How to be good

At last week’s Aspen Design Summit 150 concerned designer-citizens explored ways that they might contribute to sustainable community development, education innovation, and social entrepreneurship. (Other reports are at Core77 and at unBeige.There are many images at Flickr
(Humbug check: I was an enthusiastic participant – and paid to be the moderator – of the Summit).
The stated aim of the event was to “launch a design revolution to put an end to poverty in developing countries by conceiving new extreme-affordability products”. The Summit was challenged to “create a road map to focus the design, engineering, business and education expertise, represented by Summit participants, to address the needs of the poor”.
Real-world projects were the focus of the Summit. Project leaders told us of their work at a grass roots level in Myanmar and Nepal, St Louis and Detoit, New Orleans and the South Bronx.
As previously stated the word ‘development’ too often implies that we advanced people in the North have an obligation to help backward people in the South to ‘catch up’ with our own advanced condition. The problem with this approach is that broader measures of sustainability and well-being tend to be ignored. Or, worse, they are viewed as impediments to progress and modernisation.
The participation in Aspen of people from rooted, real-world projects helped ensure a degree of sensitivity to context, and to existing social relationships, in our discussions.
A degree, but not a lot. At the end of the day, we were high on altitude – but low on context. We discussed ideas and plans for and about people located hundreds or thousands of miles away. As someone remarked, “you can pretend to care, but not pretend to be there”. Second hand representations, however well-crafted, are not the same as direct experience.
This confronts the design world with a substantial dilemma. Eighty percent of professional designers are in the representation business. But designing a poster about an issue, or launching a media campaign about it, is not the same as helping real people, in real places, change an aspect of their everyday material reality.
This dilemma is especially pointed for the American Institute of Graphic Arts, which organised the Summit in Aspen. Full credit to them, then, for organising an initiative that benefits such a small part of its membership directly.
And one especially positive outcome of the Summit is that it forces us to address some tricky questions.
For example: When we talk about design and social innovation, how confident can we be that we are not searching for personal salvation by “doing good”?
And: If we are genuinely to exchange value – ather than donate it, unasked – what do we have to offer that people want, and need?
And what about the matter of agency? When designers in the North (or rockstars, or NGOs) sally forth to help “the poor” – who is acting for, or on, whom?
Reflecting on these questions, I conclude that we need some Rules of Engagement to govern design-aid expeditions. So – with the caveat that rules are there to be broken, or at least argued about – I propose:
Rule one: Look near as well as far. There’s a lot of work to be done nearby as well as far away. It’s easier to enhance the human resources, culture, heritage, traditions, know-how and skills of a local culture than that of a distant one.
Rule two: work for actual people, not for categories. Be on your guard whenever you read the words “the poor” (or “the elderly” or “the blind” or “the disabled”). These casual (and widespread) habits of language disembody and dehumanise people. (If you don’t believe me, ask a blind person).
Rule three: Respect what’s already there. Designers are trained to to change things for the better – not to leave well alone. The good news is that visiting designers can act like mirrors, reflecting positive things about a situation that local people no longer notice or value.
Rule four: empower local people. Any design action that rearranges places and relationships is an exercise of power. A good test for the sensitivity of Incoming designers is whether they enable people to increase control over their own territory and resources.
Rule five: commit long-term. When Sergio Palleroni offered the support of design students to communities in New Orleans, he commited to a minimum of three years’ engagement. It takes time to understand a situation, time to listen to local people and gain their trust, time for appropriate solutions to emerge.
Rule six: Small is not small. Small design actions can have big consequences, many of them positive ones. If someone builds a bus stop in an urban slum, a vibrant community can sprout and grow around it. Such is the power of small interventions into complex urban situations. Read Small Change, by Nabeel Hamdi for more inspiring examples of thre power of thinking small.
Rule seven: Think whole systems. Aspen project leader Paul Polak reckons the design and technology of a device, such as a pump, or sprinkler system, is not much more than ten percent of the complete solution. The other ninety percent involves distribution, training, maintenance and service arrangements, partnership and business models. He and Jim Pattel at Stanford Business School get students to plan whole business solutikons to development opportiunities.
Rule eight: hands-on or hands-off. Hungry people need posters and campaigns less than they need food to eat.
We prepared a briefing on design-related social innovation for Doors 8.

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Product frenzy

The winners of this year’s Industrial Design Excellence Awards have been published by Business Week. As a jury member, I am 100% complicit in this flagrant whipping up of product frenzy – which I must say, having seen the results today, is extremely well-done. My favourite entry, the medical equivalent of a Big Dipper ride, is slide number 93 on the slideshow. I wanted to caption it, “The Doctor won’t see you now”.

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Talking Cities

Too much media coverage of architecture focuses on the banal excesses of Shanghai and Dubai. The more interesting story these days concerns marginal, residual and abandoned spaces left behind when industry disappears. A new publication, Talking Cities is all about “Guerilla Architecture”, “An-Aesthetics”, and “Architecture on the Edge’. Later in the year, a spectacular series of exhibitions called Entry is planned at a vast coal washing plant at the Zeche Zollverein – a Bauhaus masterpiece now designated as a world heritage site. The Entry project is an example of how a cultural action can, by focusing attention on a disregarded site, stimulate regeneration. Curator Francesca Ferguson, of the Berlin-based organisation Urban Drift says her project is about “re-activating existing structures” in ways that can inspire business and urban agencies. “Urban waste land, empty buildings, dusused products, and forgotten brands, are valuable resources that can be awakened to new life and fresh use” she says. Fresh, and in unusual combinations: The maps in Talking Cities portray vast landscapes in which “town” and “country” are no longer clearly separated from each other. There’s a seminar about it all on 29 September at Zollverein School of Management and Design. (Talking Cities will be launched in London on 22 June, on the occasion of the London Architecture Biennale, at ®edux Unit 303, Third Floor, Lana House, 116 Commercial Street, London E1 6NF)

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Learning from steel cities

“Steel City awakens a longing for for authenticity in of a world where networks and technologies are no longer palpable. Steel City is a place of physical presence, the presence of body, of the haptic, of patina and aging. Steel City can be touched and felt”. Thus, poetically, Professor Wolfgang Christ, in his preview of next week’s conference on Steel Cities in Sheffield, UK. As China and India race to modernise their economies with imported steel, the focus of the conference is the ways in which lives, landscapes and relationships continue to be, transformed by steel. A sad-sounding post-conference excursion takes you to a former steel works that has been turned into a “science experience” where the arc furnace building is animated by a “rock and roll sound and light show”. Respectful silence as a trigger to the imagination would have been a better design strategy.

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Doors of Perception 9: “Juice”

Doors of Perception 9 takes place in New Delhi, 1-4 March 2007. The theme is “Juice” and the subject is food, fuel and design. The encounter (we have stopped calling ourselves a conference) has several parts: A two-day Project Leaders Round Table for c30 people who will be invited after a call (which will be published in July); a design innovation bazaar in the Palm Court Gallery, at India Habitat Centre; and a one day (thing in an auditorium) also at India Habitat Centre, on Saturday 3 March. Our partner for the event is the Centre for Knowledge Societies (CKS). Our content partners, who will develop bits of the programme, include (Debra Solomon) PixelAche (Juha Huuskonen) and futurefarmers (Amy Franseschini). The Royal Society of Arts (RSA) and Designs of the time (Dott) are sending design students. Winy Maas from MVRDV will be one of the featured presenters. Joost Wijermars is coming. Doors 9 ends with a Holi party on 4 or 5 March. For now, just note the dates; details of how to participate will be announced regularly in Doors of Perception Report.

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Social Silicon Valleys

The Young Foundation has published a manifesto for social innovation Written by a team led by Geoff Mulgan, Social Silicon Valleys compares the vast investments made each year in scientific R&D (nearly 12 billion euros of public spending on R&D in the UK alone) with the piecemeal and marginal investment that is made in social innovation. The pamphlet warns that addressing the most important challenges of this century – including climate change, ageing and chronic disease, as well as the prospects for sustainable growth – will depend as much on social innovation as new technologies. The publication is supported by the British Council as part of the preparation for an international conference in China with ministers and city leaders from Europe and China to be held in Beijing in October.

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“Carry the love”

Jet Blue’s new credit card slogan wins my vote for the 2006 meaningless bollocks perpetrated by a creative agency award.

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Slow design seminar

The way of thinking and acting that Slow Food proposes goes well beyond food and food systems. The idea of “slow” brings tradition to life, and links the quality perceived in products with the social and environmental quality of their production, and places of origin. An international seminar on the design implications of the Slow Model takes place in Milan on Friday 6 October. Supported by the Slow Food Movement, the University of Gastronomic Sciences, the Istituto Europeo di Design and Domus Academy, its Scientific Committee includes Giulio Ceppi, Ezio Manzini and Anna Meroni. For information contact Giulia Simeone:

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Event design and quality time

If a client offers you a budget of $1500 per person to design a large event for thousands of people, do you refuse? I don’t think so.The environmental impact of large trade shows and conferences might be damaging – and the experience for those attending them may be impoverished – but the event design industry is flourishing.
That much was clear at last week’s Event Design Forum in New York. Although the first such gathering to be staged, the event sold out well in advance (making its organiser, Dan Hanover, a happy man). Hundreds of professionals from a wide range of design disciplines converged on the Puck Building to swap war stories about everything from storytelling to touch screens, holograms to hospitality.
This is not, I discovered, a shy and retiring industry. Its firms have names like Momentum, Impact, Velocity, Sparks. There was much talk of “killer ideas” and “creating impact”. Stories had to “engage a target”. Events had to become “bigger, bolder”.
My job was to be the “but wait a minute!” speaker at lunchtime. I duly ranted about the wastefulness of resources in set-piece events. I whined that people going to the Olympics emit 35,000 tons of carbon in a couple of weeks.
I complained about the point-to-mass thinking that lies behind so many set-piece spectacles. I also pouted that pre-packaged experiences are being made worse, not better, by push media and high-powered displays.
Confronted by such a red-blooded crowd, I thought my story would lead to me *being* the lunch. But a strange thing happened. A lot of people said they shared my concerns. As so often happens, designers as people are concerned about issues that are hard to raise in their working lives.
And these concerned designers wanted to know, “what else can we do?”. People I talked with in New York used words like treadmill and conveyor belt to describe their role as designers in this big bad industry. Which, they also pointed out, correctly, is no worse than most other industries.
So what are the alternatives to today’s mainstream of trade shows and events? I suggested, in New York, that we explore ways to deliver three kinds of quality in the meetings we design.
The first is quality time. We should design for both fast and slow speeds in the events we create, and thereby add social value to the experiences we have at them. We should design chunks of empty time into the trade show day – time that contais no content, at all. (This subject was explored in an event Doors organised in Europe for the High Speed Train Network )
The second quality is place. Why erect vast, noisy, short-life structures – at huge cost – when existing places can be so much more interesting? We should follow the lead taken by artists: they frequently squat abandoned buildings and bring them back to life through sheer creative activity. As an example of this, an event in Germany called ENTRY2006 will take place at Zollverein which used to be Europe’s largest coal washing facility.
The third quality is encounter. In Rajhastan, travelling storytellers go from village to village, unannounced, and simply start a performance when they arrive. No sets, no LEds. Although each story has a familiar plot – the story telling tradition dates back thousands of years – each event is unique. Prompted by the storytellers, who hold up pictorial symbols on sticks, the villagers interact with the story. They joke, interject, and sometimes argue with the storyteller. They are part of the performance. Hearing about these storytellers reminds how much we have lost of the un-mediated, impromptu interactions that once made daily life so vital.

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