John Thackara | Interviews

Design for (Im)mobility: Interview with Domus

Blue Sky, with permission from Shutterstock

Domus: Are contemporary designers actually so mobile and dynamic as they should be? Is their mobility actual or only virtual? Will it grow?

John Thackara: I detect two divergent but interdependent trends. The first is a reaction among many clients against the "big concept" designer who stamps his signature onto a building or product. There's a growing insistence that designers should be rooted in the context in which their work is to be used. They should either come from or be rooted in the place, for example, with a local office. In post-global markets, localization is of growing importance for services as much as for artifacts. So when a rootless global designer first jets into a situation, a good deal of time is needed for that designer to understand the situation and develop trust and understanding among local partners. Whether or not these "getting to know you" hours are paid by the client or designer, is one issue. A bigger issue is whether clients will tolerate the delays and social friction that occur when placeless designers parachute into a context.

A second, contradictory trend is an increased globalization of what one might call "tool-wielding designers" — specialists who can equip local teams with the very best technical and process expertise. It can be a positive advantage, for example, if a specialist in the use of design scenarios is an outsider. During the early stages of a project, fresh eyes can be an advantage.

D: Would you still define as possible (i.e. profitable, socially conscious,etc.) the existence of "geographical" design cultures? How a design process could be different in India, Japan, Poland, UK, Italy?

JT: The transition to sustainability entails the re-localization of most forms of production and consumption. Some context-independent design capability will always be important, but the main emphasis has to be on understanding and exploiting resources that are already there, in the territory.

Re-localization can involve a high degree of innovation. The journey to sustainability is not a backwards one. If overall industrial activity has to shrink to about 20% of its actual size today — as it does — a gigantic amount of smart redesign will be needed. Most of our urban layouts will have to be restructured, for example, so that daily life functions are combined on the same spot to allow radical increases in resource efficiency.

So rather than "design cultures" I prefer to talk about ethnoecology — the study of indigenous ways of using local resources. For example, forest-dwelling peoples classify and use 99 percent of their rich biological diversity, whereas entire forests are devastated by western interests to exploit less than two percent of the available species. Or suppose that some Polish village is especially expert at making beer. They could export that recipe and their process expertise, but not the product itself.

D: Manufacturing is by definition local: it needs local ground, shelter, workmanship and sources. However, we have just started to get used to the idea of China becoming the only industrial country manufacturing for the rest of the world and already signs of change appear in this respect. Has China already become too expensive for manufacturing? Do you agree? Would you forecast some manufacturing coming back and forth to the "Old World?"

JT: It's not a question of whether our competitiveness is imperiled by so-called developing countries catching up and overtaking us. The rules of competition are changing, profoundly and irrevocably, for all of us — both in developing countries, and here in the north. We are all emerging economies now! We are in transition from mindless development to design mindfulness. That means a radical shift away from material productivity, the churning out of landfill, as a measure of economic success.

High growth and accelerating product innovation, as an abstract measure of success, meant that last year, a new product was launched every three minutes. Companies all over the world innovated like crazy and competed like mad to bring out some new thing at ever increasing rates. Did we need a new product every three minutes? I don’t think so. On the contrary: survey after survey demonstrates that we citizens despair at this flood of often pointless trash we are told will make us happy.

D: Is a design smart only if it is financially profitable? There is a lot of talk (with some action) in Italy about "private equity" and other kinds of funds as possible new engines for refreshing "traditional" Italian Design Companies. Is this part of the future scenarios of industrial design, or is just the flavor of the year for design discussion? Is the green — in terms of environmentally friendly design — more important than the green — in terms of design for dollars?

JT: The luxury goods business, which is what you are talking about, is a curiosity. After all, persuading someone to pay $10,000 for a bag that costs a couple of hundred dollars to make is a form of dematerialization — a key aspect of the transition to a sustainable economy.

Unfortunately, what attracts these investors to small design companies is their brand equity, not their resource efficiency. When a family business is rooted in a context, and possesses production expertise slowly over generations, new money can focus on communications and distribution, not on product development. One danger for the design company is that, as its new owners expand aggressively around the world, its products will become commodified.

A bigger danger, I suspect, is that private equity thinks and acts very short term. It goes in and out of companies fast and usually hopes to "flip" them and make a fast return. You can do this once in fragmented industries such as jewelry, leather goods and to a degree, furniture — but only once.

D: Italian (and some european) design has been a stop-and-go process for almost seventy years now. Do you see a more constant movement in design processes now? Is design "intelligent" in this respect, or not? Could design processes "learn" how to survive in a complex world?

JT: The ways we have designed the world force most people to waste stupendous quantities of matter and energy in their daily lives. We need to imagine sustainable and engaging futures and take design steps to realize them.

The design challenge is a tough one. But there are many reasons why I am optimistic we can rise to it. First, because this new design practice is more about discovery than blue sky invention. Many of the answers we need already exist. We need to become global hunter-gatherers of models, processes, and ways of living that have been learned by other societies, over time. We have to find those examples, adapt them and recombine them.

Hundreds of millions of poor people practice advanced resource efficiency every day of their lives. That’s because they are too poor to waste resources like we rich folk do. Design schools should relocate en masse to favelas and slums.These informal economies are sites of intense social and business innovation. Change on this scale is not something for designers to tackle on their own. Governments, for example, have to change the rules, taxes and regulations that determine how the economy works. It is not about top-down design, it's about citizen co-design. If we can improve things for real people in a particular context, then the tools, methods and services we develop can be scaled up and multiplied. This is why I say that design is moving into the acorns business.

This interview was originally published in Domus, July 15, 2007.

Posted in: Business, Ecology, Social Good

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