Thursday, January 21, 2016

Planting peace, not a straight line

It sounds as trite as "sprouting peace" but bear with me please. The idea is in line with my recent post on using design methods to build peace. Looking around at the world I've landed in, Sri Lanka, a country ostensibly at peace, appears to be a slowly cooking cauldron of hatred. And if the violence is not overt and physical there seem nevertheless to be many other forms. A lot like our society in the United States. But also different. After all in our country there are mass shootings almost every day. If you think it puzzles Americans of good will imagine how people here perceive what's going on in our country. 

Last post I tried to think broadly about how design principles might be adopted to designing peace. Considering your users, iterative process, and under-designing were the three principles I invoked. 

Hidden within "iterative" was the concept of non-linear process. And therein was a little piece of inspiration. 

Here in Batticaloa it's time to plant the new crop. Thai Pongol, the holiday of harvest and sun worship, is over. New plants are being put into the ground. Seeds are sprouting. I was asked yesterday if this is also the time of planting back home in Boston. "Just five months from now, once the ground is unfrozen."

But speaking of sprouting seeds, have you ever noticed how things come up ever so crookedly? Almost never in a straight line. I thought of this in conjunction with a comment by my friend  Pathytharan Kumaralingm, who lives up in Jaffna. Pathy introduced me to the design principles of vasthu, something I was sadly ignorant of before. Some of the things Pathy told me, and I need to study up on this a whole lot more before I go to Jaipur, which was built entirely on principles of vasthu, is that the materials you use in building are of the essence. Other things like orientation of walls and water features are also important. But one of the most lasting comments Pathy made, while his fellow students were busy, furiously over-designing an urban space, was "why don't we just plant a seed and watch what it does? It will grow the way it has to."

Pathy was speaking from more than opinion. And what he contributed to that overheated discussion was nothing trite. He was addressing a design question from a philosophy that's rooted in more than 4000 years of human experience. 

As a botanist I'm convinced that we humans have co-evolved with plants for most of our existence. And I'm not just referring to post-Neolithic events in which humans learned to domesticate and cultivate plants. I'm going way back to our first bipedal ancestors and before. What did we observe in nature? How did we come to an understanding of how things grow? What did we learn? I'm sure the principles of vasthu are rooted here. And though they wear the ancient-modern cloak of Hindu beliefs, I think they are universal in time and space. 

So what can we learn from Pathy's comment? Certainly, observing plants and plant growth is a good place to start. And while young plants grow toward the light (and downward in equal measure toward nutrients and water), they do it in a non-linear fashion, in fits and starts, in bends and spirals. But inevitably they grow. 

What else can we learn? The materiality of plants is basic: cellulose molecules arranged in a few basic patterns with an array of variations. How can we play upon those variations as we design peace?

Plants are process as well. Their metabolism, like ours, is based on input and output, another principle of vasthu. They are, like humans, polar organisms with a "top" and a "bottom." This lies deep in their (and our) DNA. But this does not absolutely define us. A leaf is not necessarily polar. It has other dimensions as well, both on the exterior and inside. Nor is the chloroplast, the machinery of photosynthesis, entirely regular in its conformation. 

Plants are flexible and plastic. They bend, expand, sprout and contract according to the needs they sense. This is part of their non-linearity. They are "programmed" by DNA to grow according to their form but they are also programmed to respond to variations in light, water, temperature, and texture of their environment. 

As plants have evolved so can peace. Something to think about. 

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