The Current

Canadian innovator Bruce Mau says we need to redesign our world

Humans need to redesign "practically everything," because we’ve created a world full of waste, pollution and "degraded life," says a Canadian designer.

We need to focus on the world around us, instead of ourselves, he says

Canadian designer Bruce Mau has used his creativity to help tackle big world problems, like plastic pollution. (Babka)

Read Story Transcript

Humans need to redesign "practically everything," because we've created a world full of waste, pollution and "degraded life," says a Canadian designer and innovator.

"Practically everything we do is still done in the old way. It's still done as if we have unlimited resources and as if we are the centre of the universe," Bruce Mau told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"We still think of human-centred design as the kind of pinnacle of design practice, and when you look around, you realize it's not about us. It's actually about our ecosystem, and it's about us as part of a living system."

Even if you don't recognize his name, you've probably seen Mau's work before. He started his career as a graphic designer in the 1980s, but later went on to bigger projects, using design as a means to tackle social challenges.

He's collaborated with Coca-Cola on how to make the company more environmentally sustainable, and was pegged to redesign the holy city of Mecca, to make it safer for the thousands of religious pilgrims who flock their yearly. In the early 2000s, the Guatemalan government even asked Mau to help design a social movement that would inspire citizens to see a brighter future for their country, after  decades of civil war. 

His life and career— and his optimistic outlook on designing a better world — are the subject of a new documentary, MAU, which is screening at the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto.

Learning to solve problems

Mau credits his childhood in northern Ontario as part of the reason he became a designer.

He grew up on a farm outside Sudbury, Ont., where if something needed to be done, you had to learn to do it yourself.

"If you needed a barn, you built a barn. You needed electrical work done, you did it. So you kind of had a … general engagement in solving problems," Mau said.

"And that's basically what I do for a living now."

One of the problems he's tried to tackle over the years is how many plastic bottles are polluting the planet. 

Plastic bottle waste from household use at a recycling center. Mau says when he worked with Coca-Cola, he showed the company it would produce trillions of plastic bottles over a 50-year period if it didn't change the way it does business. (Gigira/Shutterstock)

When Coca-Cola invited Mau to help it become more sustainable in the early 2000s, the designer started by showing the company how much waste it would leave behind if it continued with business as usual.

"Over a 50-year period, they would have produced 2.7 trillion PET [plastic] bottles and left about 2.2 trillion of them in the environment," Mau said. 

Mau told Coca-Cola that if it wanted to be part of the future, it would have to redesign everything — materials, products, packaging, you name it.

"It's a long-term transformation," Mau said. "You're not turning these organizations on a dime."

'We design solutions,' says Mau

Today, the world is still filled with big problems — from the pandemic, to climate change, to growing inequality.

But Mau remains optimistic.

"The fact that we're eight billion [people worldwide] is because we solved so many problems. We design solutions," he said. 

And the problems the world faces today are not rooted in failure, but in how successful we've been at solving those challenges the world has faced in the past, he added.

"We solved the transportation problem. We designed the car," he said, giving an example. 

"We didn't design the ecosystem that the car would produce. And that's what we have to do now."

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Julie Crysler.

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