Design for Life: RSA history towards our mission - RSA blog - RSA

RSA history towards our Design for Life mission

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  • Business and entrepreneurship
  • Education and learning
  • Environment

Design for Life is The RSA’s new mission. With it as our North Star, we will unlock opportunities to regenerate our economy, society and environment in mutual reciprocity by uniting people and ideas in collective action. Here, Jo Choukeir, Director of Design & Innovation talks about how we got here.

Though Design for Life was born in 2022, our mission goes much further back. As we look across our rich 269 year history, we find a golden thread – five paradigm shifts over 10 generations – towards Design for Life. This blog invites you to travel back through history to explore some of these moments, and how they brought forth radical change deemed impossible at the time.

RSA Design for Life paradigm shifts diagram

For 269 years, The RSA did the things that were not already being done. It had to constantly reinvent itself. Once a project is successful it usually gives it independence and moves on […] Sometimes it had succeeded, sometimes it had failed. Operating at the edges of pushing new ideas is difficult. Sometimes its members were too stuck in their ways, or misguided in their attempts, or too ahead of their time. All the same, their failures are as instructive as their successes.

RSA Historian in Residence Anton Howes

Symbolic statues

As you enter RSA House at 8 John Adam Street in London, you may notice two statues. The statue on the left is draped with an English broad cloth representing the arts, manufacturing, and commerce (ie economic health), as well as warmth and shelter (ie social health). On the right, you’ll notice another statue representing Ceres, the goddess of agriculture and mother nature (ie environmental health). Across our history, our community of Members and Fellows, as changemakers through the industrial and post-industrial revolutions, have worked in this liminal space at the intersection between our economic, social and environmental systems, advocating for doing more good across all.

Colleagues in a group workshop

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Coffeehouse convening

But we didn’t start at RSA House. The RSA was founded in 1754 in Rawthmells coffeehouse in London’s Covent Garden. Here, a handful of artists, activists and businesspeople would meet to discuss gaps in the societal and environmental issues that wider public institutions were not addressing and ways to bring people and ideas together to tackle them. Those who joined the society became Members, and their fees contributed to funding one of the earliest forms of challenge prizes, known as ‘premiums’ at the time. Premiums continued for over 100 years, followed by the Student Design Awards which turn 100 in 2024. Through our awards we have enabled and championed thousands of innovations that shaped society; the scandiscope (the chimney brush), lifeboats, the first personal laptop, and zero-waste pharmaceuticals. We will, over the next year, reimage what the future holds for our next 100 years of awards.

RSA Student Design Awards

Our competition for emerging designers who want to make a difference.

Championing conservation

We were at the forefront of conservation efforts in the UK. Let’s take the planting of trees for example. By the mid-eighteenth century, Britain had suffered centuries of continual deforestation, the wood having served as the principal source of fuel for heating and industry. Our solution was to offer medals for planting and raising the most trees in a given year. We appealed to the nobility’s image of themselves as sacred custodians of the land, stressing the project’s patriotic aims and the selflessness of investing for the sole benefit of posterity. We awarded its first gold medal in 1758 for sowing acorns to the Duke of Beaufort. Over the following decades the medal winners - various other dukes, duchesses, earls, viscounts, marquesses, bishops, and members of parliament - altogether planted at least 60 million trees.

Persistent preservation

From 1866, we started erecting blue plaques on heritage buildings in London commemorating renowned figures who passed through them, in an attempt to increase the value of and preserve historical architecture. English Heritage continues to oversee the London blue plaque scheme to this day. Moving away from London and into rural areas, in 1929, West Wycombe village was put up for sale by the Dashwood family to raise cash following that year's Wall Street Crash. It was bought in its entirety by The RSA as part of our Preservation of Ancient Cottages campaign. We went on to preserve many more cottages across the English countryside over the years that followed.

Image of an offshore windfarm

Establishing sustainability

In 1964, the Industry and the Countryside report considered the co-existence of increased food production alongside a thriving natural environment for the first time, when leaning into permacultural farming approaches. In 1980, the word ‘sustainability’ appeared and was used for the very first time in environmental terms in an RSA Journal. And in 2008, The RSA launched personal carbon trading, the earliest model for its more modern successor, carbon offsetting.

Complete circularity

Between 2012 and 2016, The Great Recovery project explored the role of design in disrupting our industrial processes to be fully circular and transitioning our manufacturing economies to do less harm to the environment.

Made from upcycled landfill material, The Survivor Sofa, pictured here, is a prime example of circular manufacturing.

From 2017 onwards, we led the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission. This brought together experts and people with lived experience together across the UK, to share new place-based ideas to address social and environmental challenges. The commission spun out of The RSA in 2020 and continues to run independently.

Radical regeneration

Building on the scaffolding across our history, 2021 marked the launch of the Regenerative Futures programme, with a mission to help create a future where people and planet flourish hand-in-hand for the long term. The programme challenged our community to move from extractive approaches that depleted, deforested, and degraded, and beyond sustainability approaches that reduce, reuse and recycle, towards regenerative approaches to rethink, restore and replenish.

Regenerative Futures

Our aim is to bring a future with thriving social and environmental health to life.

As we experience a global collapse across our economic, social and ecological systems, we know there is no other viable future than one that is regenerative. We need to move at pace from doing less harm to doing more good. We need to understand that our economic, social and ecological systems are intertwined, entangled, and when we do harm to one, we do harm to all. We need to re-image entirely new systems where through how we work and live, flows of resource between these three systems are replenishing and conducive to life, by design.

With the launch of Design for Life last year, we are committed to mobilising all our assets, networks and programmatic activity towards a regenerative world. The role we play today, is one of supporting changemakers across their life course and across the system, through seven targeted pathways, to grow capabilities, hubs and infrastructure for a transition towards resilient, rebalanced and regenerative futures.

Towards the future

This brings us to the end of our time travel as we return to the present. However, we’re only at the start of this regenerative paradigm leap. We will be working in the open as our Design for Life interventions develop and spread, so follow our blog if you would like to see our future evolve in real-time, and if you would like to help shape it.


With thanks to Alice Mathers and Andrea Siodmok, who over a collaborative impact session in late 2022, helped spark the idea of a historical account of paradigm shifts towards The RSA’s Design for Life mission. Thank you also to Andrea for visualising the first version of paradigm shifts. Finally, a thank you to Anton Howes and the archives team for surfacing some of the data and events listed in this blog.


 

Is your project or piece of work aligned with our new Design for Life mission? We’d love to hear what you’re working on and how it complements our focus. Let us know in the comments below.

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  • As a relatively new Fellow, I'm excited and encouraged by the Design for Life initiative and the opportunities it brings to regenerative efforts, particularly in the ESG arena.

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