Table of contents


This document is an edited version of our successful bid to AHRC/EPSRC made on 6th April 2006
Designing for the 21st Century Research Project Grants – Phase 2

Benchmarking Synergy Levels Within Metadesign:

''Devising International Standards that Encourage
A More Joined-Up Approach to the Way We Live''

Planned Outcomes

  • Book (single authored)
  • Book (co-authored)
  • Journal article (refereed)
  • Website
  • Interactive website
  • Book (edited)
  • Workable Benchmarking System for Synergies
  • (to be delivered to the UK Government's Communities & Local Government Office (external link) in 2009


  • This project represents a timely, novel, and practical approach to an urgent and important problem.
  • Although its ambitious aims may bring some risk, the stakes are high.
  • If successful, it offers enormous benefits for the design professions, and for society as a whole.
  • One of the greatest challenges to our survival in the 21st century is the possibility of environmental disaster.
  • In order to make the economy more co-dependent with the eco-system we need a more ‘joined-up’ society.
  • We therefore advocate a switch from specialist ‘eco-design’ practices to a more collaborative, shareable discourse across the design disciplines.
  • We envisage a synergistic enterprise culture in which designers orchestrate different types of knowledge within a common professional framework.
  • Up to now, eco-design has been marginalised within a wasteful market system in which designers are educated to uphold the status quo.
  • However, ‘design thinking’ represents enormous untapped potential.
  • It works more contingently and holistically than the bureaucratic discourses of government.
  • Design thinkers could make a valuable contribution at a higher level of organisation.
  • They could, for example, design complete living styles, .
  • These might also include design for economic currencies, healthcare systems, and other enterprises for the 21st century.

Building on Previous Experience

  • During 2005 we developed tools for facilitating networking among designers and with other disciplines.
  • Our EPSRC/AHRC-funded research enabled us to create and exchange complex knowledge using a superset of design practices that we call ‘metadesign’ (c.f. Galloway and Rabinowitz, 1983; Acott, 1994; Giaccardi, 2005).
  • We see this as a way to integrate basic practical synergies with less tangible synergies that might be encountered at the ecological, economic, aesthetic, and other levels.
  • Our international team of (fourteen) experts included pioneers from many fields
  • E.g. Architecture, design philosophy, design management, design research, engineering, economics, eco-design, mathematics, medicine, theoretical physics, etc.
  • After a year’s work we believe that the right combination of synergies can deliver eco-mimetic outcomes.
  • These may resemble what Fuller (1975) described as a ‘synergy of synergies’.

Research Questions

  • This research embraces a radical approach to a single challenging question.
  • How can designers best address the problems of climate change, reductions in biological diversity, and pollution of the natural environment?
  • During the next two years we will ask whether ‘metadesign’ can begin to provide answers to the first question.
  • Secondly, we will ask whether a quest for collaborative modes of ‘synergy’ might work better than the more specialist approaches such as ‘eco-design’.
  • Although the term ‘metadesign’ has no commonly agreed definition, it has practical potential because it can reconcile all of the specialist sub-disciplines that make up the generic practice of ‘design’.
  • ‘Synergy’ is equally important because it represents a more positive and attractive alternative to discourse of sustainability.
  • Since the 1990s, it was a buzzword within business and management culture.
  • Unfortunately, definitions by experts such as Buckminster Fuller (1975) and Peter Corning (1995) were too diffused and generic to be very helpful.
  • In developing useful definitions we will also seek to make complex ‘synergies’ more definable and measurable.
  • If we can devise suitable ‘Benchmark’ levels, industry would be able to audit its synergy levels within a realistic social, cultural, ecological, and commercial framework.
  • Obviously, this raises subordinate questions that we must also address.
  • We have published a provisional set of (four) orders of synergy (Wood, 2006) that may help us elicit, monitor, map, and maintain different types of synergies within a single framework.
  • We will interrogate orthodox design and ask how we may achieve a closer and finer-grained discourse, across the different specialist professional practices.

Our Research Context

  • Some designers believe that it is not their job to solve social and environmental problems.
  • Others suggest that homo sapiens itself needs re-designing.
  • Certainly, mankind’s tendency to value immediate gratification before shared, or long-term advantage (Hardin, 1968) can be seen as an almost insuperable problem.
  • However, if, as it is claimed, 80% of the environmental impact of today’s products, services, and infrastructures is determined at the design stage (Thackara, 2005) we may agree that designers have failed to live up to their full potential in regard to the above problems.
  • Since the 1950s we have tried to create a ‘sustainable’ world by ‘reforming the environment’ (Fuller, 1969), reducing the scale of enterprise (Schumacher, 1973), or creating biodegradable, longer lasting products.
  • However helpful they may be, attempts to inform designers about the ‘best practices’ of Eco-design (e.g. Datschefski, 2001; Fuad-luke, 2005) have failed to stem the growth of a global economic system that threatens our shared well-being.
  • Global carbon emissions are rising steadily, and bio-diversity continues to fall.
  • It is the scale of our collective failure that provides the main backdrop to this research.

  • Although we understand more about our damage to the eco-system (e.g. ‘Ecological Footprint, Wackernagel & Rees, 1996) this knowledge has failed to transform the way most designers practice.
  • Indeed, some designers regard the pursuit of ‘Eco-Design’ (e.g. Mackenzie, 1997) as worthy, but economically risky, or ‘un-designerly’ (Macdonald, 2003).
  • Ironically, some ‘green’ products may offer false security and therefore encourage new markets and a net rise in consumption.
  • Fortunately, some researchers have tried to see the whole cycle from production-to-consumption as a sequence of opportunities for sustainable business (Hawken, Lovins and Lovins, 2000).
  • In this scenario, use and re-use may become a ‘zero-waste’ process (Murray, 2002) or a system that can be (meta)designed from ‘cradle-to-cradle’ (MacDonagh, 2002).
  • However, despite attempts to emulate nature (Benyus, 1997), ‘de-materialise’ products (Diani, 1992) or make them leaner (Stahel, 1982), cleaner, slower, service-based (Manzini, 1994), designers in the 1980s became resigned to working with, rather than against market forces (Burke & Elkington, 1987; Dewberry, 2000). Unwittingly, we have helped to create a society driven by over-consumption and waste.

Research Methods

  • Unless it can operate at a much higher level it is very unlikely that eco-design will tame an economic system designed for limitless growth.
  • We therefore need to create synergies at the material level and to integrate them within a trans-disciplinary approach than is more positive than that of ‘sustainability’ (c.f. Brundtland, 1987).
  • In our research we concluded that eco-design should become more entrepreneurial, ‘joined-up’, and better costed at the macro-level of society and Nature.
  • One of our (Phase 1) consultants, eco-architect, Bill Dunster, spoke of the difficulties and triumphs in launching his famous zero-carbon ‘BedZed’ project.
  • Certain methods, developed by our research colleagues such as Drs. Kvitash, Fairclough and van Nieuwenhuijze are able to map the reciprocal relations within a complex system such as ‘BedZed’.
  • Their methods derive from biological and ecological theories relating to organisational systems, (e.g. Maturana & Varela, 1991) medical theories (Kvitash, 2005; Von Nieuwenhuijze, 2003), management methods (Belbin, 1993; Adizes, 1991; Fairclough, 2005), and psychological research (Maslow, 1943).

  • In year one we will develop the above methods them by applying them in case studies.
  • The popular acceptance of a need for economic growth has encouraged us to devise an approach that appeals to ‘efficiencies’ (i.e. resembling ‘synergies’) rather than restraints.
  • We will explore the opportunities that are implicit in the history of certain political and technological changes.
  • We are especially interested in those that offer more de-centralised design activities such as ‘Copy-Left’, ‘Open Source’, ‘Share-Alike’, ‘Creative Commons, ‘Group Thinking’, ‘pledge-based activism’ and other social enterprises.
  • Some of this work can be informed by autarchic industrial practices (c.f. Semler, 2005) such as ‘worker autonomy’ (Fairtlough, 2005).
  • It will help us to evolve and nurture our ‘knowledge ecology’ network.
  • We will also look for established ways in which design adds synergy to existing systems. It will vital to explore multi-layered approaches.
  • Whilst some synergies can deliver practical, material outcomes, others must work to attract participants and engage them, say, at the phenomenological level.

  • Previous research has shown that many consumers still find terms such as ‘sustainable consumption’ (UNEP, 2006) confusing, inconsequential, or counterproductive (Wood, 2002).
  • ‘Sustainability’ arguments are popularly perceived (i.e. in subjective cost-benefit terms) as a ‘lose-win’ scenario (Wood, 2006).
  • In place of ‘sustainability’ arguments, we believe that a lattice of mutually enhancing synergies would be more effective, and appealing to ‘users’.
  • In theory, metadesign can turn vicious circles into virtuous circles.
  • However, the ability to do this reliably may take some time to perfect.
  • Simple synergies are well understood.
  • Their uses are well documented in traditional studies of metallurgy (Fuller, 2000), chemistry (Polanyi, 1969), and engineering (Jones, 2005).
  • However, applying the same principles to metadesigning is unlikely to be straightforward because social, cultural, ecological, or aesthetic synergies are less quantifiable and predictable than their mechanical counterparts.
  • Complex systems can become sub-optimal or even self-defeating. (Fuller, 1975; Corning, 2003). *Some elusive and intangible synergies may therefore hover on the edge of chaos.
  • If so, they may even be affected by the participant’s state of mind.
  • This raises new practical, political and philosophical questions for metadesigners, who might try to ‘seed’ the conditions for optimism and positive consensus within the process of ‘co-design’.
  • Our research will therefore explore the practicality of methods for cultivating ‘luck’ (Wiseman, 2003), ‘happiness’ (Cziksentmihalyi, 1991), or ‘beneficial memes’ (Wood, 2003; Spring & Wood, 2005).

  • For all the above reasons we have identified our basic building block of synergy as a ‘win-win-win-win’ scenario (Wood, 2006) because it is optimally mnemonic (Fuller, 1975), unique (Euler, 1752), and non-hierarchical (Fairclough, 2005; van Nieuwenhuijze, 2005; Wood, 2005) when mapped using a tetrahedron.
  • If each of its four nodes is used to represent a ‘winning’ player, it is clear that there are six peer-to-peer relations.
  • Whereas ‘win-win’ refers to a mutually beneficial partnership, our notion of ‘win-win-win-win’ can be applied to the mutually beneficial relationships among a metadesign team, in addition to possible benefits to the surrounding context within which they are working.

MANAGEMENT Roles and relations

  • Whereas the Administrator will ensure that resources are properly managed and utilised, the Principal Investigator and the Co-Investigator will guide the process of research and to take ultimate responsibility for delivering the agreed outcomes of the project, including dissemination and publications.
  • They will normally meet with the full-time, post-doctoral Research Assistant every week, or more frequently, if required, to ensure the effective monitoring and management of tasks and schedules that are necessary to ensure the success of the project. There will be four teams of consultants whose main task is to generate relevant data that can be delivered to the Research Assistant.

Four Teams with Different Cognitive Styles

  • Pushing Doing~~ coordinated by ~~#339933:Hannah Jones
  • Languaging~~ coordinated by ~~#CC9933:Anette Lundebye
  • New knowing~~ coordinated by ~~brown:Mathilda Tham
  • Envisioning~~ coordinated by ~~#000066:John Backwell
  • Each team will work mainly in one of four distinctly different organisational styles.
  • These range from the highly intuitive, spontaneous and somatic to the analytical, critical, and deliberate.
  • Each operates as a ‘cognitive filter’ that complements the other three.
  • The system also reflects four levels of complexity that are embodied within their characteristic roles.
  • The roles are specifications for the four semi-autonomous, non-hierarchical groups.
  • They enable specific behaviours and roles to facilitate creative exchange at different levels of ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’.
  • They also represent 4 arbitrary levels at which synergies can be harnessed in different ways.
  • Where, for example, the ‘Pushing and Doing’ group might explore the synergies of, say, engineering systems that regulate energy usage
  • The ‘Envisioning’ group is likely to interrogate the way that an organisation’s ‘brand values’ are re-imagined and shared within the organisation.
  • Where the ‘New Knowing’ group might explore the less intangible synergies of, say, the atmosphere of a room in terms of its interior design, the ‘Languaging’ group may monitor and facilitate the values, terms, and conditions within which communication and transactions are conducted.
  • Acknowledging the links between the groups ensures that six relations and twelve perspectives are considered within the whole system.
  • In order to ensure that this process is effective at the political, practical, managerial, economic, and ecological levels, we will invite relevant viewpoints from experts in design education, co-design, co-authorship (c.f. Nieuwenhuijze & Wood, 2005), design management (e.g. Cooper & Press, 1995), design theory, design research, complexity theory (c.f. Waldrop, 1992; Stacey, 2001), knowledge ecology (Star, 1995), wisdom ecology (Philogene & Wood, 2002).
  • Where appropriate we will also use role-play (Hellinger, 1998), performance workshops (Laban, 1947), and dialogue circles (Bohm, 1983) to enhance metadesign practices.

Our Weekly Meetings

  • Each team consists of one coordinator plus two others, each maintaining regular (at least bi-weekly) face-to-face discussion with one of the other three groups.
  • In this way we ensure that the twelve ‘internal’ consultants can work in small groups (four) whilst maintaining a ‘knowledge ecology’ network across the whole team (16).
  • At least every six weeks there will be a meeting of all of the consultants.
  • All consultants will also be trained to participate in a weekly videoconferencing session via Skype’s ‘Festoon’.
  • One semi-private, and one larger, public conference will be managed each year, to ensure that researchers and consultants can renew their working acquaintances.
  • Additional consultants (beyond the 16) will be involved ‘by invitation’, either ad hoc, or via one of our 2 colloquia or 2 international conferences over the two years.
  • These will include members of the ‘Designing for the 21st Century’ projects (‘Designing Complexity’) and previous members of our Phase 1 group who live far away from London.
  • Findings will be archived digitally as WP, MindMapping? and other documents whilst also being posted onto the project’s (Wiki) web site, which was designed for collaborative authorship.
  • The key deliverables in year two will be the development of closer strategic alliances at the local, national and international levels.
  • Our work is directly relevant to initiatives such as the Communities Plan Sustainable Communities: Building for the future (2003), the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and the Academy of Sustainable Communities.

These, and other appropriate agencies will help us to discover how designers might begin to (meta)design whole styles of living.
By the end of the project we expect to have workable benchmarks for synergy evaluation.

Our research (2005) produced the following publications:

  • 5 ARTICLES in “Landscape and Urban Planning”, An International Journal of Landscape Ecology, Planning and Design, (Elsevier):
  • Douthwaite, R., (2006), “Increasing Global Synergy”
  • Jaros, M., (2006), “Towards re-definition of space-ness in the post-mechanical age: Methodological notes”
  • Jones, P., (2006), “Modelling the Environment in Cities”
  • Jones, H., (2006), “Sustainable Future Cities: How can Re-evaluating the Potential of Awkward Spaces in the City lead to a Creative and Sustainable Urban Design of London?”
  • Wood, J., (2006), ‘The Synergy-City; planning for a high density, super-symbiotic society”

  • Nieuwenhuijze, O., & Wood, J., (2006), “Synergy and Sympoiesis in the Writing of Joint Papers; anticipation with/in imagination” International Journal of Computing Anticipatory Systems, edited by Daniel M. Dubois, published by the Centre for Hyperincursive Anticipation in Ordered Systems, Liège, Belgium, Volume 10, pp. 87-102, August 2006, ISSN 1373-541 (at press – 11,693 words)
  • Wood, J., (2005), "(How) Can Designers Learn to Enhance Synergy within Complex Systems?", conference paper, 'DESIGNsystemEVOLUTION' conference in Bremen, Germany, March 2005
  • Wood, J., (2005) “The Tetrahedron Can Encourage Designers To Formalise More Responsible Strategies”, for the "Journal of Art, Design & Communication", Volume 3 Issue 3, Editor, Linda Drew, UK, ISSN: 1474273X


  • Wood, J., (2006) “Designing for: Micro-Utopias”, Ashgate, UK

This will contain 2 chapters deriving from our research – (at press)


  • (2006), “Towards a Synergy of Synergies”, EPSRC/AHRC funded colloquium, Design Council, London, 21st March, 2006
  • (2005), "Tools for Introducing Synergy into Metadesign" EPSRC/AHRC funded conference, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 17th and 18th November, 2005
  • : (2005), "How Can 21st Century Design Become More Synergistic?" EPSRC/AHRC funded conference, Laban Centre, Deptford, London, 30th June and 1st July, 2005
  • : (2005), "How Can Design Synergy be Sustained in the 21st Century?" EPSRC funded conference, BedZed? Centre, Beddington, Surrey, 1st and 2nd March, 2005


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