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Living in cybernetics: Polynesian voyaging and ecological literacy as models for design education

Michael Hohl (Faculty of Design, Anhalt University of Applied Sciences, Dessau, Germany.)


ISSN: 0368-492X

Article publication date: 7 September 2015




The purpose of this paper is to learn from successful educational frameworks how to inform a possible framework for design education that includes ecological literacy, systems thinking leading to more sustainable and ecological designs.


The author comparing two models for education, the first being that of the Polynesian Voyaging Society which re-emerged as a cultural and educational framework in Hawaii. Second that of the Center for Ecological Literacy in connection with the edible schoolyard. Both frameworks involve systems thinking.


Certain elements that may inform design education. Among these are attention and vision, values, care for nature, culture, community and learning based on systems thinking, exploration and perception of the environment. Language, traditions and a strong local grounding also play a role in the Hawaiian framework.

Research limitations/implications

The sources are from personal observations in design education and documentation material provided by educators. The groups with which these principles were enacted are children, whereas my goal is to inform a framework for higher education.

Practical implications

The shared characteristics used in the two frameworks might be used to inform curricula for design education from both theoretical perspectives and practical applications.


Polynesian voyaging and ecological literacy have both been very successful as educational frameworks since their implementation. Designing is necessary and design education can possibly learn much from these two examples to adapt to future changes. Ecological literacy, an educational perspective, incorporates ideas around sustainability, networks, nested systems, circularity and flows, and using this knowledge to create “sustainable human communities.” Traditionally this is not part of design education.



The author would like to thank Gisela E. Speidel, International Pacific Research Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Lisa Solomine, Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site and Archives, for their kind support. The author thanks Angela Clemens and Phillip Guddemi for their generous advice.

“The key question is always ‘How will this effort benefit the community and contribute to the health, well-being, and vitality of the land, sea, people and cultures of the islands?‘“ Nainoa Thompson, Polynesian Voyaging Society.


Hohl, M. (2015), "Living in cybernetics: Polynesian voyaging and ecological literacy as models for design education", Kybernetes, Vol. 44 No. 8/9, pp. 1262-1273.



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