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On Feb. 21, bow-tie wearing architect William McDonough spoke at Neeb Hall as part of the School of Sustainability’s Wrigley lecture series. His presentation, “Cradle to Cradle Design, Education and A Future of Abundance,” was nothing short of inspiring. McDonough, who is renowned in the worlds of design, sustainability and entrepreneurship, spoke with insight and passion despite being hushed by a cough.

His unique approach of combining fundamental design strategies and elegant, ultra-efficient structures optimizes our use and experience of them and eliminates waste altogether. Stepping outside of his firm, McDonough + Partners, McDonough has also worked with chemist Michael Braungart to create and consult on projects that go a step above reducing the negative environmental impact of human activity.

The main point of McDonough’s lecture was to encourage thinking about how to creatively put the earth’s abundance to use and enjoy it. He said we shouldn’t be complacent with being simply “less bad” in terms of reducing resource use and producing less carbon dioxide emissions. As an example, he pointed out that we are squandering the infinite energy of the sun and suggested innovating how we capture it. He also shared that as an architecture student, he thought about how he could design houses to be as self-sustaining as trees, which store water, produce their own food, absorb excess carbon and shade themselves.

Overall, McDonough believes reducing our footprint is good. It’s not the whole story for him, though. Instead, he wants to see us embrace the holistic workings of nature and explore the fact that we have a footprint.

“Being less is not being good, it’s just being less bad,” he said.

The prospect of McDonough’s clarity of design thinking would be equally delightful outside the world of architecture.

As all of us know too well, our nation is in the midst of an intense struggle among powerful, financially fueled extremist ideologies. We have seen how fierce arguments have stalled important economic decisions or have distracted us from the core of social issues. We have witnessed weekly crossings of the boundaries of respectful, intelligent deliberation into vicious personal attacks. Our current political structure isn’t working.

The basic method of design thinking is not arrogant enough to assume it knows the answers, whereas both liberal and conservative politicians can be accused of preaching they exclusively know the solutions to our nation’s problems as they exist in each of their complex situations. Designers must be aware of what they need to do in each individual project. They pay close attention to complexity of the site, work only with what they know and admit they simply aren’t in control of everything. They focus on the unity that can exist in nature and built environments, overcoming division. This is where politicians fall short.

Designers present their responses to these factors as a sensitive reflection on what is and what needs to be, not a proclamation of what is definitively right. Every successful building is wonderfully unique in form and function.

Politics exist to help us find the best way to ensure equal opportunity and access to the abundance of life, and it also seeks to protect us from deprivation and abuse of any system, including its own leadership. They can produce structures that are beautiful and effective, but we have let their own construction fall into terrible disrepair.

We can redesign politics, and we can be in love with the process of finding solutions as much as McDonough is.


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