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Vision from Within: from the Micro Self to the Macro Whole

by Benny Ding Leong 10.11.2003 (School of Design, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong, China)

Abstract:
Discussions of sustainability are often carried out objectively and rationally in terms of the macro
whole. Subjective discussion about everyday people as micro individuals is often unnoticed.
Based on the theme “from within”, three overlapping but mutually related analogies are proposed to
articulate a possible world vision.
1. Humans as seeds represents the very root of sustainability.
2. Humans as plants signifies the predictive growth of society.
3. Humans as fruit denotes the nourishment of an emerging future.
To get to the root of the problem of sustainability and a sustainable world ideal, one must
investigate the inner self in daily life.

Key Words:
Sustainability; cultural design strategy, co-creation, Chinese culture, vision of future

I) Vision
New Spaces, Conviviality, and Life-amassment
An alternative vision of the world includes three aspects.
1. Living in new ‘spaces’
Imagine cities that are infused with new spaces; spaces that relax the hectic pace of our everyday lives
and cleanse our spirits and souls, like the apparent blank spaces of Chinese paintings that contribute
substantially to the wholeness of the intended meaning. New spaces here are interpreted as a fusion of
‘Greening’ and ‘Time’…
… imagine an organic, invigorating city with vegetation everywhere. The city is full of
green islands of various kinds, with organic allotments and Chinese gardens of various sizes
surrounded by small rivers. These green islands are linked to residential islands with bridges
on which people leisurely stroll. Every now and then a couple of bicycles shuttle back and forth
in the meandering small road … Without the intrusion of unwelcome, harsh technologies
(except manual devices or solar powered lighting system), life has become leisurely with the
uplifting influence of the greenery and bird song … The greening of the environment is no
longer treated as a remedial post-act of the construction of cities; it is the philosophy of holistic
being of this new world …
2. Creating ‘Conviviality’
In a convivial (1) society, people are no longer satisfied with passive consumption. The convivial society
encourages and helps collective individuals to “make things among which they can live, to give shape
to things according to their own tastes, and to put them to use in caring for and about others (Illich
1999).” The convivial society is an act of art and enriches the ultimate being of living by means of
participatory creations that fuse social and economic, production and consumption activities into one.
… the city is also full of artistic auras, especially at the rims of the green islands, with small
arts and crafts booths selling a great variety of household items. Solar cars, furniture, digital
equipment and pottery can also be found. Each of these booths highlights its own unique
artistic style and invites co-creation to attract customers. Though prices are generally more
expensive than products produced by big corporations, these booths attract a growing number
of customers as they provide numerous innovative, interesting schemes and after-sales services
including packages of co-creative and co-productive designs that allow participation by
customers, open forums on philosophy of art and design, free training on repair and
maintenance, and free membership of arts and crafts clubs, etc. This signifies a new age of the
oneness of arts-based social and economic, producing and consuming activities…

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3. Nurtured by ‘Life-amassment’
Knowledge can be learned but wisdom has to be amassed with time. We cannot lead a purposeful
and meaningful life without realizing the meaning of our existence. The envisioned world should be
enriched and nourished by cultures and amassed wisdom of the past…
…there are many traditional arts bodies in these green islands. They work like an open
museum of arts and crafts with areas such as the poetry corner, the calligraphy and
painting courtyard, tea room, gardening pavilion, Tai Chi park, Qigong health path, etc. …
Many elderly people volunteer as tutors in these traditional arts and crafts corners to
contribute to society, whereas young people are eager to learn traditional culture to
uplifting themselves. The study of poetry, prose, and songs become a favorable non-
material consumption for people of all ages … Traditional culture is not seen as irrelevant
and far-fetched, and it is reabsorbed into daily lives and provides a spiritual uplift for every
walk of life…

In my view, a better world can only be developed and realized when micro individuals are morally
cultivated and rectified. This will require patience and time to nurture. Hence, the vision above is
proposed to advocate the initiation of the natural environment as the ground for nourishment, rich
and profound human-based culture as nutrient, and the promotion of an artistic co-creation
economy and society as the supportive framework. Altogether, we would see a healthy growth of
the ‘human tree’ (our civilization), where life would be transformed from the extreme of the
materialistic to the well being of the spiritual.

II) Motivation
‘Factor 10’ Transition and the need for a Cultural strategy
The motivation for formulating the vision above had two cognitive aspects.
1. “Factor 10” Transition
To transform from the present widely diverging world of 20/80 (2) to an ideal society with the goal
of achieving a low-consumption rate of factor 10, it is highly possible that we will undergo two
critical phases of transition (see Illustration 1).
a) Phase one: This may appear in the next 10 years (approx. in 2012) when developing countries
are at the peak of their industrialization (e.g. 20% shift to 60% consumption rate)
and developed countries have just shifted to service-based economies (consumption
rate remain at 80%). The consumption volume is highly likely to exceed the
bearing capacity of the world’s ecosystem (result in 140% environmental load).
This is expected to be the most severe test for humankind since civilization began.
b) Phase two: This is estimated to appear in 2022 when the annual growth rate of the
world’s population will drop from the present 8.4 percent to 6.4 percent. With the
aging population, the consumption rate will drop together with the productivity
rate. The world’s economies will drastically shrink.

Illustration 1: Forecast of the transition phases of the low-consumption goals of “Factor 10” in the next
22 years.

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2. The role of Culture in sustainability
Apart from the promoted concept of Sustainability, which highlights mostly the aspects of
‘environment’, ‘economy’ and ‘society’, there is an urgent need, in view of the two critical
transitional phases above, to develop a strategy of design for sustainability that is driven by
‘culture’. Long-term study of traditional Chinese thinking about creation revealed to me the
importance of locality specific and culturally specific approaches to sustainable design.
There are two main aspects of a culture driven strategy of sustainable design.
• Making use of local culture: this relates to the horizontal dimension of a culture –
community groups and human resources.
• Value re-creation from traditional culture: this relates to the vertical dimension of a
culture – the deposits of ethnical and traditional wisdom.
These two aspects are parallel and not in conflict with each other. However, culture (especially
traditional culture) needs recognition, reservation and revitalization for any possible further
application.

People from different regions have different understandings and interpretations of their local
cultures. For example, From a Chinese perspective, my interpretation of ‘culture’ is as follows:
“Culture means ‘humanized system’, which also means ‘Ideology’. It is the thinking of a set
of cultural systems that embraces the dimensions of the vertical and horizontal, the
traditional and societal. The predicament of production and ecological imbalance faced by
the world is the certain outcome of the alienated development of the subjective ‘Ideology’.
Therefore, the culture-driven sustainable design strategy advocates the re-adjustment of
human culture and the value judgments embedded therein, including the temperance of
over-expanding human desire and reframing the understanding of the relationship of man,
material and nature. Driven by a ‘humanized system’, we are hoping to make the
‘technological system’ and ‘natural system’ normalized and sustainable so that a real
balance can be achieved for the entire ‘Neo-Ecology’. (3)”

This culture-driven sustainable design strategy comprises the following three major points.
a) Nature-based – based on the thinking of 2 kinds of traditional Chinese natural philosophy:
i) Symbiosis of Nature and Humanity
The cultivation of ‘Ideology’ among individuals and society through the natural environment
with an emphasis on helping individuals and social groups to nurture a sense of close affinity
with nature. It also advocates the re-learning and construction of a new and sustainable
‘technological’ culture based on the exploration of the ‘natural system’ of ecology.
ii) Nature is Natural
Respect for the evolution timetable of gradual change and accumulation of a ‘natural
system’, and to relieve the mental tension of modern humanity’s urgent demand for instant
results.

b) Human-based – Emphasis is placed on the value of humans, including the double meaning of
humans as individuals and groups.
i) Humans as Individuals
Seeking richness in spiritual life by elevating one’s quality in the realm of culture and arts.
This advocates an inner morality of self-awareness, ‘self-temperance’, and ‘contentment’.
ii) Humans as Groups
Advocating the social structure of small organizations and small groups (4). Emphasis is
placed on treasuring the wisdom and experience that is amassed by the elderly and
strengthening the ties of communication between generations. Through group activities that
feature self-sufficiency and low-consumption, a new social fabric and economic system will
be constructed.

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c) Culture-based – to advocate the co-existence of past (old) and present (new) cultural practices.
This means the capacity to allow the parallel application of contemporary cultural practices (e.g.
cyber-culture) and traditional experience and wisdom (e.g. Chinese herbal medicine and dietary
nutritional therapy) so that the two extremes can supplement each other in innovative cultural
design strategy.

III) Methodology
From Micro Individuals to the Macro Whole
Discussions on the concept of sustainability often cover three inter-related areas: the ‘environment’,
‘economy’, and ‘society’. Mainstream debate of this kind is often remote, rational and objectified. It
is so detached from the individual’s deep felt emotion and daily experiences that it is deemed out of
touch with the fundamental sense of humanity.
In fact, sustainability is not an objective issue because it is hidden in each organic being on earth
(including humans), and is fundamentally desirable for every living creature. Therefore, as human
beings, as individual living beings, it is perhaps more relevant to begin the discourse of
sustainability from the standpoint of our micro self in relation to the macro social environment. I
employ three overlapping but mutually related analogies as the origin for the projection and
formation of a possible world vision.

1. Humanity as ‘seeds’ – what does our daily life reveal?


Our daily lives and the experiences that we gather every minute, whether from internal cognition or
external social interaction, reveal a series of unhealthy encounters:
• overwhelming connectivity and information overflow that take up a huge amount of our
time;
• unexpected calls and messages from mobile devices at various point of time and space that
exhaust our mental energy;
• newspapers that fail to enrich one’s thinking or knowledge, and TV advertisements that are
full of pompous and repetitive ideas that bewilder us;
• vibrant images and videos that assault us everywhere we go;
• promotions and advertisements that encourage us to spend, spend and spend on our credit
cards for bonus points; and
• never ending talk about what’s “IN” and what’s “OUT” of style.

Using the analogy of individuals (humans) as receptors (seeds) that are filled with the alienating
daily practices described above, we germinate and spawn the following kinds of culture and social
phenomena.
a) Speedified Life: The hasty rhythm of life and the overloading of information have
contributed to a extremely distorted and imbalanced state of modern life. Drifting images
and superficial and nihilistic lifestyles have hindered society from the formation of
“quality” culture, further prohibiting the sustainable growth and development of society and
local culture.
b) Diversified Vagueness: There is a drastic increase of new gadgets and phenomena as well
as information, from consumer products to artistic items. These are mainly repetitive
industrial productions wrapped with stereotyped packaging. Daily consumption focuses on
“quantity”, or look and form; it is deprived of a cultural depth and value. The over
development and expansion of visual media and the rapid decline of textual media (5) have
pointed to the crisis of the spiritual vagueness of modern life.
c) Consumable Future: Changes and innovations are considered trendy. There is an over-
statement of the concept of advancement. We have forgotten how we can learn from the
past. In fact, we are in the age of “Learn to Forget”. Driven by a highly materialistic and
consumptive culture, a kind of nihilistic lifestyle that emphasizes “the present being made

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in the future tense” has emerged, revealing the common attitude of “harvesting the future
crop ” (Woo 1995), “spending future money”, and “living it for today”.

The above phenomena reveal the hidden hurdles that a civilized society must negotiate during its
pursuit of sustainable development. These spawn mainly from the individual, who feels the stress,
emptiness and depression of life and transfers it to an obsession of ‘materialistic consumption’ to
achieve a psychological balance, leading to a severe imbalance between the ‘material’ and the
‘spiritual’ in daily life. These kinds of adverse development are slowly spreading from individuals
to society as a whole, as the trend toward efficiency and high consumption results in alienation
among society members.
To achieve a balanced sustainable society and culture in years to come, one’s ‘spiritual’ life has to
be elevated, and hence the cultivation and normalization of sustainable ‘Ideology’ is deemed
essential.

2. Humans as ‘plants’ – Where are we heading?


Like plants, humans, as organic beings, need to grow; so do societies. We may foretell the
developmental path of human civilization in the near future by projecting our physiological
progress. From the standpoint of the generation born in the 1950s and 1960s (the ‘baby boom’ era),
one can certainly predict a ‘Maturing Society’ in 20 years time. This conjecture can be proven
statistically and philosophically.
a) The Aging Population
We have been warned that the human population will age in the later half of the present century
(UNS 2003). As a result of the advancement in biological and medical technology, the average
human life span in the year 2050 will be an average of 14 years longer than it was in the 1950s.
Coupled with the fact that birth rate is declining (6), it is predicted that the elderly population (aged
50 or above) in 2050 will account for more than one-third of the world’s population. Due to cultural,
biological, and physical factors, women will account for three-quarters of the elderly population. It
is estimated that one-third of these elderly women will need to live alone after the deaths of their
companions. Due to a decline in physical strength coupled with a gain in wisdom and sophisticated
thinking, they (meaning also ‘us’ in the future) will be inclined to search for a more spiritual life and
delights that comfort the soul. Most people talk about the problems of aging society, but we should
see the positive side of it in terms of the future development of sustainability.

b) Toward Artistic Living


According to E. Cassirer, mankind has six different categories of cultural embodiment, namely
Myth, Religion, Science, History, Language, and Art. On this basis, another Chinese academic
Wenyi Ju has further deduced the diverging routes yet converging goal of the West and the East in
the ultimate path of evolution, that is ‘Art’ (7). The evolution of an entire civilization is similar to that
of an individual. For example, during childhood, an individual’s development is mainly related to
the ‘body’ (eating and physiological growth is most important). Similarly, at the very beginning of a
civilization, the development of agriculture and social systems is most important. When an
individual reaches adulthood, bodily growth is complete, thus transferring the focus of the growth to
the ‘mental’ (intellectual and spiritual). The same can be observed with civilizations today as
knowledge-based economies and creative industries are being explored and developed. ‘Art’ will
become a common cultural symbol jointly developed by all societies. Proof of this is emerging. For
example, in Japan, there is increasing emphasis on promoting industries as cultural and artistic
engagements (Ekuan 1995); and in the USA, academics have pointed out the importance of
nurturing arts and culture to reinvent the realms of science and economy (Florida 2002).

3. Humans as ‘fruits’ – The Container of ‘Seeds’ of the Future


The future of a possible society, like ‘seeds’ that are hidden in the core of ‘fruit’ (containers of
various emerging cultures), await recognition and discovery to become the mainstream practices of
the future.
However, can we foresee how this new, possible society will take its form? Inspiration can be drawn
from two emerging consumptive ideologies.

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a) A Consumptive Culture of Co-creativity
According to various academic and non-academic surveys that have been conducted overseas in
recent years, consumers have shown an increased desire to participate in the production of products
for self-consumption (Ray and Anderson 2001, Florida 2002, Sanders 2003). One of the
explanations is that over the past century, the tools (industrial tools) that we once relied upon for the
improvement of lives have gradually taken away our pleasure of producing things. As a result, the
satisfaction of simple daily lives has been steadily eaten away by the general increasing volume of
consumptive behavior. A transference of consumptive behavior can be noticed in recent years, from
a ‘Consumptive Mindset’ of pure shopping, buying, owning, and using to a new ‘Creative Mindset’
of doing, adapting, making, and creating (Sanders 2003). Although most commodities are still
restricted to ‘personalized’ product services that include just insubstantial ‘changes’ in colors or
patterns, it is predictable that a new economy and consumptive behavior patterns that signify the co-
creative and co-productive relationship between users and manufacturers will soon become the
norm. This is driven by the individual’s growing desire for creative participation and the advanced
interactive information and technology of responsive manufacturing.

b) The Undercurrent of Anti-systematization


The other consumptive transformation that is happening nowadays is the questioning of production
based only on quantity. People (particularly knowledgeable ones) have great vigilance and
cautiousness over institutional bodies such as transnational corporations (TNC) (8) and the immense
virtual power of the Internet (9), which have bred the ‘zero-time’ competitive culture. The anti-
globalization movement in Europe in recent years, with environmental groups directly confronting
transnational enterprises, has revealed a great sense of hatred on the part of everyday people
towards the monopolization of mega systems. All around the world there is an emerging number of
small enterprises such as family-run eateries, shops, organic farms, and so on. There is a possibility
that we will see greater polarization emerging from the confrontation between organic ‘non-
systems’ as exemplified by numerous self-sufficient economic entities and the ‘systemized’
transnational enterprises.
The future could develop in various directions, and what happens depends on micro individuals,
especially those who could be the most influential. With regard to the design profession, the task is
seen as a great challenge.

IV) Conclusion
The Future Role of the Designer
With all these thoughts and aspirations for a better future, what kind of role should designers take?
Here I offer some of my initial thoughts.
• The major roles of the designer in the near future are to create new spaces, enable the
conviviality of artistic activities, and to nurture culture amassment.
• The designer’s responsibility is to provide cultural frameworks in which everyday people
could fill in the ‘content’ of life.
• The process of design should become more open for participation by users.
• Designs should be culture-centered, and life experience should be explored by people in
their own daily lives and not as designated by external actors.
• The practice of micro-interference ‘experience design’ should not be promoted.
• Designers should learn how to design less by using the original environment and cultural
resources as much as possible.
• Designers should think from the perspectives of common people, and should always be
aware that the creativity of common people is rich and excellent.
• We should learn modestly from mass culture, as well as from the legacy of traditional
culture that was passed on by our predecessors.

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• We have to understand and perceive our environment and nature both rationally and
intuitively.
The greatness of the world and the unforeseeable future is seemingly out of our control. However,
as designers and micro individuals not only can we transform society with positive actions, but we
can also try to influence others by exerting temperance and cultivating moral principles.
It is often said that children are the masters of the future. However, in 20 years’ time the world’s
population will be dominated by us, our elderly generation, who will carry much of the
responsibility for sustaining and paving the way for a better world.

Note:
1) Radical theorist Ivan Illich identified 2 kinds of tool; the ‘convivial tool’ and the ‘industrial tool’.
Unlike industrial tool, ‘convivial tool’ “allow users to invest the world with their meaning, to enrich
the environment with the fruits of their visions, and to use them for the accomplishment of purposes
they have chosen. (Illich 1999)”.
2) 20% of the world’s population (mostly in developed countries) is consuming 80% of the world’s
resources.
3) “Ideology” is an integral part to the concept of “Neo-Ecology” advocated by the author (Leong
2002). “Neo-Ecology” refers to an interactive organic system made up by a group of systems
including the natural system of “Ecology” or called “the First Nature” (also “Primeval-Ecology”);
the system of “Technology” or called “the Second Nature”; and humanized system (also cultural
system) of “Ideology” or called “the Third Nature”. This complex of interactive organic system of
“Neo-Ecology” has replaced the “Primeval-Ecology”(the First Nature) as the world’s new reality.
“Ideology” is a crucial part deciding the future development of the entire “Neo-Ecology”.
4) This was followed by traditional China until 1950s. Traditionally China’s development is based on
small agricultural economies. There are altogether 3 million villages and more than 1500 counties
and towns. Villages are made up of family units with blood relationship, whereas counties and towns
are made up of self-sufficient neighbour units. Be it in villages or in towns, they are composed of
small community groups. In fact traditional Chinese culture lacks awareness of the concept of
society, which is of greater scale and systemized.(Lau 1989)
5) In “Endangered Minds”(1990), Jane Healy mentioned a research report by Dr Benice Cullinan. The
report stated that American youngsters spent in average 130 minutes daily on watching television,
whereas reading did not take up more than 5 minutes of their time.
6) According to the same demographic survey of the United Nations, the world’s average birth rate in
1950 was 2.4, whereas by 2050 the average birth rate will be 1.85, a decrease of nearly 25%.
7) According to Taiwan academic Zhu Wen Yi, the evolution path of Chinese culture is myth – history –
language – art, whereas for the West it is myth – religion – science – art (Ju 1995)
8) Kanniah, Assistant Director, regional office for Asia and the Pacific of United Nations’
environmental projects, pointed out that the total power of transnational corporation has already
exceeded the economy of all nations. They are therefore capable of casting great impact on the global
environment. (Kanniah 2002)
9) Legal academic Sunstein of Chicago University considers the Internet as promoting individualism
and the credibility of information circulated on the internet is doubtful. The personalized information
being encouraged on the internet has not contributed to the accumulation and sharing of knowledge
and experience (Sunstein 2002).

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