What Design Can Do 2014: Dreaming new worlds

Voor TEDxAmsterdam bezocht ik de internationale designconferentie What Design Can Do en schreef een stuk over hoe social design moet worden uitgedaagd om verder te denken dan de hoop-industrie.
When bright red and yellow take over the town, and especially the Stadsschouwburg, we know what time it is: time for another edition of the inspiring design conference What Design Can Do. Sanne van der Beek was inspired by the talks and provides us with a peek at some of the highlights of the 2014 conference.what_design_can_do

Formed in 2011, What Design Can Do is now an international event that calls on designers to take more social responsibility to consider how design can impact society. As Jet Bussemaker, Dutch Minister of Education, Culture & Science, stated in her opening speech: “We need competent rebels to change our perspective.” Among the rebels this year were renowned international names such as the fashion designer Paul Smith, Richard The (Google Glass Project), Willy Wong (New York City Marketing), Michael Beirut (Pentagram), and Teddy Cruz (architect, known for his research on the Tijuana-San Diego border). In addition, Dutch initiatives such as De Correspondent and Tegenlicht presented their ideas on social responsibility in design.

Beyond the hope industry

The fourth edition of What Design Can Do was as enthusiastic and forward-thinking as before, but with a step away from utopian thinking to a more realistic perspective. Dreaming was still encouraged, but only to stretch the imagination. After imagining new worlds and perspectives it is time for designs that can concretely change how people both think and live.

Design critic Lucas Verweij stated that everything revolves around design. Design is a great success, mostly due to the Western belief that creativity can solve all problems. However, asked Verweij, is that really true? Can you really solve the smog in Beijing by just being more creative? Dutch Designer Daan Roosegaarde seems to believe so, as he developed an “electronic vacuum cleaner” to remove smog from urban skies.

Verweij said that design has to become more entangled in politics and economics to really help to solve these big questions. Otherwise it’s just a hope industry selling empty dreams. Verweij:“There has always been a hope industry. First people sought consolation in religion, then in politics, and now design is at risk to become an attention-machine.”

Should we then just dump our big dreams? Some other speakers show that this isn’t necessary. Design still plays a big agenda-setting role, and serves the task to dream up new perspectives.

Bio-designer Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg stresses that it’s about asking the question “What should design do?”

Five Years ago we couldn’t even dream the possibilities we have now, so to ask ‘what design can do?‘ is the wrong question. Design is about ethical questions. About what is the better future, the future that we want? And how do we design ethical principles for this new world?

In her work Ginsberg explores the possibilities emerging technologies have and creates fictions on which people can decided if they really want to implement these. She amazes the What Design Can Do audience with a briefcase full of colored poo, which is part of the E.chromi project. E.chromi helps us to better study our feces and therefore discover diseases in an earlier phase. The project entails that you drink a yoghurt drink containing E.chromi bacteria. When germs are detected, the bacteria generates certain pigments that color your feces.

The work of another synthetic bio designer, Rachel Armstrong, also shows us the power of fictions: “We think about our existing world while we want to build a new one,” she says. Her research prompts a re-evaluation of how we think about our homes and cities and raises questions about sustainable development of urban architecture. She investigates the possibilities of living architecture, which incorporates properties of living systems into urban projects. For example, to save sinking Venice she dreams of a material for the foundation that does its own repairs and isolates carbon.

Paola Antonelli, the design curator at the Museum of Modern Art, also underlines the task of design to think beyond the here and now. “Through design we can ask much needed hard questions.” She presents her latest project, an experimental online platform, “Design and Violence,” that explores manifestations of violence in contemporary society by looking at objects that have an ambiguous relationship with it. The project asks questions such as “Can we design a violent act to be more human? Is euthanasia a form of violence or a form of compassion? Is violence a male thing?” To spark discussion about the last question, scent designer Sissel Tolaas and photographer Nick Knight collected sweat samples at cage fighting matches and analyzed the chemicals, resulting in a “violence scent.”

Building new old worlds

Design is not only there to ask questions, but also for making very concrete steps in building new worlds or preserving old ones.

ShaoLan Hsueh is living proof that great ideas with powerful consequences can even begin in the form of a kitchen napkin. Hsueh, a young Taiwanese entrepreneur, wanted her children to learn Chinese, her mother tongue and a notoriously hard language to learn. She decided to think outside the box and invented a new method of learning Chinese. ‘Chineasy’ makes the remembering of Chinese characters, simple stories and phrases easier due to the great, humorous and inventive visuals it adds. “You can’t avoid Chinese influence in everyday life, so it’s time to understand it. I want to bring down the great wall of Chinese language.”

The Chinese symbol for horse re-imagined as part of Chineasy.

The Chinese symbol for horse re-imagined as part of Chineasy

Laduma Ngxokolo is the South African knitwear designer of MaXhosa, in which he translates traditional Xhosa (his tribe) designs into modern fashion. He tells the audience that he didn’t feel culturally represented by the way young South African men dressed, who tended to prefer a very English style. Ngxokolo thought: “I want to preserve my culture for the next generation,” and decided to combine old and new worlds with each other by designing a colorful knitwear collection.

These examples highlight the very idea of What Design Can Do, and serve to inspire the creation of more agents of social renewal through design.

Feel inspired? Further reading

Also check out last year’s series from Sanne van der Beek about What Design Can Do 2013.

Edited by Rosanne Verheyen