Social Design & The World’s Wicked Problems


What is a social problem that you find particularly vexing? What can of interventions can you think about to address it? What are the root causes of the problem and who are the key stakeholders that can make a difference in addressing this problem?
The Problem
I am currently conducting research on Body Burden, the whose mildly editorialized definition on Wikipedia is noted as such: Body burden is a term that refers to the total accumulation of toxins in your body. This can include anything from dangerous metals like lead or mercury, to pesticides, unsafe food additives, or fluoride — just to name a scant few. (Bold emphasis mine).
The definition may sound sinister but the effects are more so; toxic accumulation of such chemicals in human fat tissue (where these dangerous chemicals latch on like microscopic parasites) can lead to wellness issues ranging from stunted frontal lobe development in children to breast or kidney cancer in middle-aged adults.
More alarming still is the chemicals seeming ubiquity. We are not exposed to these toxins by scuba diving off the shores of Fukushima  Daiichi or haphazardly ingesting paint chips that we’ve idly peeled from dusty boiler room walls, but rather in our everyday interactions: drinking from a water bottle; holding our smart phones to our skulls; eating canned foods. In fact -and this seems so ridiculous that it took my citing several studies from renowned environmental groups before my husband would believe me- babies are exposed to toxic chemicals that are found in both the bottles used to feed them AND the linings of formula containers.
Research I’ve conducted that lists typical body burden chemicals, where they’re found and their known long-term effects.

Root Causes

This is, by large and in part, a systems problem. For example, there is failure at every stage of the rather crucial FDA, at the industrial level, and in the petrochemical complex. It is a problem driven by western consumerism as well as by neo-liberal ideology, and is tainted by sexism and felt often by those most at risk -minorities and the socioeconomically disadvantaged.

Toxic chemicals can be found in any area of any economically developed society. There is toxic runoff from harmful pesticides that ends up in our drinking water. There are manufacturing chemicals that, while praised for their safety in the short-term (flame retardants come to mind) are harmful in the long term (they cause cancer).

Moreover, the known risks of these chemicals are met with indifference at a policy level. The FDA does nothing (or close to nothing) to prevent the presence of toxic chemicals in our food packaging and sometimes even our food. Legislators are wary to fight the powerful oil lobbies that challenge the regulation of petrochemical runoff and pollution in general. And demand for cheap consumable electronics and other goods ensures a constant stream of harmful plastic manufacture.

The Solution (?)

My response to this issue so far has been one that has relied on increasing social awareness and has often taken a darkly (too dark?) ironic tone. As a result much of my work ends up preaching to the choir. Moreover, by indulging my many ideas surrounding how to bring these issues to light, I risk simultaneously alienating my audience while offering neither a solution to eradicating burdinous chemicals from our everyday lives nor any scalable practice for preventing exposure.

This is why I’ve chosen to reexamine this particularly wicked problem in the context of design and systems thinking. As I see it, there are three targeted audiences that should be addressed:

  1. Consumers -I find this problematic as, though often the lowest hanging fruit, it places the burden of solution on the citizen, and can be seen as an acceptance of and response or reaction to the current problem rather than a way to attack its existence. Consumer-targeted solutions could include awareness campaigns, boycotts, and the generation of and reliance on small-scale alternative shops for delivering safer consumer goods.
  2. Legislators -This could be the most effective plan of attack. Legislators have the power to overhaul the systems -industrial or otherwise- that expose us to these harmful chemicals in the first place. But typical bureaucratic restraints and timelines coupled with a healthy beholden-ness to lobbies and campaign financing means that any movement that might be seen in this arena could take years and would require a drastic overhaul of our political system in general.
  3. Industry -I am hesitant to return to industry as our last best hope, but market-driven results in our current western economic climate allow for the most agile approach. That, and the now on-trend appetite for sustainable design makes the kickstarters of the world our most likely allies in coming to a scalable solution for the masses. Rolling out guerilla campaigns -alternative labeling, say- while pledging to create more socially responsible manufacturing environments, better working conditions in less industrialized nations, socially-driven adaptably product design to prevent exposure and enhance knowledge, seems like the lowest barrier of entry and will take results furthest.

Additional References

Drawing well-being.

The Examined Life by Martha Nussbaum

Why To Be Wary of Design For Developing Countries by Krista Donaldson

Design in public and social innovation: What’s going right and what’s going wrong?  by Geoff Mulgan


Body Burden V: Daily Poison

Exercise Incorporate a daily practice that demonstrates the theme of your research. 

Response Photograph myself with household items that I am regularly exposed to, and using exaggeration & conflation, demonstrate the negative effects of such exposure at an accelerated pace.


Tonalides are found in laundry detergents, soaps, synthetic fragrances and cosmetics. They are a known Endocrine disrupter. Currently they are not regulated.


Galaxolides are found in laundry detergents, soaps, synthetic fragrances and cosmetics. They are a known Endocrine disrupter. Currently they are not regulated.


BPAs are found in hard plastic casings and coatings in bottles like these. BPAs are synthetic estrogens that are known to cause obesity, early puberty, diabetes, diminishesIntellecutal/behavioral capacity, causes infertility & miscarriage, resistence to chemotherapy, asthma and cardiovascular problems. The FDA is considering regulation. Some form exists in Minnesota, CT, Chicago, and NY’s Suffolk & Schenectady Counties.


BPAs are also found in electronics and cell phone casings. BPAs are synthetic estrogens that are known to cause obesity, early puberty, diabetes, diminishesIntellecutal/behavioral capacity, causes infertility & miscarriage, resistence to chemotherapy, asthma and cardiovascular problems. The FDA is considering regulation. Some form exists in Minnesota, CT, Chicago, and NY’s Suffolk & Schenectady Counties.


Perfluororchemicals are found in non-stick, grease, stain and water resistant coating, including brands teflon, scotchgard and goretex. They are known to cause liver, pancreatic and breast cancers. The EPA is currently developing drinking water standards for these chemicals.

Body Burden III: The World Is Ending, Learn To Die

That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die. -Michel de Montaigne, Essays

The human psyche naturally rebels against the idea of its end. -Ray Scranton, The New York Times

[In] March [of 2013], Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, the commander of the United States Pacific Command, told security and foreign policy specialists… that global climate change was the greatest threat the United States faced — more dangerous than terrorism, Chinese hackers and North Korean nuclear missiles. -Ray Scranton, The New York Times

We have entered a new epoch in Earth’s geological history, one characterized by the arrival of the human species as a geological force. -Ray Scranton, The New York Times (emphasis mine)

If homo sapiens (or some genetically modified variant) survives the next millenniums, it will be survival in a world unrecognizably different from the one we have inhabited. -Ray Scranton, The New York Times (emphasis mine)


Topic Proposal

As I have continued to explore the harmful chemicals found in the umbilical cords of minority newborns, it occurred to me that the normalization of an otherwise absurd reality (toxic chemicals in umbilical cords? Really? It sounds light something from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles -oooze! Oh no!) might be best confronted by a satirical response. I’ve chosen to utilize a (hopefully) fictitious dystopian future narrative in order to address the risks to which we are subjecting pregnant women and their children. I debated tackling this in several ways including:

A. Greeting Cards From The Anthropocene

a series of congratulatory and/or birth announcement cards for newborn children. Sampling: “Congratulations! Baby Esmerelda is a charm! We’re so happy to hear that her life expectancy exceeds forty years despite her extremely underdeveloped atria.” I also considered

B. PSAs For Pregnant Women

which I envisioned would play out as a series of photographs of myself  (or another woman) that would be made to appear pregnant while ingesting various toxins in both fluid and solid states. We could condemn the pregnant woman’s actions in the same way we might condemn drug addicts’. I ultimately moved away from this model because it seemed that it would be almost too easy to dismiss the message of this series and instead make the woman culpable despite it being a satirical piece. Finally, I arrived at

C. Your Favorite Baby Shower Gift

Which seemed almost too perfect because it has the added bonus of criticizing a particularly western consumption culture (in which I am all too guilty in participating). It also seemed to be the medium by which I’d be able to offer the most full narrative of the aforementioned dystopia, and the most powerful mechanism by which I could attempt to -for lack of a better term- scare the shit out of my audience in a very tangible way.

I propose that for my final version of this project, I generate the actual “kit” that I am pitching in these RELIANZE advertisements, along with full “scientific” explanations for each kit item and its inclusion. Heavy emphasis will be placed on the mitigative/adaptive effects each item is intended to have. These explanations will be based on the research that I have conducted on Body Burden, and  will address the most harmful effects of Body Burden, specifically on minority newborns.

Additional Resources New York Times, Floating Islands Look Like Less of a Pipe Dream; Ray Scranton, Learning How to Die in the AnthropoceneGlenn Dyer and Stephanie Wakefield, Notes from the Anthropocene #1, Brooklyn Rail ; Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement, part 4: “politics”; All icons via the Noun Project.

Body Burden Part II

This week, I dove deeper into my exploration of Body Burden and the implications it has on us as a species. In doing my research, I have found myself more and more drawn exploring the specific studies surrounding the impact of toxic chemicals in the umbilical cords of newborn babies.

In particular, I am interested by a series of studies conducted by the Environmental Working Group in conjunction with Rachel’s network and published in Scientific American:

“The study referenced found traces of some 232 synthetic chemicals in cord blood samples from 10 different babies of African American, Asian and Hispanic descent born in 2009 in different parts of the U.S…BPA turned up in nine of the 10 cord blood samples tested. But perhaps even worse is the study’s detection of whole new raft of chemicals showing up in babies’ cord blood for the first time.”

Findings of the study show that, unfortunately and unsurprisingly, minorities have a higher exposure to the harmful agents that cause these chemicals to be present.

Source: EWG compilation of chemical classifications published by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, California Environmental Protection Agency, the European Union Consumer Products Safety and Quality Unit, the International Agency for Research on Carcinogens (IARC) and neurotoxin listings from academic review published in the journal Lancet (references).


Additional Resources & Potential Artist Responses

QUIZ: What’s your toxic body burden? / Response -QUIZ: What type of mutant baby will you have?

PSA’S -Got Milk?/ Series of poison consumption ads.

Body Burden Part I

What is body burden?


Body Burden is the sum of toxic chemical compounds, elements, or their metabolites, in biological substances.Often, these measurements are done in blood and urine. The two best established biomonitoring programs in representative samples of the general population are those of the United States and Germany, although population-based programs exist in a few other countries. In 2001, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began to publish its biennial National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, which reports a statistically representative sample of the U.S. population.

Conceptual Response

Footage taken from Vice News. Poem is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Song Of Nature.

Reading Response: Oreskes & Conway, Kolbert

Musings on Enter The Anthropocene -Age of Man by Elizabeth Kolbert, and The Downfall of Western Civilization by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. 


Extinctions are now happening at a rate hundreds to thousands of times higher than during most of the last half a billion years. If current trends continue, the rate may soon be tens of thousands of times highter. This is not a quote taken from Oreskes & Conways fictitious dystopian history The Downfall of Western Civilization, but rather a quote taken from Elizabeth Kolbert’s academic article Enter the Anthropocene from In reading this article I was consistently struck by how the real life facts were often as bad if not worse than the “facts” presented in Downfall.

Time Shift

Re-educating myself with geologic eras, periods et al also reiterated the gravity of the emerging Anthropocene. That it is a contemporary emergence is an obvious and frightening paradigm shift. My fear, echoed by others much more eloquently is: If we are able to identify the entry of the Anthropocene, is it already too late? Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen says “What I hope…is that the term ‘Anthropocene’ will be a warning to the world.” This causes me to question the effectiveness of the term ‘anthropocene’. It is sterile, almost euphamistic. Maybe part of our social responsibility is figuring out how to bridge the gap between antiseptic scientific language and human emotion.


The things that might be most indicative of our causal relationship with climate change are the things that will leave the smallest, least traceable things behind. “From a geological perspective, the most plainly visible human effects on the landscape may in some ways be the most transient” says British stratigrapher Jan Zalasiewicz. This is echoed by Kolbert who says “Future geologists are more likely to grasp the scale of 21st century industrial agriculture from the pollen record -from the monochrome patches of corn, wheat, and soy pollen that will have replaced the varied record left behind by rainforests or prairies.” This made me realize that in all likelihood the geologic records we have now that we use to piece together our earth’s history showcase only the slightest bit of historic phenomena. It is alarming to be reminded that our legacy will almost certainly not be a full record of our rise and fall.


-I have never heard of the profession Stratigrapher before. It sounds like a daunting job.

-I was alarmed that Enter the Anthropocene was written in 2011 and that the world’s population was only 7 billion at the time, with no mention made of it approaching 8 billion, even though that’s what the current global population is. I wonder if this is symptomatic of rapid population increase, as also mentioned in Kolbert’s article? This seems to be the start of some sort of “great acceleration”.