Billions of dollars are spent each year by corporate marketing departments (Laya, 2011), public relations firms (Booz Allen Hamilton, 2014), government agencies (The Minerva Initiative, 2015), and nonprofit organizations in attempts to change social behavior and tackle complex cultural issues.  All of these efforts are attempts at “culture design”—applying some kind of design thinking that culminates in changes to social norms and cultural practices (Brewer, 2015). And yet these efforts are seldom integrated with the scientific study of cultural evolution, either conceptually or methodologically.

We are now entering a precarious transition for humanity—for the first time in our history, planetary limits have been reached (Rockstrom, et al., 2009) and economic growth (as it has been practiced up till now) threatens our very existence if we don’t change our dominant cultural paradigm (Klein, 2014).  The great challenge of this epoch is planetary stabilization.  New categories of systemic risk accompany globalization (Goldin & Mariathasan, 2014).  Ocean acidification, resource depletion, rising sea levels, loss of top soils, build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  These are among the ecological components.  Add to them extreme wealth inequality, global poverty, systematic violence against women, the debt crisis, and structural instabilities in global finance—to get a sense of what we’re up against.  Will humanity garner the capacity to design and manage cultural systems to keep our civilization within the planetary boundaries essential to our survival?

Just as we find ourselves in the greatest of need, a new capacity appears before us to shape the evolution of cultural systems at the local, regional, and planetary scales.  This capacity is nascent across many knowledge domains.  It will require a grand synthesis of many different fields that have been siloed in the past.  I call this transdisciplinary synthesis “culture design” and will map out its foundations in this chapter.

Culture design is the integrated practice of (a) treating cultural change as a complex adaptive system; (b) studying the mechanisms and drivers of cultural change, including trend analysis and emergent social behaviors; (c) applying design frameworks based on this approach to identify operating parameters for social systems and (d) guiding the evolutionary process of social change toward them.

The keystone pillars of this field—which comprises hundreds of existing domains of research and practice—are complexity research, cognitive science, and cultural evolution.

  • Complexity research looks at the interactions among many parts that give rise to novelty in physical and social systems.  It includes topics like the study of tipping points, feedback loops, rules of local interaction, emergence of global behaviors, dynamic attractors, and so forth (Waldrop, 1993).
  • Cognitive science brings together all that is known about human thought and behavior.  It looks at the neural processing of language (Feldman, 2006), how emotions shape reasoning (Damasio, 1994), why the body and brain interact in profound and subtle ways that give rise to the making of meaning (Varela, Thompson, & Rosch, 1993), and much more.
  • Cultural evolution is the application of evolutionary principles to the emergence of fitness criteria for idea propagation (Richerson & Christiansen, 2013).  It looks at the spread of ideas and emergence of new cultural traits in social systems at the interpersonal and institutional scales.

Taken together, these knowledge domains enable designers to engage in the many practices of “applied memetics”—uncovering the patterns of social change that arise when ideas and behaviors spread across social systems.  The skills of this craft include creation of viral media events (Nahon & Hemsley, 2013), shaping of cultural mythologies (Holt, 2004), crafting of social policies (Weimer & Vining, 2005), diffusing innovations of both technical and social nature (Rogers, 2003), and a host of social analytics for monitoring and shaping the process throughout.

This View of Life is pleased to feature a series of essays that connect the scientific study of cultural evolution with practical efforts to accomplish positive cultural change. Our aim for the series is to explore how basic scientific theory and practical change efforts can mutually inform each other and lead to a higher quality of life.

What The Business Cycle Can Teach Us About Evolution by Finn Jackson.

Change Your Stories, Change Your Realities by Paula Wood.


Booz Allen Hamilton. (2014). Reaching Forward: Inventing the Future. Fiscal Year 2014 Annual Report. Retrieved from http://www.boozallen.com/content/dam/boozallen/documents/about/Booz-Allen-FY14-Annual-Report.pdf

Brewer, J. (2015, January 2). Taking control of the planet. It might be our only chance. This View of Life. Retrieved from https://new.evolution-institute.org/article/the-new-science-of-cultural-design/

Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Feldman, J.A. (2006). From Molecule to Metaphor: A Neural Theory of Language. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Goldin, I., and Mariathasan, M. (2014). The Butterfly Defect: How Globalization Creates Systemic Risks, And What to Do About It. Princeton, NJ and Oxford, England: Princeton University Press.

Klein, N. (2014). This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Laya, P. (2011, June 6). Do you pay enough for advertising? One big corporation spent a jaw-dropping $4.2 billion last year. Business Insider. Retrieved fromhttp://www.businessinsider.com/corporations-ad-spending-2011-6

Nahon, K. & Hemsley, J. (2013). Going Viral. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Richerson, P.J., & Christiansen, M.H. (Eds). (2013). Cultural Evolution: Society, Technology, Language, and Religion. Cambridge, MA and London, England: The MIT Press.

Rockstrom, J., Steffen, W.L., Noone, K., Persson, A., Chapin F.S., Lambin, E., … Foley, J. (2009).  Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity. Ecology and Society 14(2): 32.

Rogers, E.M. (2003). Diffusion of Innovations, 5th Edition. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

The Minerva Initiative. (2015). Program History and Overview. Retrieved from http://minerva.dtic.mil/overview.html

Varela, F.J., Thompson, E., & Rosch, E. (1993). The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Waldrop, M. M. (1993). Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Weimer, D.L. & Vining, A.R. (2005). Policy Analysis: Concepts and Practice, 4th Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Published On: May 17, 2015

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.


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