Paul Callaghan: How can we design a better world with Indigenous thinking? (part 1)

Paul Callaghan: How can we design a better world with Indigenous thinking? (part 1)

Paul Callaghan: How can we design a better world with Indigenous thinking? (part 1)

Paul Callaghan: How can we design a better world with Indigenous thinking? (part 1)

Acknowledgement of Country: This interview was conducted on Gadigal and Worimi Country. We pay our respects to the traditional custodians of this land, past, present and emerging. We recognise their deep connection to the land and their unique cultural heritage, which continues to enrich our shared community.

Dr Paul Callaghan is an Aboriginal man belonging to the land of the Worimi people, now called Port Stephens. He is an author, storyteller, dancer and consultant. His latest book, The Dreaming Path: Indigenous Ideas to Help Us Change the World, written with Uncle Paul Gordan, has inspired many of us. 

In this three-part series, Dr. Paul Callaghan invites us to explore the wisdom of Aboriginal culture, and how it can help design a better world:

Part 1: Care for Country 

The Aboriginal world is one that cares and shares  

First, I want you to close your eyes for a moment. Imagine a world, a different world to the one we're in.

The media—war, economic downturn, banks, all sorts of problems—if we're not careful, we can become consumed with fear. Fear creates a desert of innovation and creativity.

Our spirit is meant to be creative. Spirit is meant to fly. Spirit embraces the beauty of creative arts and stories. They’re the cornerstone of Aboriginal culture. 

Going back to what I was saying, I want you to imagine a world that's different to this one. A world with no war. No armies. No prisons. No poverty. No homelessness. No violence. No crime. No hunger. No poverty. No jails.

Imagine a world where everybody was nurtured from a child right through to adulthood, where we’re given everything we need to live a life of wellbeing, mind, body and spirit.  

Do you think that world is achievable? A lot of people will struggle with imagining it. You’d say, look at history. We have castles, we invade, we kill each other. But I’ll challenge you: that's some history in some places, not in all places.

In Aboriginal Australia, that's not our history at all. You don’t see evidence of wars, castles or anything that says humankind destroys itself. The Aboriginal world is one that cares and shares. We had over 500 nations with different languages, songs, dances and stories. Those nations had lived in harmony for hundreds of thousands of years, underpinned by unity.

I must always care for my Place 

We can embrace diversity of food, culture and arts from all over the world, but we must never forget what underpins that is unity. We are all one on this beautiful, blue green planet that we must care for.

What underpins our value is spirituality. I'm going to explain that through a story:

Once upon a time, there was a big ball of water just sitting in space quietly. Under the water was Mother Earth Country. She just laid there under the water. The rainbow serpent within Mother started to move. Mother became agitated.

The Rainbow Serpent wriggled a bit more and the Mother went, oh, I need to move. So the mother rose, and she rose, and she rose, and she cried, rising through the water. The water broke.

In the beauty of Mother glistening, up in the sky, the Creator Father, he'd watched all this. He'd been watching over the universe forever, but he’d never seen anything so beautiful. Father said, I must find out what that is. He went down to walk on Country.

The Creator Father spent time with Mother, and he started to build a relationship. The way we build relationships is we get to know each other. So we need to be patient. And they did. Over time, they fell in love.

At a point in time, Father realised he had responsibilities. He had to go back up into the sky. He didn't want to, just like with all of us, sometimes we're having a really nice time, we don't want to leave.

But I've got obligations, so he said, I have to leave you my love, but I'll always be with you. Father went back into the sky.

Because of their love, Mother had become pregnant. She gave birth to all things. She gave birth to trees, kangaroos, birds, fish, dolphins and insects. Every living thing was born of the Mother. The last of all, people. We were the last of the children.

The Aboriginal Law is our value system that has guided us for hundreds of thousands of years. Part of the Law is about how I must always care for my Place.

If we all come from the one Mother, who are we to each other? We are all family. We're all brothers and sisters. That's a beautiful way to think about Country. Country is not an asset to be sold. It's not an asset to be dug up and monetised. We need to care for our Place. We need to care for Country. 

Mother loves us. If we dance for her, sing for her, love her, care for her, she will always give us what we need.

When we pass, we go back to Mother. Our body breaks down and becomes part of her. We become part of the nutrient cycle. We might end up in the grass. Something eats the grass and we become part of it. It might then do a poo on a tree. The tree grows, and a bird eats the fruit. We become part of the bird.

We're 60% water, so our water goes back into the water system, going up into the sky and coming back as rain. We become part of everything. We come back time and time again. So we're not disconnected from Country.

When we become disconnected from Country, we become unwell individually, as a community and a global entity. We steal from Mother. We dig her up, do all the things that harm her. 

Designing a better world that cares for Country 

1. Ask questions

When we design anything, whether it's a written document, a chair or a city, we need to think about, why am I designing this thing? Here are some questions to ask ourselves:

  • Are we doing it because it adds to the collective good of humanity, or only benefits a few?
  • Is it my ego?
  • Is it because we want the money?
  • Are we doing it the right way?
  • Are we doing it by the lessons we learn from the Mother?
  • Does it minimise pain on Country?

How do we support development in a way that reflects how Aboriginal people think about Country? Does it minimise the pain inflicted on our Mother and her children? Or does it increase the pain?

Do we need all the development? Do we need coal-fired power stations, coal mines, when we now have alternative sources of energy? 100 years ago we didn't have the technology. As technology evolves, here's a chance to start over and stop what we used to do.

2. Sit in Country

Go out and sit in nature, because you're sitting with your family. We were born last to remind us to never place ourselves above nature. We’re the youngest children of Mother, so all of nature are older brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts and grandparents.

Go sit in the bush for half a day. Release all the busyness in your brain. Just connect, and you'll be astounded at the wisdom that comes up.

3. Design with purpose

When you're designing anything, are you servicing a need? Or are you satisfying a want? The old people say when we talk to spirits, they will always listen to us. They will give us what we need, but they won't give us what we want.

Want is different from need. It's consumerism. There's nothing wrong with being a tourist, consuming things and enjoying the fruit of your labour. But at what expense? This consumerist society keeps telling you that you won't be happy unless you buy this thing. You've got to ask, well, is that true?

We need to find inner peace. That comes back to a bigger conversation about what contentment and wellbeing is from an Aboriginal perspective, which I'll talk about in Part 2: Wellbeing, relationship & sharing.

This is Part 1 of the three-part interview with Dr. Paul Callaghan:
Part 2: Wellbeing, relationship & sharing
Part 3: Leadership

Read Dr Paul Callaghan’s book, written with Uncle Paul Gordon  
The Dreaming Path: Indigenous Thinking to Change Your Life


This interview is part of ReCo Circular Sydney 2023 Series, supported by the City of Sydney Knowledge Exchange Sponsorship program. Explore more free content at:

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Interviewed by Matthew Wright Simon. Edited by Danling Xiao.

Matthew Wright-Simon is a creative facilitator and founder of Engage Change, a specialised engagement practice that has led many strategic projects, forums and initiatives across the commercial, government and not-for-profit sectors. Matthew also runs Newday Leadership Summit. Connect with Matthew on Linkedin

Danling Xiao is the co-founder of ReCo Digital. Danling has an unwavering passion for creativity, spirituality and the pursuit of positive change in the world. Connect with Danling on Linkedin

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