Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 110, June 2012

Capability literacy

In the 1990s ecologist Fritjof Capra coined the term “ecological literacy”, or ecoliteracy, as the ability to “read” and understand natural systems. For Capra, to be ecoliterate would mean to understand the organization of ecosystems, and thus help create better conditions for sustainability. Design is the human ability to shape flows of matter and energy, which deeply affects ecosystems, and thus an ecological literacy is of key importance if we are to design a more sustainable world.

But what happens if we also take human ecologies into consideration? And especially a capabilities approach, examining the abilities of people, what they can do or be? What if we take a systems approach to designing capabilities, just like ecoliteracy would? If, just like Nobel laureate Amartya Sen suggests, we should move from focusing on commodities to instead focus on capabilities to understand human well-being; that is, what one can do and be, we would have to look at the dynamics of context and systems. In such endeavour Ecoliteracy may help us with some basic parameters. As Ecoliteracy is a literacy of ecological systems which help us turn from individual parts to relationships, connections, and contexts, a literacy of capabilities may take similar points of departure.

The basis for Sen’s capability approach is how we come to realize human “functionings”. These functionings are our basic beings and doings, such as general health and safety, a job and income and self-respect. Yet all functionings are set in social and environmental relationships; they do not happen in isolation but in systems.

Take for example the difference between starving and fasting. The functioning of fasting, or being on a strict diet, is significantly different from starving. That is because fasting, unlike starving, involves a choice to not eat despite the presence of food. Such a choice happens in a context systems; of laws, social commitments and regulations. Yet still the subject is exercising an ability to pursue a valued goal. The subject has the capability to exercise this freedom.

Capabilities can be exercised only in certain environments, what we could call “ecologies of practice”. My internal capabilities, my talent, education and skills, can only make sense in an environment where the external capabilities support me, where they form a system or ecology that allows my skills to be actualized. Thus an ecological perspective on capabilities may help us better trace the relationships between our internal and external capabilities, and help us better understand how to shape or integrate our design into ecologies of practice.

As in Ecoliteracy, we should shift our perception from parts to the whole, contents to patterns, or from commodities to the context in which these act. A bicycle does not make much sense if the roads are too dangerous to be out biking on. Another shift is that from objects to relationships. The object is not a set of self-contained characteristics, but dependent on the surrounding relationships. A new sports bike may be perfect as long as it works, but as soon as some small part needs adjustment, and I have no skilled mechanic around, the whole bike turns useless. Whereas we usually think of systems as a form of rigid structure, Ecoliteracy suggests us to rather see systems as a process, a continuous evolution of relationships which change together with the surrounding environment. As patterns of living, lifestyle and commuting shift, so does also the role of the bike. Thus the bike and its relationship to the surrounding city may clash with the fixed structure of street grids and traffic rules.

Let’s structure these thoughts according to the six ecological principles of Ecoliteracy proposed by Capra, but draw parallels from ecology to a design perspective on the capability approach:

Just like all members of an ecological community are interconnected in a vast and intricate network of relationships, our abilities happen in a “web of capabilities”. They are interconnected yet our interventions in them often cut the passages and properties, cutting off or making us bound up by relations which are not supporting our ability to make informed choices or developing to our full potential. We may be fettered by complex technical or juridical structures, limiting our action spaces.

Ecologies in nature are built up by multi-levelled structures of systems nesting within systems. An individual termite is dependent on a rich ecology of bacteria in its stomach, which can break down the wood it eats. But the termite is also dependent on its colony, and the colony on its surroundings. Each of these systems form an integrated whole within a boundary, but it is simultaneously a part of a larger whole. My skills of repairing the bike are nested within my body, and in systems of tools, mechanic standards and global trade of parts. But also in systems of culture such as the local social acceptance of me using a bike. And these systems continuously feed into each other.

Interactions between the members of an ecology are shaped by the exchange of energy and resources in continual cycles over time. What is waste in one system is food in another, fuelling new cycles. Shorter cycles intersect with longer ones, and in different scales, from the local to the whole planetary biosphere. My immediate capability to make a choice now is also inserted in a longer cycle of public behaviour and values. If we want long-term change we may have to “be the change” at this very moment.

From an ecological perspective, all organisms are open systems, living from a continual flow of energy and resources to stay alive. Also my capabilities spread and move on through the “ecology of practice”. I inspire, set example and teach others. Our abilities move through the social as we imitate others or are driven by our desires.

All members in an ecology interplay and coevolve, yet this may happen in different speed and cycles. There is a continuous adaptation and development between organisms and environment. In a similar vein, our skills evolve in relation to our surroundings. For example, the skills of repair have been discouraged in the general western economy as stuff has become cheaper and repaired objects have been regarded as second grade. Yet today other vales are emerging, such as sustainability and autonomy, which once again make repair an important skill, but for different reasons.

As all ecological cycles act as feedback loops, ecological systems regulate and self-organize, maintaining a state of dynamic balance. This balance is not a static equilibrium but is characterized by continual fluctuations. One division of labour, or a condition of society, may seem stable, but can be ineffective, disempowering or unjust, limiting the capabilities of its members and may thus rest on a very unstable balance.

Capra’s six ecological principles may act as a frame of reference or design guide for evaluating how designs can enhance capabilities, especially the external relations of how capabilities relate to the surrounding systems. If we as designers not only turn from primarily dealing with commodities, but also capabilities, these six principles may act as a point of departure for a literacy, or even a sensibility of capabilities. Such an “aesthetic of abilities” could be a way to put a critical light on how designers may deal with a capabilities approach to design.

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