Design is pervasive throughout our everyday lives. A bit of it improves life; the lack of it worsens it. How we choose to live is the way we design to live. Our life has a design – an overall idea, encompassing how we project ourselves, our values and our lifestyle. It aspires to a common larger goal.

I have multiple identities, as many of us do. I am a mother, a wife, a business owner, an academic and an architect. I am Japanese but live and work in New York City. As such, my design criteria change according to the community I happen to be in.

Design and innovation are most powerful at the micro-community level, informed by location, culture, and purpose.  Each community harbours different risks and resiliencies, but these communities intersect, enhancing our ability to relate to one another.

The Environmental Index employs a bottom-up approach, empowering consumers – a key micro-community – to assess their own risks and resiliencies. Often, these local risks can have more impact than  the larger, less-immediate global risks.

It became clear from our observations that the pennies we spend on energy for our cars and air-conditioning really do add up. I want communities to become vigilant and create safety nets to ensure their long-term survival. But how do we design a society to be resilient even when it is turned upside down? This is the weakness of the top-down society: the tops of the trees cannot become roots.

For our Environmental Index project, we seek to create branches that can reach down to the roots or reach up to the sky, growing leaves and flowers and bearing fruit. These healthy societal ecosystems should propagate organically, in a voluntary and productive fashion.

There is a global crisis that is real and serious, yet politics and ideologies continue to divide the world. Design uses existing systems to cause a paradigm shift in the way we think. It can change our behaviour by making certain activities, such as riding bicycles, seem cool and desirable. An accumulation of such small, local lifestyle changes will ultimately solve global problems, such as climate change.

Design and innovation are the catalysts for that change.

Author: Toshiko Mori is the Robert P. Hubbard Professor in the Practice of Architecture, Harvard University Graduate School of Design, USA and member of the Global Agenda council on Design Innovation

You can view the full set of reports from the Global Agenda Councils and read more blog posts.

Photo: Women build wooden boxes as part of an art project during the opening of the Guggenheim Lab in Berlin. Copyright: Thomas Peter/Reuters