Marcus Fairs: "Can designers save the world?"

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"Can designers save the world?"

Ahead of the launch of our Good Design for a Bad World initiative, Dezeen editor-in chief Marcus Fairs asks, can designers make a difference when it comes to global challenges like climate change, terrorism and political shocks?


Can design save the world? No really; can it? Issues such as climate change, refugees and pollution seem to be defeating governments, global agencies and other organisations that are supposed to find solutions, while Donald Trump is single-handedly reversing progress on many of the issues designers care deeply about. So can design step up to the challenge?

This is the question I'll be asking during Dutch Design Week this month, where I've been appointed the first-ever international ambassador. My contribution to the week is a series of talks, called Good Design for a Bad World, that will explore how design is addressing the really big issues the world faces.

For a long time it felt as if the design world had lost its moral compass, turning its back on social, political and environmental issues. Designers seemed instead to seek fame for its own sake and frittered their problem-solving talents on trivial or indulgent projects.

It feels as if a collective conscience is emerging among designers

But it feels as if a collective conscience is emerging among designers, and a determination to make a difference. Spurred perhaps by the twin political shocks of Brexit and Trump, designers are increasingly engaging with the big issues of the day through their work.

This mood has been brewing for a while, with former Design Academy Eindhoven creative director Thomas Widdershoven noting two years ago that students' ambitions have shifted. "They used to make collectables for museums," he told Dezeen. "Instead they now go out into the world. They see crisis and they respond to it."

This attitude has become more widespread and urgent over the past year, in parallel with the protests and marches that have taken place in response to Brexit and Trump. Activism is back.

Meanwhile conferences discussing how design can tackle global issues are cropping up everywhere, with the pioneering What Design Can Do conference now joined by newcomers including this month's Design Commons in Helsinki and the upcoming EDIT festival in Toronto.

The Good Design for a Bad World talks taking place in Eindhoven will attempt to bring all these initiatives together explore how design is engaging with five big problems.

The first, about politics, will look at the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, and the popular discontent that led to those shocking outcomes. Can design address the causes of this discontent? Or did design help cause it in the first place?

The second is about terrorism. Terrorists are turning vans and trucks into weapons and targeting urban landmarks. How can we design out terrorism without ruining our cities? And to what extent is vehicle design and urban design making things too easy for terrorists?

Third is the refugee crisis. How can design, architecture and urbanism help make life easier for refugees and host communities? Can design help prevent population movements in the first place? Should refugee camps be considered as proper cities rather than transit zones?

Fourth is pollution. From projects to remove plastic from the oceans to devices that remove smog from the air, designers are trying to reduce the amount of pollutants we have pumped into the atmosphere or dumped in the sea. But can these really make a difference? How can these ideas scale up fast enough to tip the balance? How can we stop pollution happening in the first place?

Finally, climate change. This is perhaps the biggest threat to mankind, so what can designers do to tackle this issue? Or would it be better for them to start exploring ways to protect society from rising sea levels and temperature increases?

How can visionary yet modest ideas scale up enough to make a difference?

In all these areas, designers are already doing good work. Daan Roosegaarde’s Smog Free Tower is sucking polluting particles out of the sky, and he recently unveiled a bicycle that does the same. Boyan Slat's Ocean Cleanup initiative will next year begin removing plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

But how can visionary yet modest ideas like these scale up enough to make a difference? How can designers persuade governments or industry to invest in their world-changing ideas? If we learnt one thing from our Brexit Design Manifesto, it is that the design community has little engagement with politicians and even less influence – at least in the UK. This needs to change.

One encouraging phenomenon is the rise of corporate activism, with big companies using their commercial and reputational might to leverage change. IKEA is investing in projects including refugee shelters and initiatives to reduce poverty; and Airbnb has launched a humanitarian team and pledged to house 100,000 displaced or homeless people within five years.

Both IKEA and Airbnb have strong internal design cultures and both share a belief that design should be used as a force for good, and not just to maximise profit. Imagine if other giant companies that have design in their DNA did the same: here's looking at you, Apple, Google et al.

The design community has little engagement with politicians – this needs to change

So, can designers save the world? To do so they will have to break out of the bubble the industry has created for itself and figure out how to work with scientists, politicians and industrialists. Besides their design skills, they will have to learn how to lobby, how to communicate complex ideas, and how to convince the sceptical or the downright wrong-headed that they have a better way.

They will have to push at the boundaries of what design is, seeking solutions not just to the issues mentioned here but also to intangible problems such as how to fix democracy, how to make society more inclusive, and how to help people overcome irrationals fear of immigrants.

There is a lot that needs redesigning. Luckily there seem to be a new generation of designers who are up for the challenge.