Take a moment and imagine this scene:

You are standing on the sidewalk of a quiet street, looking up at the blue sky on a bright sunny day.  It is late spring and birds are chirping around you. Flowers from your garden are in full bloom.  The morning dew has evaporated from the leaves of neighboring fruit trees, no longer glistening from the verdant blades of tall grass in the meadow at the end of the street. It is heating up and the afternoon is nearly upon you.

Oh, and it’s the year 2050.

Assume that the Earth has continued spinning on its axis, day after day, year after year. It has kept making its yearly journey around the Sun on the same invisible arc it has traced throughout the eons.  The Earth hasn’t been consumed in fire or blown to smithereens.  What has become of the human race?  How did we manage all those crises earlier in the century?  Did we avert climate disaster?  Were we able to make the transition to a sustainable ecological model for our planetary market systems?  Did we survive and thrive?  Or flounder and collapse?

This little thought experiment is no academic exercise.  We are living through the middle of the ecological crisis right now.  As I type these words.  In this very moment.  The threats and opportunities are very real.  The collective outcomes of our actions today, tomorrow, and in the next few decades are poised to determine our fate.  I want to suggest in this article that the only way humanity transitions to a state of planetary thriving is through intentional design of culture.

My case is simple:

  1. There is a convergence of crises in the world today — as we push beyond planetary boundaries, placing all future generations at risk.
  2. The timeframe to achieve transformative change is short.  We have to transition our energy systems, food production, urban design, and more — all in the next 10 to 20 years.
  3. For all our progress in the last few decades, we simply aren’t getting there fast enough with the current mix of approaches.

Every part of this is about the design of culture.  It is now well documented that cultural systems operate according to the principles of evolution.  Societies are complex systems with many interacting parts, ever changing and always adapting to new environments.  What is not well documented — yet — is the basic truth that all of the pieces are available right now to integrate what we know about cultural change into a rigorous and comprehensive design science.

Culture design is the application of design principles to systematically evolve a social system. It’s a means of changing social behavior through collaborative efforts among individual people, across organizations, and sectors of society.

Desired outcomes include lower crime rates, greater levels of creativity and innovation, reductions in conflict that lead to greater cooperation through peaceful means, equality and justice for all regardless of race or creed, and economic stability that supports widespread prosperity.

In prior generations, culture design might have gone by labels like social engineering or public policy. The reason I chose the new name is that it frames the focus on design thinking that promotes a directional change in cultural features that align with desired outcomes. This makes explicit that culture design builds on and incorporates all manner of design practices that have come before.

The task I have undertaken as my mission in life is to meld these separate domains into a coherent and fully synthesized design practice.  For more than two decades, I have worked across disciplines seeking patterns of convergence that paint a picture of the cogent whole.  Among the sciences that contribute to culture design: anthropology, the social sciences, complexity research, linguistics, cognitive science and behavioral studies, computing, ecosystem modeling, earth systems, network analysis.  Domains of professional practice include marketing, public policy, economics, business management, organizational behavior, user experience design, education, and more.

The synthesis of these different fields is now possible.  We can truly engage in the intentional design of cultural evolution.  I have seen it done.  Historic examples include the rise of consumer culture in the mid twentieth-century with the advent of public relations and marketing.  The strategic growth of “innovation clusters” in regional economies. Peaceful integration of tribal groups into regional and global markets through economic interdependence.  All of this has been demonstrated in one place or another at massive scales.

Similarly, in the smaller and more localized contexts, we have figured out enough about early childhood development to design effective pedagogies — promoting emotional, social, and intellectual growth in the classroom.  We have grown community gardens, launched businesses for the sharing economy, healed traumas with therapeutic practices for those scarred by disaster, and much more.

What hasn’t been done is to map the idea landscape of culture design, organize it into a coherent set of practices, and deploy it into the self-organizing pathways of cultural evolution that are at play right now in the world around us.  That is the task we must now undertake if we are to make the transition to sustainability.  I have started this project, with seeds planted on my website, Change Strategist for Humanity.  As the new editor for the culture section here on This View of Life, my goal is to engage researchers and practitioners on the forefront of culture design.

In the weeks and months ahead, I will conduct interviews, share new research findings, explore the tools and techniques in current use, and host dialogue about the many intricacies and unresolved learning opportunities of this burgeoning new space.  It will be a pleasure to delve into the issues with all of you.  We have much to learn together and time is short.

Sincerely yours,

Joe Brewer

Editor, TVOL

Published On: December 26, 2014

Joe Brewer

Joe Brewer

Joe has three bachelors degrees in physics, mathematics, and interdisciplinary studies and a masters in atmospheric sciences. He is a complexity researcher, innovation strategist, experience designer, and serial social entrepreneur who brings a wealth of expertise to the adoption of sustainable solutions at the cultural scale. Among his notable achievements are the creation of an undergraduate degree program in Earth Systems, Environment and Society at the University of Illinois and design of new collaboration protocols for strategic communications among European NGO’s with WWF-UK and Oxfam, Great Britain. He was an active member of the Center for Complex Systems Research from 2001 to 2005, where he studied pattern formation in self-organizing systems. He was a research fellow at the Rockridge Institute in 2007-08 analyzing political discourse in the United States. He contracted with the International Centre for Earth Simulation in Geneva in 2010-11 to help build a globally-focused high performance computing facility dedicated to holistic simulations of the dynamic Earth. His experiences as a social entrepreneur and cross-disciplinary scholar weave together a combination of skills dedicated to open collaboration, interactive design, and empowered civic action for catalyzing change toward greater resilience in our turbulent world.


  • Geoff McNeely says:

    Joe, this is wonderful news! This is a much-needed framing of our current experience. I am encouraged to see the results of your research and to also participate with you in the intentional design of business ecosystems that flourish communities. You are seeding the change we want to see in the world and that is a wonderful thing.

    Everyone out there: join Joe in creatively applying intentional design to everything from your next app to how you build sales funnels, to your business DNA itself! Create Teal B-Corps that serve all of humanity and join us in a rising tide that lifts all people to thrive.

    • Joe Brewer says:

      Hey Geoff,

      Yes, intentional design is both a mindful perspective and a practical tool kit. Excited to co-create purposeful companies and organizational cultures with you in the months ahead!



  • Tom LaForge says:

    Love the ambition and look forward to being a part of the conversation. Lots swirling around: 1) Next week I am at the NRC’s Roundtable on the Application of Social and Behavioral Science Research – this would be a great topic for that group. 2) while most of what people do already in marketing, gov., religion can be said to be “a means of changing social behavior” we need to careful with this term. Behavioral Economists are getting a lot guff for wanting to create paternalistic nanny states. 3) reminded of Ursala K. Le Guin’s sci-fi book The Lathe of Time which explores the philosophical issues that arise when you (we) can indeed change the future. 4) Finally, clearly you’re much more well-read than I on this subject but allow me to throw in Christopher Ireland’s Rise of the DEO, Leadership by Design.

    • Joe Brewer says:

      Hey Tom,

      These are excellent points and additions to the discussion. We will definitely want to explore design leadership, behavioral economics, power structures in political and economic systems, and more in future installments. Very important!

      Let me know if I can help bring this conversation to the NRC’s Roundtable (or any future event you get the opportunity to participate in). I will contribute to a workshop hosted by the Evolution Institute in March where we will explore the applications of cultural evolution principles and research tools for addressing societal issues. Quite a lot of overlap, to be sure.

      Very best,


  • Tammy Lea Meyer says:

    Joe Brewer! Thank you so much for your work. I am inspired by your approach, and would love to participate in culture design!

    A bit about me: I’m a media experimentalist, community organizer, and a concerned citizen. I’ve been exploring the edges of personal agency, and see the need for a ‘we the people’ approach to the development of our collective story.

    It’s common sense. And there is definitely a demonstrated need for this approach to collaborative culture design and development!

    I would love to have an idea jam, both one on one and with other thinkers in this space.

    Thanks again, Joe, for your insightful article, and your passion for the work. It is inspiring, and absolutely necessary.


    • Joe Brewer says:

      Hey Tam,

      Thanks for dropping by! I hope you’ll sign up for future essays about these topics. We’ll be diving into many different ways that complexity science, cognitive science, and cultural evolution shape how we study social issues and — more importantly — how we apply design thinking to address them.

      Very best,


  • James Sherry says:

    We have the science to arrest climate change; we have political systems that can do anything they damn well please, and we certainly have seen that recently; but we don’t have the will to change. Will is as much a product of culture as it is individual desire, so it is heartening to see you all working in this direction. The approach to PR (Bernays) through social media seems like a strong starter, but useful underlying cultural biases are not transparent: how we think about ourselves, how we think about our surroundings (social & non-human), how we understand hierarchy (binary risks, etc.), and how we create channels for cultural change all have to be programmed with flexible alternatives before we launch any campaigns. Good luck and congratulations on getting down to it.

    • Joe Brewer says:

      Absolutely, James. We have the technical abilities — and the various organizational models, collaboration tools, and cultural attributes — for making the transition to planetary resilience. They are well mapped out and understood within their respective fields.

      One of the tasks before us is to integrate them into a coherent perspective and offer frameworks for culture design that make them as usable as possible.

      On the topic of public relations and marketing, there is a great deal of “best practice” research in cultural anthropology and cognitive psychology for strategic communications. Bringing knowledge like this into the social change world will help us evolve the cultural narratives and social norms toward more conducive outcomes.


  • Brian Bellinger says:

    It IS simple Joe, as you inadvertently pointed out. And that is the key to intentional design. It’s not rocket science. The principles of sustainability need to be taught from an early age, and it must start right away. I could ask every high-schooler on our campus here (and it’s a high brow top boarding school), and I could say without question not a single kid in 350 or so would get it…(I have asked dozens already, including teachers and staff. Every single person only mentioned the environmental aspects… I’m creating a survey for the end of the year for everyone, maybe you’d like to see?)

    The answers ARE right in front of us, we have the tools, the information, and the means to accomplish this extraordinary feet. You all have described what I learned to be the most valuable tool in our arsenal to achieving global sustainability, knowingly or not. We’re like the half-dead Architecture student, who just pulled an all-nighter, and is wandering around studio looking for his pen… only to realize it’s in his hand.

    As a web/design/marketer in the reclaimed wood business I learned that the power to influence people to buy lies within your ability to inspire them. You have to connect with them. (This is not rational. Science is rational…) It’s a feeling. The most effective way to do that, I quickly learned was with a story. I was pretty good it turns out. I was just telling the wrong story! And I was inspiring the wrong people.

    In Architecture, the best intentional design is self-explanatory, so you don’t even need to explain your idea really, as long as it’s all drawn out on the boards with diagrams, sections, plans, etc.

    First, define the problem. Then, why it’s a problem. And finally, how you are going to solve that problem.
    “Design to your intent!” my professor would say, the one idea, or message. Once it is defined, every subsequent step in the design should follow that goal, and it would be easy, if you picked a good definition that is.

    Connectivity was an often-explored idea throughout many student projects, though impossibly difficult to execute it turns out. Here’s why: it’s a feeling. It’s really, really hard to design a feeling! Or draw it. You need inspiration to connect. Hmmm…

    A space that is intended to connect with nature, for example, has so many design elements to account for, and each must speak to the intent. And if they do not all work in unison to speak to that intent, your argument goes right into the trash bin. It’s confusing to the critics; they become uninterested, angry, or just don’t believe you. FAIL. Sound familiar?

    The most powerful advocate on the planet to inspire the cultural change we desire, and need, is the storyteller. They are now called brand innovators, digital marketers, and creative designers, and I am one of them.
    Most people think sustainability is green, or eco-friendly. And they’re tired of being tricked, and told to sacrifice, and that we’ve got to save the planet!

    Sustainability needs a new brand identity, and some passionate, powerful storytellers to take the stage to represent it. I’m working on finding ways to do that here in Millbrook, NY at the local level. I’m researching funding options to contract on behalf of sustainability outreach groups, non-profits, government groups, you name it. The resources are there, we just need to re-organize a few things. Mainly, small-business, the drivers of innovation. They know how to operate on the cheap, and would jump to become more profitable if we could get them to trust us. Once business owners all realize its not a hoax and it adds dollar bills to the bottom line, whoa buddy! Hold on!

    (We could start with the USGBC, who has claimed in their mission statement to be responsible advocates of sustainability and lead by example. They could change their name. Ditch the green. That’s leading by example! Give sustainability one definition… yeah right!)

    Because as it turns out, not everyone is convinced about the benefits or the definition of sustainability (least of all the owner of a reclaimed wood company, he is old though!)
    So? I’ve made a change, it was incredibly difficult to do, but I was inspired. And I’m betting I can get others to do the same by practicing sustainability, telling my story, and inspiring a cultural change.

    “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the one’s who actually do.” -Steve Jobs

    a designer who’s passion to make something better than good, happened to be what people wanted. (He didn’t invent anything, just re-tooled it into something sexy for the consumers! that’s marketing…) There’s other people like me, and they’re doing this right now. Science does a good job progressing and understanding many things, it has not however learned how to speak to the masses, or understand what they want! That’s for advertising, still….Help me out here, stop looking for answers, stop talking like this… “how we create channels for cultural change all have to be programmed with flexible alternatives before we launch any campaigns. Good luck and congratulations on getting down to it.” (sorry James)

    The channels are there. Now we just need to find someone who can use them. You have connections! Way more than me I bet… someone who can inspire. A storyteller, with a lot of twitter followers!

    Now that I found you, I’ll be back tomorrow! Tah Tah

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