By Michael Ben Eli, Founder of The Sustainability Laboratory

I met Paul Hellmund, then-director of the Conway School, for the first time in March at a small conference at Cooper Union called “Teaching Towards Sustainability,” which explored a number of issues related to sustainability education. Specifically, how to design effective sustainability education in and out of the traditional institutional format, and how sustainability education can be equal to the urgent task at hand. I was impressed by the Conway School, and could see that the question of sustainability was not an afterthought, but truly at the heart of their mission. Conway’s approach, where students learn by doing, taking on real-world projects for real-life clients, resonated with the work we do at The Sustainability Laboratory, wherein educational programming relies on a robust practice component with actual development projects.

What’s more, I felt that The Sustainability Laboratory’s approach—our rigorous definition of sustainability and the derived “Five Core Principles,” which offer a holistic roadmap for developing model sustainability practices—could be useful to Conway Students as they engage in project development and design.

There followed an invitation to visit the Conway School’s rural campus in Conway, Massachusetts, where Lab staff member Arielle Angel and I felt immediately at home. We were struck by the quality and spirit of both the students and the staff, who seemed to thrive in an environment based on collaboration, open-mindedness, humility, generosity and competence. I had the opportunity to present The Lab’s approach to sustainability in the morning and in the afternoon, students presented their projects in smaller groups. It was clear that, with their excellent projects, they were making a real difference in the world. In the evening, as the sun set, we enjoyed a homemade dinner together on the terrace, and a friendship was born.

Michael Ben Eli with Ali Alhwashla, the Director of the Medicinal Plants Initiative at Project Wadi Attir, a Sustainability Labs initiative with the Bedouin community in the Negev desert to develop sustainable desert agriculture.
Michael Ben Eli with Ali Alhwashla, the Director of the Medicinal Plants Initiative at Project Wadi Attir, a Sustainability Labs initiative with the Bedouin community in the Negev desert to develop sustainable desert agriculture.

Conway students are designers dealing with ecological realities. Any ecosystem is by its very nature a complex system, comprised of multiple elements and myriad interactions. Understanding complexity and the inherent interaction of interdependent parts is paramount. Therefore, system thinking should occupy a central place in the conceptual tool chest of Conway students. Design of, or with, an ecosystem is by its very nature a system-based design. To take a piece of desert and transform it into a thriving and rich ecosystem, as we did at Project Wadi Attir in the Negev desert, is dependent on understanding and enacting a self-reinforcing diversity, integrating soil, land contours, the right plants, atmospheric conditions, and many other elements of the environment. Designing that ecosystem diversity is key.

At Conway, a system-based design approach transcends simpleminded problem solving. The projects don’t focus on just one single, narrow problem but address a larger perspective and a comprehensive vision. Our challenge as designers is to transform the planet into a sustainable place and this means designing for the biggest possible system. Only by employing system thinking, and by designing all the components of our social reality and industrial economy as true ecosystems, can we accomplish that goal.

There is a strong resonance between the work of The Lab and the Conway School, which makes us natural partners, and I am honored and humbled by the recent appointment as Master Teacher. I look forward to more opportunities to meet with the Conway community and to exploring other long-term venues for collaboration.

Michael Ben EliDr. Michael Ben Eli graduated from the Architectural Association in London and later received a Ph.D. from the Institute of Cybernetics at Brunel University, where he studied under Gordon Pask. He was a close associate of R. Buckminster Fuller, with whom he collaborated on research involving advanced structural systems, and issues related to the management of technology and world resources for the advantage of all. In recent years, he has focused primarily on issues related to sustainability and sustainable development. He is author of the widely acclaimed Five Core Sustainability Principles, and has been working to help inspire leaders in business, government, community, and youth to accelerate a peaceful transition to a sustainable future. He began teaching at the Conway School in the spring of 2015.