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Design and the Human Environment

Societies do not just happen. They become what they are through a series of conscious and unconscious social decisions, incentives, traditions, and consequences, both intended and unintended. At some level, all of these factors involve choices about goals, values, and policies. Taken together, these choices become the social design. The analysis of these choices is social design analysis.

Social design is not merely the layout of buildings or land-use planning, although these are important. It includes the implicit or explicit design of incentives and other factors that lead us to use resources as we do, and to distribute them as we do.

Social design analysis does not assume any particularly type of society. A decision to allow market forces to set social priorities implies one type of order; a decision to control the economy by government ownership and top-down planning implies another. Both are designs that may or may not bring us closer to policy goals and allow us to survive and thrive in the future.

In building the social order, not to choose is to choose. When circumstances change, as in the world of limitations that we face in the future, continuing to follow old ways—in planning, in architecture, and in the design of our economy—is a choice just as much as opting for reform or radical change.

The design of modern industrial society, it now appears, is dysfunctional for a world of limitations and human-generated global warming. Social design analysis can help us to find better ways.