The Revolution Will Not Be Designed

As we look beyond housing solutions to urban poverty, good design is enjoying a second coming as the cure for what ails us

Alix Rule

In October 2005, amid ample media buzz, Stanford University christened its Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. Known as the” (rhymes with B-school), the institute proclaims itself the home of an interdisciplinary vanguard that is set to unlock the potential of design thinking.”

Bruce Nussbaum, editor at BusinessWeek, is a believer, hailing the school’s powerful methodology.” Optimize and Fortune magazines concur. So do the corporate stakeholders that are sponsoring classes – Motorola, Electronic Arts, Wal-Mart and Mozilla, among others. 

Their investments are helping fulfill the prophecy of the Institute’s founder David Kelley, also chairman of IDEO, the commercial design powerhouse. As the world increasingly confronts what the school’s website terms messy problems,” such as extreme poverty and ecological catastrophe, design will emerge as the most powerful corrective force. 

Stanford’s new institute will not only partner with corporate America, but also develop value-producing solutions for, well, the rest of the world. The puts it this way: Stop drunk-driving. Build better elementary schools. Develop environmentally sustainable offerings. … We use design thinking to tackle hard social problems.”

It sounds strangely familiar. Just as the West has nearly retired the modernist ethos that sought housing solutions to urban poverty (Chicago has been demolishing its failed high-rise, public housing projects for the past decade, displacing tens of thousands), good design is enjoying a second coming as the cure for what ails us. 

Hilary Cottam won the United Kingdom’s prestigious Designer of the Year award with her blueprints for schools, health services and prisons, that combine architectural and policy elements. Cottam, with the help of U.K. policy-guru Charles Leadbeater – Tony Blair’s favorite corporate thinker” – and veteran IDEO CEO Colin Burns, is launching Participle. It plans to join a bevy of new nonprofit and for-profit projects – including Spark! in Finland, Massive Change in Canada and Design for Democracy in the United States – all of which promise a design approach to the world’s quandaries.

The World Economic Forum is on board. In 2006, summit moderator Tim Brown wrote, Innovation and design … are a fresh way of thinking about business innovation as well as social problems.” They encourage us to take a human-centered approach to business problems as well as social problems … so we [can] start to see more of a congruence between otherwise distant spheres.”

Various theories exist about how this fresh thinking will transfer to the world-saving sector. For one, the development of progressive products is causing a stir with Superlow cost” items for the developing world and Green” gizmos for ecologically minded customers in the United States and Europe. 

A May 29 New York Times article – headlined Design That Solves the Problems of the World’s Poor” – gushed over a mobile wheel-shaped carrier that ameliorates some of the pain (if not the drudgery) of peasant women fetching water.

At Participle, on the other hand, Cottam and company champion the power of the design process. Designers are on the ground, talking to people (“users,” in Cottam’s terminology) and consulting all interests (newly reinvented as stakeholders”). In Participle’s hands, design has undergone a transformation. Where mid-century urbanists like Mies Van Der Rohe and Robert Moses were arrogant and antidemocratic, today’s transformation design” is user-centered and participatory. 

But most of the recent buzz is about the designer” as template for the social activist. A common wisdom today dictates that effective change isn’t about reforming public attitudes, but discovering practical, realistic fixes. This belief has become powerfully institutionalized through funding bodies (and at universities), most evidently in the wild enthusiasm for social entrepreneurs.” 

Like designers, the new changemakers are supposed to discover innovative solutions to intractable problems. They accept the given problem, the specs and the budget, and get the job done. This new approach adheres to a post-ideology” ideology: Yes, there are problems in the world, but what we need isn’t theory but solutions.

Design offers a special brand of pragmatism. The teaches students to collaborate, to make prototypes and to be T-shaped (to think creatively, that is). Its failing isn’t realizing that activists need problem solving skills (of course they do), but the assumption that pragmatism ought to be their highest aspiration. 

In particular, design metaphors obscure the ideological – and political – decisions involved in tackling societal issues. Depending on your perspective, drunk driving” can be a symptom of some broader systemic failure (from un-walkable suburbs to deficient public education), a lapse of individual responsibility, or a right to be defended. The solution to the problem is inseparable from its conception. Conceiving of global ills as design challenges may sometimes be in order, but only when a consensus exists on goals, budgets and relevant values. Such is rarely the case. 

Design thinking” describes a moment in the pursuit of social good that hardly ever arrives: when all the hearts are in the right place, all opinions have been brought into line and all that needs to happen is the change itself. If the model has intellectual benefits, it’s doubtful they outweigh the deficiencies of ignoring the long process by which consensus is built – a.k.a. politics. 

This generation’s design movement is built less on a coherent set of ideas than a simple, can-do attitude. As BusinessWeeks Nussbaum puts it: The natural optimism of a design approach is refreshing and relevant when tackling global social problems as well as business [ones].”

In other words, when it comes to the nastier socioeconomic and environmental corollaries of growth, everything is going to be just fine. No need to reevaluate or contest the road to economic development. When we run into problems,” we’ll simply innovate our way out of them.

There’s nothing wrong with a little faith in social progress. Nor should we ascribe a facile progressivism to every voice chiming in these days about the design of the world. In Canada, the multifaceted (if ill-defined) Massive Change claims to understand design’s utopian, as well as dystopian, possibilities.” Unfortunately, it is an exception to the rule. 

As the has discovered: Claim the kind of thinking that can save the world from the excesses of capitalism is one and the same as the kind that can increase profits, and Wal-Mart will fund it. That brand of progressivism is naïve, at best.

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Alix Rule lives in Oxford, U.K., where she studies politics.
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