How ecological design thinking can bring water back to Rift Valley

This article is part of the People Make Dartington series, meeting a wide range of the brilliantly diverse individuals and businesses who contribute to Dartington estate life. View the full collection here

For Mona Nasseri, senior lecturer in ecological design thinking at Schumacher College, craft is about a lot more than using natural materials.

For her, craft includes social skills, parenting, teaching and even computer science. In short any endeavour where humans show ‘a certain adaptability to do a job well for its own sake, which brings motivation and makes you want to get it done no matter what’.

Her discipline of ecological design thinking developed at Schumacher College has similarly moved beyond the design of materials, to look at the design of whole systems and services, with a particular emphasis on social and ecological systems.

 Mona Nasseri

Her latest work was featured in The Guardian through the beautiful images of designer (and creator of our popular green gardens map), Carey Marks. It’s a partnership with Plymouth University, Exeter University, Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology and International Water Management Institute Ethiopia. This is a 9-month project supported by Research Council’s UK and the Department for International Development’s Global Challenges Research fund will examine socio-ecological resilience to soil erosion driven by extreme events: past, present and future challenges in East Africa (aka Jali Ardhi [Care for the land] project), and aims to involve Schumacher College’s ecological design thinking to map the issue in terms that will point towards a solution.

What is unusual about this project is its multidisciplinary nature: involving not just natural sciences, but also social sciences, art and design. Most importantly, the project builds upon cross institutional knowledge exchange between the UK and Tanzania as well as capacity building in the host country by involving Tanzanian-based research assistants who have been ‘extremely helpful’.

At the end of this project, the map of social behaviour correlated with ecological impacts will be communicated to the local people. The longer term aim, subject to further funding, is to use local wisdom and scientific knowledge to design a strategy for behaviour change to improve food, energy and water security and reduce soil degradation and erosion.

‘Changing social systems is much less risky than expecting a natural system to adapt’, she says pointing to the example of climate change. ‘The Tanzania project is a very good example of how the natural world and the social world are entwined – from this experience we hope to be able to assist the community to design a community owned land management system.’

Mona’s come a long way from what originally sparked her to become involved in this field in her home country of Iran. She started out in jewellery making, which she describes as the result of an ‘obsession with independence and self-sufficiency’. This led to a PhD in the UK on the psychology of craftsmanship – and how the embodied knowledge of such skills changes the maker. Now she teaches and designs social and ecological systems and services, and is very pleased at the opportunity to be practical once more in this Tanzanian project and says: ‘I love empirical research, just applying knowledge into the real world brings so much joy to me’.