Design Revolution or Social Revolution? Both.

Peter Jones Transformation Design, Wu Wei

The notion of design revolution has emerged frequently, just recently, as a meme that takes its force from the recognition of need for change by designers  themselves. A recent Core77 article follows the recent Design Biennial conference held at St. Etienne, France reveals some of the problematics underway if designers seriously consider their role as transformative and even activist.

Design Revolution or Social Revolution? Reflections from Saint-Etienne

Having already applied this model successfully to the physical transformation of Saint-Etienne, the local powers are confident that they can also use design and creativity effectively to create broader economic development models and achieve a wider economic rebound, They decided to concentrate their efforts on ecology, innovation, training and internationalisation.

The three main questions that structured the Biennial’s curatorial work were:
– How can design help to develop our lifestyles?
– How to make design work with research and innovation?
– How can design now become a tool for economic development?

These are typical driving questions for a major design conference, and they only show how quickly times have changed. Within the year from the time these themes of “develop lifestyles” and the omnipresent but vague “research and innovation” that theme of economic development has perhaps submerged all other considerations.¬† But even for the “business design” crowd coming out of MBA programs, this is new territory. Economic development generally refers to a framing of problems requiring public and private partnership, at the intersection of public investment, social innovation, and policy decision-making. Because so much of the public world comes to us pre-framed, as infrastructure and political systems, we might consider the opportunities for meaningful impact to be limited, or frustrating at best.

This is the stuff of urban planning more than that of business design, yet this is the reality we have been given. We need a new type of entrepreneurial engagement, what Flores and Dreyfus called the Skill of Cultural Innovation. Consider how much of the artistic process of Christo and Jeanne Claude involves the mostly hidden practices of dialogue and public deliberation:

Because of their scale, each project takes many years of planning, surveying, and designing in addition to upholding a constant dialogue with the community to win over popular consent and to gain official approval and required permits. They use these discussions to underline the importance of community involvement and collaboration, understanding that every person involved is essential to make their projects a reality.

I find their persistence and commitment the most impressive aspect of their art. If “artists” can show this kind of public leadership and vision, why not designers? (I’m sure some of us do, even the most publicized transformation projects always seem so – experimental, as if to prove it could be done. And yet the Christo projects may have the result of changing a community’s sense of their own possibility forever.)

And so the review of the St. Etienne conference discloses the discomforting distance between the visions of designers (the optimistic embodiments of technological possibilities) with the visions of stakeholders. As the reality of this gap dawns on delegates, perhaps, the reviewers share their concerns thusly:

The reality is that there is a genuine fear of the future, and the growing talk of the decline of globalisation, increased unemployment, and the threats of overpopulation and debt accumulation means that topical social concerns have overtaken climate change on the problem scale for a large portion of the population.

The thirty-something designers are thinking about how to make a living and they are sceptical about the increased political interest in the design discipline, which they maintain is hacking a creative process that is rightfully theirs. They also argue that politicians don’t possess the technical knowledge required to lead the ‘design revolution’ that they are talking about and that design is becoming a pretext for large-scale political activity.

Maybe they have a point, or maybe they fear that design can’t live up to the expectations of the large-scale problem solving task that lies ahead of it.

The fear is that design will struggle to free its creative faculties from industry and therefore fail to perform in previously unexplored territories such as design as a social tool. If it’s true that designers are now the key intermediaries between science, policy and the public, this is indeed a very new and quite a big responsibility.

Victor Papanek asked his generation of design thinkers and student – from the 1960’s – to donate their time to social projects, to discover what was truly needed in human societies, and to essentially adapt the tools of appropriate and effective design for the good of humanity. That vision has been reified in today’s Designer’s Accord, a set of guidelines and principles that encourage socially-oriented design practices. However, while these development are positive and encouraging, they fall far short of a revolution. The rapidly changing conditions of our cities, local communities, economies, and the “collapse of globalization” that John Ralston Saul predicted call social designers and design education to seriously step up to the crisis.

If “we” indeed were capable of the future-oriented foresight we offer to our clients in strategic design services, would we not have have predicted at least some of the current crisis? Could we have, with leadership, guided our clients toward a shift to sustainable economics? If we believe we can advise creatively on business model innovation, are we also advising on economic survival and fit in a changing global economy? (e.g., did we play it safe in those strategic scenario design sessions?)

This is starting to sound very familiar. The St. Etienne reviewers, and others, cite John Thackara, eco-labs, and the Transition Towns community design strategy in the UK. These are the easiest examples of large-scale design-led change in current visibility. But smaller scale projects are happening everywhere.

I’ve written about Toronto, and much is being done there both large-scale and small. I’ve been contacted by recent arrivistes in my home town of Dayton by a visionary community organizer and a recent design school graduate who want to take on the promise of revitalizing a rust-belt city with community co-creation and dialogic design. I believe this may be the start of the design revolution we’ve been calling for, it has just arrived in an unexpected form. Perhaps, also, it has arrived at a hometown near you.