What Design Can Do: Designing a vision

TED started out as a conference about the latest developments in Technology, Education and Design. Nowadays, it has a much wider range, as proved by the many personal touching stories at the last TEDxAmsterdam conference. However, we still want to bring you the latest innovations! And what better place to check out new developments in design than at one of the biggest design conferences in the world: What Design Can Do? Today, my 4th and last report in this event take-out series is about designing possible futures.

What Design Can Do

Design no solutions, design possible futures
As I blogged in the opening of this series, design nowadays has become more about engagement and creating solutions for social problems than about concrete products. “In many designs the function and usability are exchanged for raising discussion and awareness”, writes Tracy Metz in a special edition about What Design Can Do in De Groene Amsterdammer.  But, as design moves away from concrete problems, where does this new abstractness end? Can design also spark debate or are these ‘empty images’ a danger? This question was the source of intense discussions at What Design Can Do.

Ben Landau, designer of the Museum of the Future Past, which maps the coming 25 years of personal and renewable energy, summed up the new perspective perfectly in his 5 minute talk: “I used to think that design was about solving problems. But designers need to expose problems, not necessarily have a clear-cut solution to fix them.” According to the young designer, “design should be like political theatre, pointing out what’s wrong, instead of immediately trying to solve it. We should escape from solutionism to tackle the complex problems in society, politics and economics and project and mould the future. Because there is not just one way things are going, there are parallel possible futures and the task of a designer is to look how the real intersects with the possible futures.”

From realism to idealism
Researcher and designer Anthony Dunne agrees. For him the narrative in design is more important than the end product. At his studio, Dunne & Raby, his projects deploy design as a medium to stimulate discussion and debate among designers, the industry and the public on the impact and implications of technology for everyday life. For the project United Micro Kingdoms Dunne designed four fictional kingdoms that challenge various social norms, experimental zones free to develop its own form of governance, economy and lifestyle. These include neoliberalism and digital technology, social democracy and biotechnology, anarchy and self-experimentation, ideological, technological and economic models. Dunne stated in his talk at What Design Can Do that “we need to make a shift from realism to idealism. By imagining alternative ideologies we can catalyse scenarios for a different way of social dreaming”.

Social dreaming in the Nanosupermarket
Leave the social dreaming to the design collective Next Nature! They presented their Nanosupermarket which consists of speculative nanotech products that may hit the shelves within the next ten years. Among the products: a wine whose taste can be altered with microwaves and a twitter implant. One of the debate-provoking nano products was the Rayfish Footwear, personalized sneakers crafted from genetically modified stingray leather. The launch of this product caused a storm in the debate on emerging biotechnologies and our consumption relationship with animals and products in general. “The products may be fiction”, said Koert van Mensvoort, “but the discussion about them is fact”.

Rayfish sneakers - Next Nature

Rayfish sneakers – Next Nature

Beware of dangerous promises!
Yet not everyone is positive about design as narrative or vision. In a breakout session, Professor in Design Cultures Timo de Rijk  warned that “empty images can lead to dangerous promises”. De Rijk took the Mine Kafon, a huge dandelion which can detonate landmines with its weight and keep track of which areas are safe with a GPS system. The design object of Massoud Hassani, a Design Academy Eindhoven graduate, has had a lot of (inter)national success and has even been bought by the Guggenheim. And that is exactly where the danger lies according to De Rijk. “Mine Kafon is not about solving problems,” he said.  “It is about success in the media and the museum world, and I think we really need to ask what sort of success that is. I like the image of hope that the Mine Kafon represents – a beautiful design object that can mean a big breakthrough in disarming mines in Afghanistan – but it makes promises it cannot deliver.”

Navigating between big future visions which can potentially turn into dangerous promises and finding concrete solutions for complex problems in society nobody can oversee: it’s not easy being a designer nowadays! Now the design gods have descended to earth and are really trying to connect with society, it’s important not to consider them the next Messiah, as Tracy Metz so elegantly described in her piece for De Groene Amsterdammer. Because then, the only question left a year from now is not what design can do, but who is losing faith faster: designers or society?

Further Reading:

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