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Pros and cons of Dutch design

I was asked by the main Japanese design magazine, Axis, to write an ‘afterword’ for their special issue on Dutch design. I took the opportunity to reflect on trends in design policy in other countries.
Dutch design has enjoyed tremendous international success and prestige in recent years. Can it last?
One reason ifor its recent success is that The Netherlands is possibly the most intelligent market for design in the world. Sophisticated public and private sector clients know how to commission and manage design. And most cities and government agencies have procurement policies that enable projects to be awarded to the best design, not just to the cheapest proposal.
But profound changes, now happening in the world at large, raise an important question about the ability of Dutch design to respond to new challenges.
We are in the middle of a transition to an economy in which services are more significant than stand-alone products. Can thing-based designers, or for that matter architects, make this transition too – or are they doomed to be left behind?
In reflecting on these questions for design in The Netherlands, I draw positive – but also some negative – conclusions.
Dutch people take it for granted that they will redesign the landscape – and even nature itself. The whole country is a never-ending design project. Continuous and heavy investment in transport and logistics infrastructures has been part of an economic strategy nicknamed ‘Holland Main Port’.
The big idea of the last 10 or 15 years was to make the entire country a transport and logistics hub for Europe. At Schiphol alone, tens of thousands of square metres of new buildings were developed to support the booming air-freight business.
But Schiphol is only one element of a bigger transformation. All over the country, enormous warehouses and freight interchanges have been built at the intersection between rail, road and water routes. The result: one of the busiest and most integrated – but also most congested – multi-modal transport networks in the world.
This enormous investment programme is a break with the country’s cultural heritage as a trading nation that travels light.
This break with the country’s mercantile tradition is not easy to reconcile with the promotion of a knowledge-based economy fuelled by higher levels of investment in software than in hardware.
The ‘mainport Holland’ strategy is controversial with environmentalists, too, who argue that the ecological impact of high-density and high-value mobility (such as air freight) is nearly always damaging.
Many architects and designers have benefited from these massive investments in buildings and infrastructure. But they, along with government policy makers, now have to change direction.
The Dutch are globally renowned experts in the development of physical infrastructure – from dykes to airports – but the challenge now is to design ‘knowledge infrastructure’ – and that won’t be easy.
New times, new design policy
Around the world, new ways to think about, and do design are emerging.
Therere is growing poressure to understand natural, industrial and cultural systems – and the interactions between them – as the context for innovation. Clientrs – and regulators –are steadily forcing innovators to consider the sustainability of material and energy flows in all the product-service systems we design.
Tomorrow’s solutions will not be based on products on their own, in the old sense, but by product-service systems.
An example would be a car-sharing scheme, such as the Green Wheels service, that I use in Amsterdam. I do not own a car, but I subscribe to a mobility and car sharing service. When I need to use a vehicle, I locate one via a website and pay by the hour.
The design, integration, and operation of such product-service systems is where the greatest value will be created in the future. If a country does not make product-service systems the focus of its design policy, it runs the risk of falling behind.
Holland is well-placed to play a leading role in the development of product-service systems.
The situation in new media also remains positive.When CNN described Amsterdam as as ‘Europe’s Cyber City’ during the mid-1990s, it was in response to the fact that many global players were making Amsterdam their European centre of operations. This was in part because of a lively multi-media and internet design scene. Despite the dot.com meltdown, the Amsterdam New Media Association has many hundreds of active members.
Dutch artistic and cultural practice is, by its very nature, diverse, independent, and interdisciplinary. Doors of Perception, for example, is a member of the so-called ‘Virtual Platform’ of organisations busy with design and artistic research in new media. Our fellow-members include a media arts lab, V2, which produces the Dutch Electronic Art Festival; Steim, a celebrated music and acoustics research lab; Montevideo, an archive and production centre for video art; deBalie, a centre for debate and discussion in the centre of Amsterdam; The Waag Society For Old and New Media; Paradiso, a famous rock-and-roll venue that also stages new media programmes; and so on.
None of the member organizations of the Virtual Platform has more than 10 or 12 staff, but we collaborate with each other on a regular basis. Later this year, for example, (October 2003), we will jointly organise the E-Culture Fair – a two-day ‘bazaar’ of experimental new media art and design projects.
Design research in Hollland is often initiated by small but collaborative groups. Eternally Yours, a Dutch foundation, is organising Time in Design, a round-the-clock, 24-hour event in October, to look at a crucial question: if the throw-away society is over, how do we design for longevity in products and services?
Important design innovation also takes place in the big universities. In the environmental domain, for example, Kathalys is a Centre for Sustainable Product Innovation run by TNO and Delft University of Technology. For more than ten years, Kathalys has led the way internationally in initiating and realising sustainable product innovations.
The need for institutional innovation
These positve developments – Kathalys, VIrtual Platform, and so on – exist on the edge of mainstream Dutch design. Edges are Dutch design’s strong point.
But, as an institution, Dutch design – in common with many professions – has been slow to learn and adapt in a fast-changing world. I
Its schools and universities, its professional associations, and its specialist media, are still struggling to escape from an essentially nineteenth century understanding of design practice.
A persistent focus on what things look like in design academies is exacerbated by structural divisions between design disciplines – and between those disciplies, and other branches of knowledge.
Connectivity between people and ideas is further hindered by the turf-protecting way professional organizations, and design businesses, are organized. The result is that many designers lack the expertise to tackle the complex and multi-dimensional social questions that confront us.
The Netherlands’ Design Institute (1993-1999) was an impoitant attempt to promote institutional innovation in design. Its aim was to help the design profession evolve from a closed and inward-looking system, into an innovation support system within interlocking networks of people, companies and educational entities.
Sadly, the Design Institute closed at the end of 1999 following the arrival of a new chairman. But Doors of Perception emerged undamaged as an independent organization, and through Doors the spirit of innovation, and the international networks, created by the Design Institute have survived and continue to grow .
Also a new organization, the Premsela Foundation, has been set up as a platform for Dutch design policy on a national basis.
Some other aspects of the design situation in The Netherlands are not so rosy. The country’s economic situation, for example, is weak today after a decade of seemingly effortless growth.
Government budgets are under severe pressure, and it inconceivable that more money will be made available for culture or research for the next few years at least.
Another problem is that Dutch professional design associations, although well-organised, remain conservative in their thinking and actions. Far more attention and investment is given to old-fashioned design prizes, for example, than to the renewal of design knowledge.
At a government level, too, there are worrying signs that some officials in the Ministry of Economic Affairs want to copy the UK and promote a ‘creative industries’ policy that will include design. This writer is resolutely opposed to the idea that design and advertising are ‘creative’ whereas all other industries, by implication, are not.
In other countries than Holland, more innovative design policy is emerging.
Sweden, for example, is way ahead of The Netherlands in the extent to which different ministries collaborate. A group of Swedish ministries recently allocated two million euros for the development of a new design policy that focuses on new concepts for care. In Holland, despite years of effort, different ministries hardly talk to each other about design policy.
“Sweden is finally about to approach a point where we can leave behind egocentric design,” says Ulf Mannervik, an author of the new policy
Korea is also ahead of Holland in design policy. Korea’s “Industrial Design Fundamental Project” of recent years supports systematic research, and enables 95,000 design students for a population of 45m – a high percentage by any standards.
The llevel of design research in Korea is aalso high. Korea has far more postgraduate design programmes – 66 – than The Netherlands. Samsung, alone, is hiring 100 interaction designers – a huge number.
The British Design Council has also developed innovative design policies in recent years. It proactively makes design proposals for unexpected domains, such as places of learning, or prisons. The Design Council has also developed innovation process tools that help high-tech companies turn technological inventions into profitable products.
Perhaps the most innovative design policy comes not from national governments but from the European Commission.The Intelligent Information Interfaces programme (:i3”) of 1999-2001 was more advanced – in terms both of content, and of project form – than anything supported by constituent EU members.
i3 – and its successor programme, The Disappearing Computer – delivered scenarios for people-centered services, enabled by interactive systems, that are rooted in European culture and tradition.
The EU has now launched a new network of excellence called Convivio. This European network of excellence for social computing gathers together research institutions and universities, of which Doors of Percepion is a member; we are responsible for vision building concerning the design of services to meet everyday life-needs in new ways.
Can Dutch design and architecture stay on top? The glory days of the 1990s are probably over – if only because spending in the coming years will be so much lower. Dutch design will prosper if now takes a “breather” to refresh its thinking and institutions. If it does not do that, the way ahead will be downhill.

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