Design + Sustainability: Interview with Paula J. Ehrlich

In this interview with the MIT Morningside Academy for Design, the Foundation’s President and CEO, Paula J. Ehrlich, interrogates the meaning of designing for sustainability. Why, how, and for whom to design when thinking about the planet? How can design enable collective action? How to leverage data to achieve better designs?

“Data-driven design lights up information in ways that we might not otherwise see, but I also allows us to reimagine how we do conservation.”

Video Thumbnail: Jade Chongsathapornpong
Learn more about the Half-Earth Project Map here.

More: Q&A on Design + Sustainability with Paula J. Ehrlich

In order to understand the role of design in your conservation work, could you start by explaining what “design” means, according to you? 

Design is the way that we are able to engage people in complex information – not just organizing it in a visually interesting way, but in a way that captivates, allowing audiences to understand and connect with information in a way that they maybe haven’t before.

The Half-Earth Project calls for protecting half the land and sea to safeguard biodiversity. What would you say has been the role of design in bringing this vision to life?

When people first hear about the Half-Earth call-to-action – to protect half the land and sea in order to safeguard the bulk of biodiversity – they ask, “Which Half?” The Half-Earth Project Map is the way we engage people in what that could look like, what that would mean in their lives, and why they should care. When we first began to imagine the map, it was about making information come to life. The creative way we use design to help bring the Half-Earth Project to life is the seed and soul of our work.

The Half-Earth Project Map is a significant tool in your work. Could you discuss the design principles behind this map and how it informs species protection efforts?

The design of the Half-Earth Project Map is, first, informed deeply by science. There are thousands of layers of geospatial information about species, where they are, and what places are therefore most important to their global conservation. This sort of information, when layered with information about carbon co-benefits, where human activities are, and existing conservation areas, helps us understand how well we are doing and what network of places should be prioritized for conservation.

As someone who has led initiatives related to imaging biomarkers and clinical trials, can you share insights into how scientific and data-driven design can contribute to informed collective action?

Data-driven design lights up things you might not otherwise see. When we use imaging biomarkers in cancer research, we see whether drugs are reaching their target, effecting the intended mechanism of disease, or perhaps responding earlier than traditional imaging would allow us to see. You don’t have to wait six months to determine if a tumor is responding to treatment, you know right away and have the opportunity to switch to something else that may be more effective.

I think, in the past, when we’ve made decisions that have a negative impact on the environment, it’s not because we have been spiteful, but because we didn’t fully understand the impact our decisions would have on the environment. We didn’t have the right information, at the right scale, to truly inform decision-making. We need first to understand how life is organized – genes, species, ecosystems – and then explore, discover, and learn as much as we can about them to identify the network of places where we have the best opportunity to safeguard the most species. Remember, if we only protect the places and species we know – our favorite vistas and charismatic megafauna – we could perversely increase extinction in the places that we don’t know.

So, in the same way that a surgeon can’t do surgery without an intimate knowledge of anatomy and physiology, knowing every single species, and their location, is fundamental to being proper stewards of the planet. Imagine if that was the textbook of our understanding of the world, the collective lens through which we saw the world, and design was the engagement tool that brought it to life.

Half-Earth brings together individuals from various disciplines. How would you say design facilitated cross-disciplinary collaboration and thought leadership?

I once asked E.O. Wilson how we could bottle that transformative moment that often occurs in nature when we are young – when we become next generation stewards of something we feel inextricably connected to. And he said, “I don’t know, but I think it has something to do with a campfire.” That campfire is our common humanity, the place we stare into and find something of ourselves that is shared by others. The beauty of that is perhaps captured, replicated, in design. It’s what captures our imagination and connects us. It is something that speaks the same language across silos of disciplinary expertise.

What advice would you give to young designers interested in climate and sustainability?

Well, I’d start first with E.O. Wilson’s words, because he’s usually right, and that’s worth paying attention to. In Letter to a Young Scientist, he said, “First and foremost, I urge you to stay on the path you’ve chosen, and to travel on it as far as you can. The world needs you – badly.”

And I’d advise them to pay attention. Know that in this moment, we will increasingly expand our understanding of our world, the way things are connected, and work together to support our lives and the interconnected web of life that we are part of. There will be increasing ways that we can connect that scientific information to action through design. Pay attention. Live, work, and study in a way that supports a Half-Earth future and share that story through your work.

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