Design to improve life

2 weeks ago, I went to the INDEX design conference, which is a prelude to the Aspen Design Summit – a design meeting which takes place in June, and is considered something akin to a design world summit ever since its first instance in 1951. The conference was part of the INDEX design awards, the world’s biggest design award event, drawing interest and participants from all over the world. So it did indeed have a bit of that world summit feel to it.

The overall slogan for the event was “Design to improve life,” and it was soon evident that all of the design specialists had gathered with a belief and agenda in common: That design is the magic ingredient which can solve many of the problems which the world is facing today. As one of the panel moderators, business journalist Alan Webber, put it, “Design creates the world.” It is through design that we shape the processes, the ways in which we live in it.

In this way, the majority of the discussion was centered around what good design is, and how to use it to solve our current issues of growing population, climate change, humanitarian disasters, urbanization, the growing number of elderly, and many more of the official Millennium issues recognized by the UN. It was like everybody in the room had been brought together by their affinity with this force of good called design, and they sought to discuss how best to wield it.

Now, the audio from the talks and some of the slideshow presentations have been put on-line on the INDEX website, so I won’t have to go into great detail about the actual presentations. But what fascinated me was the way that all of these people framed the issues as design problems to be solved.

Ric Grefé, CEO of the Aspen Design Summit, opened the conference by quoting the Roman architect Vitruvius’ classic three tenets of good design: Firmness, Commodity and Delight. Firmness is a good structure that holds up a building under all manner of conditions — during high winds, earthquakes, fires and snowstorms. Commodity is what makes a building comfortable — things are the right size, the heating and cooling systems work and you don’t have to climb too many stairs in the course of the day. But Delight is what makes the building worth being in — Delight is what makes the building more than just a shelter. It may be an intellectual delight, a visual delight or even a delight to be in to listen to music, but it brings something more to the building than just functionality.

Grefé then combined this with science fiction author Bruce Sterling’s aphorism: “hot enough to imagine a future, and cool enough to make it happen.” Again hitting on the theme that they as designers need to combine old values with new, innovative courage to make change happen.

The next speaker, Ged Davis from the Global Energy Assessment initiative spoke about the many challenges for the planet. And he summed up the design problem as: “How can we sustainably manage what currently requires the resources of two to three planets with just the one we got.”

It is a challenge that increases as the population, industrialization and urbanization continues to grow and spread, and Davis argued that it would require designing new large systems such as governance systems, civic solutions, cities and eco-systems based on inspiration from 21st century forms of organization such as Al-Qaeda, the Open Source model of development and the global market economy to design and build a sustainable future.

One example of designing such a large system from the ground up is the British Engineering company Arup’s project to build an ecologically sustainable city to be part of Shanghai. The city, called Dongtan, is to house 500.000 people and it is fascinating to see all of the design concerns to be incorporated in solving the many issues of sustainability involved. I really recommen listening to chief architect Alejandro Gutierrez’ talk and having a look at the slides. The whole room heaved with wonder at what human ingenuity can do. This was what they were here for.

Another example was Danish architect Bjarke Ingels’ attempt to influence public policy in Copenhagen by offering a design mock-up for a housing project to solve the problem of affordable apartments in central Copenhagen. In doing this, Ingels sought to show that architects and designers don’t have to wait for politicians and bureaucrats to agree on what needs to be built, but that the experts themselves can take the initiative and enter with constructive suggestions on what needs to be built and how. Though, as he was quick to point out, the design mock-up caused huge discussions all the same.

Perhaps the most eloquent exposition and definition of the design problems to be solved came from Arnold Wasserman, the dean of human centered design with a past at Xerox leading the effort to use the ideas and inventions coming out of Xerox PARC to help reshape that company based on human centered design. He argued for the need for a philosophy of “Deep design” similar to the emergent “Deep ecology” which posits humankind as an integral part dependent on the global eco-system, or “deep economy” which challenges the notion that more necessarily is better.

Deep design takes the same precepts into practical application. It is a matter of taking the converging design trends of the past 30 years and combining them with what we know we need: sustainability – both ecologically and ethically. According to Wasserman, these trends are specifically the multidisciplinarity of humanities and social sciences inspiring new methods and ideas within the design industry (he mentioned his own company, the Idea Factory, as a good example of how this multidisciplinarity is coming alive), and the growing participatory culture that is emerging globally: Wikis, blogs, massive multiplayer games, on-line communities, the creative commons which offer informal learning and sharing.

In short: “Collective generativity is replacing individual creativity. Everybody can do design. Everybody can use those tools.”

Thus, it is not just design anymore, but people-centered design. And in this way, Wasserman sums up a new design problem:

Here’s what we’re struggling with: Design grew up selling stuff. Now it has to focus on improving life – sustainably. We need to ‘design like you give a damn! We need to find the clients to go there, but it is possible.

Again, everybody is nodding, agreeing about the importance of design thinking. The question is how to convey this to the world. How to get the message through to the policy makers, politicians and corporate leaders actually making the decisions necessary to get such design projects funded and underway. Here the discussion stalls.

Ged Davis used a very clever image in his talk to convey this problem:

Getting good ideas and having good intentions isn’t necessarily enough. But the passion is there. Having worked with the Ubuntu community and its new forms of participatory culture and organization driven by clear ethical motives, I see how far that passion can get you. And I see more and more instances of people like Mark Shuttleworth with Ubuntu or the unknown Chinese benefactor behind Dongtan, people with vision and the economic power to make such ethical and sustainable projects happen.

But though these philanthropists can break new ground, it will still require even more from the traditional businesses and nations so singlemindedly focused on growth. Perhaps redesigning these entities to incorporate the interests of all of its stakeholders and their quality of life might be the way to go.


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What store sells that shirt? You should have linked to it from the picture…


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