Belonging as a Universal Design Principle: Bioneers 2017

As a behavioral scientist, it’s always inspiring and affirming when others get to the lowest common denominator and it’s behavior change. It happened last week at the National Bioneers Conference, where professionals from disparate specialties such as permaculture and political science converged on strategies for habit change as a crucial design principle.

I’ll discuss two conference sessions here, and share with you why I got so darn excited! And, let me say right now, any errors are my own – and likely due to my heightened state of inspiration. Nonetheless, the similarities between the models, approaches, and even examples really struck me. It all comes down to human behavior and habits. Really.

The first session was entitled “Breakthroughs in Global Regenerative Design: Implementing Solutions for the Earth and People.” Joel Glanzberg, applied naturalist at Regenesis, spoke eloquently about how we build and design projects and solutions in opposition to how nature does it. As an example, he spoke about cracks – when nature designs cracks, they are usually to nurture life, such as a seed sprouting, or an egg hatching. When humans see cracks, we jump to seal them. Nature is more about process, whereas humans plan out and build structures. We tend to identify something that we consider broken or “bad”, and then repair, replace, or remove it. By contrast, nature embraces everything and everyone as part of the solution – everything and everyone belongs. 

Glanzberg outlined a model for how to improve humans’ problem solving paradigm, which is either to Activate something or Restrain something. He added a third dimension: Reconcile. This is a more inclusive approach, in which we view the “problem” as the solution. For instance, plastic bottles found in the waters of a pier were collected, wrapped in large “socks” and used at flotation devices for a floating wetlands project. A second example he gave was of local people tracking, locating, and stealing sea turtle eggs. To include these people as the solution, a project paid the same people to use the same skills (tracking and locating) to find and protect the eggs, so that baby turtles could make it to the water. In essence, this approach is like aikido, where we take the energy that is already present, and transform it into something for the better.

For climate change, we would think about what climate change is good for – how might we use the extreme events, high temperatures, and other symptoms for the betterment of all life? This would then lead to a generative brainstorm of solutions, such as using excess carbon dioxide to grow more algae, trees and other plants, and so on (putting on my design thinking hat here).

Tapping into shared values, Glanzberg said, is also critical, and in order to change the world, we need to change the pattern of human behavior. This is where social norms, social movements, and belonging come in. To change norms and be inclusive, we are to focus on relationships and consciousness, foster resilience, and create a process for constructing projects and solutions that includes and empowers local people with necessary skills, so they belong to and identify with projects that sustain nature and people.

One of the provocative memes that was circulating at Bioneers this year, signaling the need to create a completely inclusive circle of concern, a collective "we."

One of the provocative memes that was circulating at Bioneers this year, signaling the need to create a completely inclusive circle of concern, a collective “we.”

In the second session, “Reclaiming Belonging: Is Resistance Enough?” John A. Powell, Director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley and a deliciously gentle and wise speaker, also described a model with two standard approaches for political organizing: Othering and Saming. Othering means using divisive tactics, creating “us” and “them” through exclusion, while Saming means to assimilate people who are different into the dominant group without including their diversity. Therefore, Professor Powell explained, Bridge communities use empathy and inclusion and practice Saming, whereas Break communities rely on fear and anger, and practice Othering. The third alternative is Belonging, which would create a collective “we,” a circle of human concern, that excludes no one. To do this, we would need to focus on empathic listening, engagement, organizing, and loving each other through suffering and hardship.

Professor Powell gave two examples that were moving. The first entailed him giving a speech on the Affordable Care Act to a room filled with white men. He began by asking his audience how many had experienced failures in insurance due to common reasons, and to stand if the reason applied to them. After mentioning two reasons, the whole room was standing up, symbolizing the experiential solidarity in the health insurance paradigm. A second example: when Professor Powell walked up to four white policemen, who regarded him, an aging black man, with apprehension. Professor Powell broke the ice by thanking the men for their service. The policemen responded by relaxing and asking him more about who he was. These examples illustrate how powerful belonging is – we are wired to belong and be in community.

Professor Powell also discussed how narratives can be configured to motivate inclusivity. In particular, it’s important not to think of the villain as evil, but to use the villain to show the threats of not having an inclusive “we”. It follows that a good protagonist would showcase the benefits of an inclusive “we”. So, culpability resides with the villain, and responsibility rests with the masses. However, as Professor Powell’s panelist and colleague Jonathan Smucker, Executive Director of nonprofit Beyond the Choir pointed out, narratives are complex, asymmetric, and playing out simultaneously, so they can be difficult to navigate. Moreover, exposing and implementing the truth, which is the goal of social movements, is not the same as a communication strategy or an analysis, so it’s important to remain inclusive of all stakeholders, and refrain from a good and evil or us and them framing.

Essentially, Professor Powell outlined a very similar approach as Glanzberg: focus on human relationships to change the pattern or norm of divisiveness and destruction to a paradigm of inclusiveness and co-creation, resulting in solutions that are better for people and planet. The problem is the solution: and humans are, as Glanzberg so eloquently said, designers of disturbance. I would add: we are accelerators of change, and accelerating positive change is now our greatest calling.

I have summarized these approaches in the table below to show how similar they are. Now, keep in mind I’m comparing one of several approaches in each of these fields (regenerative design and social justice politics), so there’s plenty of room to explore more synergies.

Global Regenerative Design Projects Social Justice Movements Intention or Goal
Existing Strategy 1 Restraining Othering Suppressing and dividing
Existing Strategy 2 Activating Saming Using and assimilating
Recommended Strategy Reconciling Belonging Including with differences

My takeaway is that collective, regenerative human behavior, in alignment with human and the planet’s needs, is our best solution to climate change, racism, and other ecological and political ills for an approach that advances personal and planetary wellness. Tell me if you agree or disagree, and why. I want to learn from your perspective, and evolve the conversation. 

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