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Why we need design-revolutionaries

Monday, 27 June 2016   (0 Comments)
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“To achieve resilience, equality, justice, true democracy, and ethical sustainability – we need design-revolutionaries,” says Marjorie Naidoo, Lecturer: Transdisciplinary Design for Transformation at the Sustainability Institute at the University of Stellenbosch – she tells us how transdisciplinary design is relevant to South African and global challenges of scarce resources, deteriorating eco-systems, climate change, inequality and poverty, and food-, water-, and political refugees. Find out more as she explains how design has an enormous power to shape our lives and the process of living.

 

What is Transdisciplinary Design for Transformation?

 

The topic of my Masters’ thesis – Exploring how Design could contribute to a Sustainable City - led me to focus on Transdisciplinary Design. 

 

My case-study was Cape Town, and the topic combined my interest in Design, Urbanism, Urbanisation, Sustainability, Ethics, and Political Economics. Viewing Cape Town through the lens of its own political history, historical design movements, characteristics that defined ‘Design Cities’ (a 2008 exhibition by the London Design Museum), and the current State of the City, Cape Town emerges as an unsustainable “designed city, with aspirations to be a design city” (Naidoo 2016).  

 

Viewing Cape Town as a whole (i.e. not just those parts attractive to investment and tourism), we find inequalities and separation resulting directly from design in all its expressions being employed in the service of political economics. Apartheid adopted Modernist planning to create a segregated city; neoliberal, free-market economics – now acknowledged to increase inequality (IMF June 2016) – thrives on the back of all the design forms which support Consumerism. With its plethora of shopping malls and lifestyle promotion, Cape Town’s design culture can be viewed as Consumerist, with 68% of design industry products/services being provided to the retail sector (Western Cape Provincial Government 2013). 

 

A transdisciplinary approach holds that nothing can be viewed in isolation – the way design is taught, practiced and promoted is not value-free, nor does it operate independently of the overarching urban, political and economic systems. The ideological approach behind the skills being taught needs to be made explicit. The systems that design and designers will serve need to be made visible. 

 

How is this topic relevant to the current South African context? 

 

Transdisciplinary design is relevant to South African and global challenges of scarce resources, deteriorating eco-systems, climate change, inequality and poverty, and food-, water-, and political refugees. 

 

Design has played a vital role in transforming citizens into Consumers. Cameron Tonkinwise (2015) holds that we are ‘designed beings’, touched directly by designed objects, messages and services – the way we live at home, the way we travel, the way we work, our values, our shopping patterns, our leisure time – all are shaped by interlinking networks of designed systems.  

 

The ‘freedom’ of Massive Choice in supermarkets and malls has resulted in Capitalism, Consumerism, and Democracy being linked, almost as synonyms. Concepts such as universal design, human-centred design, and design for sustainability form the ethos of very few businesses.   

 

We cannot grow production and economies on a finite planet forever – and even services and a knowledge-based economy result in material-use, if not in one’s own backyard, then on another continent. This is where Transformation becomes important – transformation from an unsustainable way of living on our planet, to a lifestyle that ensures a future for all. Socio-ethical sustainability must be balanced against environmental and economic sustainability, to ensure that goals of justice, ethics and efficiencies are met.  Given global urgencies, Bruno Latour (2008) maintains that “EVERYTHING needs to be re-designed”.  

 

But nothing is that simple – a hotly-contesting urban development presents massive business (and design) opportunities; neoliberalism, while exacerbating the rich-poor divide, provides ample production, promotion, marketing, and ‘ego’ opportunities of ‘stuff’ – and impressive GDP numbers.

 

How do you feel design education needs to shift to foster the skills needed for transdisciplinary design?

 

With enormous power to shape lives and the process of living, design should be included as an Actor in complexity and systems modelling, alongside economics, politics, ethics, urbanism and urbanisation, sustainability, sociology, technology, and financial systems.  

 

I think Eliel Saarinen’s view of “always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context” fits well with a transdisciplinary approach: the design of an object, message, or service should be considered within the room in which it will be used;  and the room within the building;  and the building within the neighbourhood;  and the neighbourhood within the stocks and flows of the city;  and the city within the economic, environmental and social systems – and limitations – that operate within and around it; and so ever-larger to encompass one’s citizenship in the global village. We need a broad view and wide knowledge to contribute wisely to this complex, connected world.

 

But it is not only the supply-side of design skills that needs to shift; it is also the demand-side, from clients who give designers their brief. If now “Everybody designs” (Manzini 2015), we all have a responsibility to demand solutions that speak to environmental, social and economic sustainability.  The course that I offer at SUN’s Sustainability Institute is geared to post-graduate students in transdisciplinarity, from many specialities, to enable them to make more responsible use of designers and design skills in their field of operation.

 

What recommendations do you have for practicing designers to move towards this way of working?   

 

In recent years there have been calls for Design Activism for Sustainability. This would require a concerted effort – a meeting of informed minds – in the design community.  A client with an unethical design brief should run into the same refusal from every designer approached. 

 

But we’re in Gardiner’s perfect moral storm (2006) – world leaders agree to MDGs, but renege as political-economic costs are too high (the Global Storm); overwhelmed by information, leaders lapse into moral corruption, delaying difficult decisions (the Theoretical Storm);  and those same leaders, through their lifestyle, ‘cash in’ on the resources of the next generation (the Intergenerational Storm).  

 

Designers could find themselves in that same moral conundrum – caught between the moral high-ground of knowledge and awareness, faced with the practical urgency of paying the rent, and hoping that their digitalised Z-gen kids will be smarter than they are.

 

Transition Design might be the concept to rally around. “To be a transition designer is to be forever living in a condition of hypocrisy– believing one thing, living another… trying to close the gap… keeping the gap moving… it takes stamina and people-skills…” (Tonkinwise 2015).

 

In the face of such overwhelming complexities and almost unsolvable issues, world economies are closing a blind eye, and urging the ‘show to go on’.  I like George Orwell’s quote:  “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act." To achieve resilience, equality, justice, true democracy, and ethical sustainability – I think we need design-revolutionaries.



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