What is the contribution of Design in a national economy?

OCAD’s president Sara Diamond advocates for a Canadian national design strategy in the Globe and Mail.

Design is essential to Canada’s science and technology strategy, which underlines the needs of markets in the developing and developed world for new inventions that make use of new and sustainable materials, medical technologies, ICT, digital media, and biotechnology. In realizing this strategy, Ottawa should take a page from Microsoft, which describes the knowledge set of the 21st century as “STEM-D” – science, technology, engineering, medicine and design.

Insights about our needs for online home care; data visualizations that lead to breakthrough understandings of cancer cells, the human genome and bioinformatics data; energy-efficient solutions in environmental and sustainable design that have an impact on the shape of our cities; and new green and clean technologies out of repurposed automobile manufacturing processes – designers produce all of this and more.

What would a Canadian design strategy look like? I’m not favorable toward a US design strategy, such as that being promoted by US designers as the U.S. National Design Policy Initiative.  Where funding of sciences, engineering, and medicine promote basic and applied research leading to innovations, national scale funding of defined design initiatives is too predetermined. As much as we promote otherwise, the Design professions are associated closely with production, and our research is almost always collaborative and not basic.  All of the proposals associated with the design policy are interdisciplinary – which is how it should be. But does that mean the US needs a design policy as such? I’m wary of enshrining the diverse and diffuse discipline of design in a policy world. The Federal government is too large, and the economic incentives are too tightly tied to other Federal goals.

Perhaps what we need in the US is a great designer willing to work in a top role in government and just bring design thinking to the job. But Canada is a different kind of country, with a more distributed government and strong provincial management of education and funding priorities. It is a smaller nation than the US, with fewer universities to support. There really may be some benefit to a national design policy within the Canadian system, since you can envision “getting the whole system in the room.”

But the US economy might be better served by giving larger chunks of Federal money to design school consortia for real transformation projects, letting a thousand bottom-up collaborations spring forth. The highest impact projects will make a difference in cities, educational programs, re-envisioning defense, as well as new commercial innovations. In  the US, great ideas are always picked up and replicated in other settings. Either way, the design revolution starts with us.

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