If the world’s biggest problems have any shot at all at being rectified, we need to shift from masters of consuming things to lovers of fixing things. The shift starts with you! Are you up to the challenge?

In social innovation (and in everything else for that matter), there’s a very important distinction between creating and problem solving. Problem solving is working to make an unwanted condition go away. Creating is bringing something into being that wasn’t there before.

Don’t work to change the entrenched and accepted status quo. Create a new one.  Tweet This Quote

Problem solving can often focus on symptoms rather than root causes, and can be short lived, with unintended consequences. An often-used example in systems thinking is building a new highway to end congestion, only to entice thousands more people to take that highway making it more congested than ever. Or convincing your dog to stop barking only to find out that he really did have to go out. More on dogs later.

Bucky Fuller believed that the best way to approach a broken system is to create a better one to displace it – that working to change the entrenched and accepted status quo is a frustrating and ineffective way to go. And, creating is more personally rewarding any day.

I don’t remember when I became aware of my fondness for fixing things because it crept up on me. Fixing things falls somewhere in-between solving problems and creating new realities. So it occurs to me that maybe it’s a third option, and at least deserves to be a considered one.

We dutifully rush out to buy the next new, sexy technological toy because it’s new and sexy.  Tweet This Quote

Fixing things is creating a new life – or a renewed life – for something that has value, but most of the time, as well-indoctrinated consumers, it’s not our first instinct. We dutifully rush out to buy the next new, sexy technological toy because it’s new and sexy.

Some people only want shiny new things in their lives. I had a friend who refused to eat leftovers because all her food had to be “new”.

Some people only want brand new puppies with eyes like blank slates and no prior history. Others love rescue dogs with soulful eyes and a history that gives them character. (Like the Badass Dogs Brooklyn Animal Rescue who are “Saving Badass Dogs from Idiot Humans”).

We equate prosperity with having new things. We equate youth with it too, which is true, because only when you’ve lived for a while do you start to like your old things better than anything that could replace them.

We need to shift from masters of consuming things to lovers of fixing things  Tweet This Quote

As a species, we need to shift from masters of consuming things to lovers of fixing things. Take the big one, climate change. Scientists no longer talk about the possibility of avoiding massive changes, we’re in for IT, whatever the IT will be. We can’t make that problem go away, and we can’t, (no matter how much faith we put in technology) create a new reality at the moment. The conversation has shifted to environmental remediation and rejuvenation. That means fixing earth, water and air that have been contaminated, and restoring ecosystems to a healthy state. That would be, as opposed to continuing to find unspoiled places on earth and spoiling them. It’s like getting a stain out of your favorite shirt and choosing not to simply toss it and get a new one. And though it’s about a billion times more complicated, it’s a different and much needed way of seeing things.

Wabi-sabi is a japanese aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. It comes in handy when you are fixing things, and is a good way to think when setting expectations for the new version of whatever you’re fixing.

Try fixing things: Worn relationships, people, tools, houses, whatever. It takes patience, vision and a love for seeing new life inside something old and bringing it back again. The rewards are deep. After my horse was broken, swept up and put in small pieces into a construction dumpster by a workman, it took me over a year to figure out how to put him back together. But to have him back, continuing his long life, even with his battle scars, has made me happier than I can say.

Let’s make a list of the big things that need fixing because we can’t make the problem go away or create an alternative.

Cheryl Heller

Author Cheryl Heller

Cheryl Heller is the Founding Chair of the first MFA program in Design for Social Innovation at SVA, founder of design lab CommonWise, and a pioneer in social impact design. Cheryl received the AIGA medal for her contribution to the field of design in 2014. She is the former Board Chair and founding faculty for the PopTech Social Innovation Fellows, a Senior Fellow at Babson Social Innovation Lab, and the Innovation Advisory Board for the Lumina Foundation. She created the Ideas that Matter program for Sappi, which has given over $12 million to designers working for the public good.

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