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Designing for Integration

It is a dis-integrated time. We feel the chaos and the tension, the incongruence, in our world, in our culture, in our selves. We’ve been on a path of dis-integration for a long time, with a mantra of progress, brushing aside problems we can’t solve, people we can’t help, somatic experiences we don’t like to feel. It’s time to reverse this course, to head towards integration — the state of being whole and undivided.

At Stanford University, I co-teach a class called Designing for Well-being. It could also be called Designing for Integration. For the young people who’ve been on the trajectory of becoming a Stanford student, disintegration is a norm; suicide too common in their communities. They’re hungry for integration, to be seen and accepted not just for their success and unbelievably bright futures, but with their very human experience of stress and anxiety. They reflect that they never have conversations like we do in this class; for many it was very healing.

More importantly, this class has the premise that what we deeply desire is also needed in the world. That our suffering has purpose beyond personal meaning. Within the context of Stanford, at the heart of Silicon Valley, this is a very different starting point — we teach students to not start from marketplace needs nor from technical feasibility, but from the heart, which is too subtle to hear for many of them, and even harder to trust. We give them permission to integrate the inner and outer. We talk about design and technology in their larger definitions — design is not user interfaces but problem solving; technology is not just hardware and software, but anything we create that is tangible and in service to a solution.

To further define integration, I will contrast it with balance.

Balance is something that people talk about a great deal — they talk about wanting more time for their families, for nature, for themselves, for exercise, for contemplation. However, balance seems always just out of reach, or not sustainable — even if we strike a good balance for a little while, everything around us moves too fast for it to last. Picture a balance — one side of the scale goes down, the other goes up. It seems to imply that when there’s more of something, there’s less of something else; it’s a zero-sum game that we cannot win.

Our language reflects, and shapes, our reality.

I would like to suggest integration rather than balance. The mental picture is a drop of ink in water. The beautiful swirls quickly reach all of the water, and the ink and the water become inseparable. The ink’s movement in water is completely unique every time, it has emergent properties — signaling a higher level of complexity.

In this mental model, our practice is the ink, and the rest of our life — how we are as parents and professionals and friends and community member is the water. Our practice infuses our being. Rather than competing, the worlds I’m in add to each other and permeate each other. And we become the ink in the larger water of the cultures we’re in — our actions have far-reaching and unforeseeable impact.

In teaching the Stanford class, I find that the creative process is an excellent path towards integration, a practice for our busy and mundane lives, in this complex and chaotic world. Here are a few principles from this practice.

Accept responsibility

We are all designers and creators of the future, the first step is to accept that responsibility. The mindset for designers and creatives is an integrative one. It is the ability to see a problem with focus, while having awareness of the larger context. This ability to simultaneously perceive foreground and background is key for today’s complex problems — the narrow focus of problem solving, part of the Industrial Age and capitalist thinking, has led us to today, and we can not continue with it. Heed Einstein’s sage advice, “We can not solve problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”

Embrace a diversity of perspectives

Many years ago, I learned from a former manager and mentor that “diversity,” which is one of the many loaded words that can at times prevent understanding, can be substituted with the word “perspectives.” For creative projects, including diverse perspectives is essential and a given for every endeavor, for as many metrics as possible.

For the Converge team, we recently used the excellent article on white supremacy cultural characteristics and antidotes to look more closely at our own tendencies. Urgency was the one most of us identified with, including myself — getting busy can put away the discomfort we don’t want to feel. “Black and white thinking” was the next most commonly occurring one, wanting clarity for its own sake — like a balance, instead of the discomforting ambiguity, in the process of emergence. In binary thinking, we cannot perceive the potential in increased dimensions. And more dimensions are always possible.

Allow higher levels of complexity

That leads me to the next principle, perceiving and embracing higher levels of complexity. It’s the call of this time with the pandemic, incongruence between rhetoric to action in our systems, strong clashes within and between cultures, environmental degradation and countless seemingly unsolvable problems of today. It’s natural to feel powerless, to lose our energy and resolve. I feel that too, and it’s helped a lot to be with the amazing people at Converge, and many of the other emergent networks that I’ve had the honor to witness in recent months and years. I place my faith in these evolutionary clusters.

It’s also helped a great deal to have a practice of sitting with complexity, with what is happening. Reality is non-linear, irreducible, and emergent. When we trust that, our awareness integrates, and expands. Possibilities that previously seemed outside of the problem space emerge.

We know a lot about flow states now, about the importance of letting our subconscious work.

The mind tends to see opposites, and coming to agreement as compromise. Balance means compromise, and compromise has a negative connotation. But it is not so, when we can shift levels of awareness, as Einstein suggested.

Imagine a spectrum, it’s not possible for a point on it to get closer to both endpoints at the same time. This is one dimensional thinking. What happens when we add a dimension? My good friend Gabriel Grant, also part of Converge, has a book titled Breaking Through Gridlock, that includes the idea that there are possibilities other than compromise. The tension of the compromise can be a springboard to innovation. Embracing that greater possibility is the stance of integration. Nature creates mind-bogglingly complex and innovative adaptations for species to survive and to thrive, continuously improving every “compromise.”

Another way of adding a dimension: what if the spectrum bends, and becomes a circle? In nature, for example, complexity and simplicity are one. Bring to mind the eye of a fly, a murmuration of birds. Creativity is a process, it takes practice and intuition, is full of surprise and discovery and cannot be known ahead of time. Creativity and diversity are nature’s modus operandi. They are nature’s solution to inclusion, and it is wise for us to imitate nature.

Prototype and learn from failure

Nature has been my primary teacher, in creativity and in everything. It is constantly trying new ways of doing things. I find that a lot of people have become averse to making mistakes, that there’s shame attached to failure, in addition to the fear of losing valuable time and resources in the linear thinking mind. The shame and fear can be paralyzing, especially when it comes to the desires that are closest to the heart.

The antidote to this fear is to prototype, constantly and on every level possible, to make the creative process a practice. I teach students to notice the designed environment all around us, to see the countless decisions that lead to how things are and not take any of them for granted. And to prototype their lives, take the steps possible toward their dreams, and pay attention to the feedback from the universe.

To conclude, from the microcosm to the macrocosm, we can become aware of integrated states and disintegrated states. Have a practice that can infuse your life with wholeness. And be that ink for your community. Participate in networks of impact, pay attention to those working on systemic level solutions.

Rather than trying to fit nature into the mind, we can try to open the mind to the expanse of nature. It’s a way of intimacy — being close to perception, rather than labeling and having an agenda. Integration is a re-membering. When we are undivided and available, we can be of greater service to what needs to come forth.

Author: Yingzhao Liu

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