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Cheryl Heller on The New Age Of Uncertainty

Originally posted on Impact Design Hub

The current refugee crisis and the mass migrations that climate change is likely to trigger will disrupt not only the lives but the identities of hundreds of millions of people — torn from place, uncertain (at best) of their context in the world. Where we come from is, to an enormous extent, who we are. Culture determines the food we eat, what we learn, who we marry and how we live. The place where we live determines our culture, and so our identity.

A few years ago I traveled to Nairobi, Mexico City and Detroit within a few months of each other. Nairobi has been called the “Silicon Valley of Africa” — the young people there were on fire with confidence. The Mexican artisans I worked with had far more humble expectations for themselves, and those in Detroit had righteous indignation about the raw deal their city had been dealt by our country. It’s easy to see, in these cases, how identity determines outcome.

To be successful in helping communities survive in an age of disruption, we will need to conceive of and address identities in transition, with a fluid rather than fixed sense of what is possible. The way to affect lasting social change is by influencing a community’s idea of itself: how creative it is, or how collaborative, how empathetic, who its friends are, how resilient, or just how lucky. The creative disruption will be to help engender balance — design as gyroscope, a way to keep things right side up.

Cheryl Heller is the Founding Chair of the first MFA program in Design for Social Innovation at SVA and the founder of the design innovation lab CommonWise.

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