlig and Sagada, Coordilleras, Philippines.

In contrast capital driven designs are often designed to fail and become waste after a specific period of time.  These dead-end products, though a travesty, are also an opportunity for the regenerative designer.  With creativity and intention, they can be re-worked into healing, cradle-to-cradle, circles.   My passion is not just up-cycled design, but inspired by the Igorots, designs that have their next life, and the next, and the next, built right in. In this way, we can design circles of locally regenerative utility.

We live in a unique time.  There are now a vast array of such ‘trash’ materials (i.e broken flashlights, coke bottles, bottle caps) available freely and consistently around the globe. These raw inorganic materials are the fertile ground for locally based, globally connected, collaborations.  Since a Coke bottle is virtually the same in Central America as in Asia, a design in one region can transfer to the next.  Because “trash” is by definition free and in abundance the design and the creation process are open to all.  The less specialized skills, machinery, tools or money involved, the wider and faster the collaboration spreads.

A view of the Suwong dumpsite where Bali’s waste ends up– there is simply no other place for it to

Even better, we can use these inorganic trash resources to point towards deeper regenerative solutions– designing using 100% organic resources.  Such materials as bamboo and rattan are biodegradable and the pinnacle of cradle-to-cradle.  From here we can delve back to almost forgotten ancestral organic creative traditions (such as weaving, basket making, etc.) that philosophically, are far more evolved and advanced than any modern day factory.

A simple mandala made from diamond cut used clothing in the village of Guina’ang in 2012. A mandala made in Guina’ang village, Northern Philippines with school children. I have orchestrated collaborative mandalas of all kinds and have been deeply inspired by the power of the process.

By working with the principles of the mandala, these design movements can then spread organically and virally. In Tibet, a group of monks will work together in silence to craft a mandala from grains of colored sand.  The mandala would be crafted around a specific, well considered intention:  perhaps a blessing for a new temple, or a call for peace.  After a prayer, the monks would work from the center outwards. Because a mandala unfolds in a coherent geometric pattern, each monk can sense intuitively where next to add to the pattern.  As the mandala expands, additional monks can then join in without any need for speaking– the coherence of the circular geometry is such that it is clear where one can join in, and contribute to the unfolding.

By designing collaborative intentions (rather than static products and objects) following these principles, we can tap the vast co-creative potential of a united movement.  Using globally consistent ‘trash’ as the building blocks, folks around the world, can share the same developmental intention.  A mandala of collaboration unfolds.  Through the innumerable trials and errors of the collaborators, an ideal design begins to unfold that no one person could ever have imagined on their own.

Tibetans at work making a sand mandala.

Tibetan monks, as they worked, already knew what would happen to their mandala once complete. After completion it would sit for several weeks, then, the mandala would be swept up and the grains of sand, imbued with their prayers and peace, would be scattered into rivers and streams and flow out to the world.  From the get-go, the end of their co-creation was built into the beginning.

Let’s design like this!  Designs that sing with harmony.  Designs that make the earth greener.  Designs that bless, both at at their beginning– and their end.

More of my writing on Mandalic Collaboration and Regenerative Design Philosophy



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Russell is a regenerative designer and inventor based in Bali, Indonesia.  He is one of the leaders of the Ecobrick movement in Indonesia and the world.  Inspired by the principles of the mandala and his time amongst the Igorot people he works to implementing deep, trans-formative innovations.  You can read more in his Regenerative Design Manifesto or follow him on Facebook and Steemit:

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