Low Carbon Design Institute: ideas for a net zero compliant design education

It’s Christmas Eve, I’m reading the introduction to Ezio Manzini’s ‘Design, When Everybody Designs‘ and I just got angry again. Anger, for a 39 year old woman, is an incredibly useful tool. It’s the step that comes before action. Back in October, I wrote a little twitter rant  about the idea of a Low Carbon Design Institute and Ezio Manzini’s introduction is begging me to explain myself.

His introduction includes Herbert Simon’s definition of design from 1982, the year AT&T was divided up by the US government, the first computer virus was developed and the first CD player was sold in Japan. His definition states that design aims to:

‘devise courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones’.

Well. Preferred by whom? Courses of actions created by whom? Put in place by whom?

Traditional industrial and interaction design education (I’m happy to be proved wrong) likes to think of itself as messianic. As always a force for good, for better, for more. It thinks of itself as representing human values and needs in ways that other professions like lawyers, philosophers, poets, artists do not.

But design doesn’t exist in a vacuum, the entire profession and its academic ecology relies on clients. On a market of people whose employees, factories, families, depend on good, better, more products to be produced.

So the client pays the designer, the designer pays their bills by making good, better products that sell more than the last one did. And the designer moves on to the next client.

(You can see where I’m heading with this right?)

What happens now in (soonish) 2020? We are asking people to use less plastic, buy better products, sometimes stop buying products entirely but we don’t present them with ideologies, we present them with metal straws. We’re asking people to use less disposable coffee cups by selling them plastic ones made in Australia. We’re asking people to have an effect on their hyper-local farming communities by importing quinoa from Peru and oat milk from Sweden.

We’re asking companies to reduce their carbon footprint by 2050.  This is so hard, some of those companies are even asking governments to invest in de-carbonising transport because this is the only way they can imagine making less products.

We’re also asking people to be more self-reliant, or local with their energy needs and choices but we have national grids that have to help them charge an increasing number of tiny personal surveillance devices, smart TVs, smart locks, that are almost always on.

How is anyone supposed to teach design in this environment without questioning the socio-economic impact of designing for a continuously new, good, better world?

How are we supposed to support necessary changes in the West, growth in other parts of the world and help others still live and thrive with the effects of flooding and fires on their communities and economies?

Ignoring any part of this complexity as part of a modern design eduction is simply irresponsible and not taking up the challenge of responding to the circumstances. Something the Bauhaus, post WWI, did exceptionally well.

Trouble is, we’ve tried some things before in design education. Victor Papanek had a fantastic curriculum for environmentally-sensitive design in a world of self-sufficiency. Then we had Cradle to Cradle which sounded like architecture was going to get its shit together. But not much happened in the end and the internet came to distract everyone. Papanek and McDonough were eventually reduced to design students being told about recyclability of plastics and material choices like bamboo (also complicated ). And then the heady days of web2.0 distracted everyone into being taught how to make their portfolios, e-commerce sites and eventually use instagram to sell their bamboo furniture. If you went into digital design, you’re concerned about privacy, GDPR, ux, user needs, innovation, more, better, good. Same old, same old.

So what should we be teaching to respond to the circumstances?

  • We should be teaching about the importance of local production and local economies the way the economist E.F. Schumacher might have imagined it.
  • We should be teaching about repairs and re-use the way The Restart Project does.
  • We should teach about algorithmic and graphic communication design to encourage incremental behavioural changes the way it was presented at the Wellcome Collection a few years ago.
  • We should teach the difference between recyclable and recycled by showing students exactly what recycling actually entails. Material and environmental sciences should be accessible and available.
  • We should teach financial self-sufficiency to students so they don’t end up in debt and following predictable career paths because of that debt.
  • We should throw cold water on the technocratic hypes around them. We should introduce them to dissenting voices rather than sales pitches.
  • We should teach creative minds where power lies outside of design & manufacturing: economics, policy-making, debate, discussion, ethics, journalism, writing, psychology, sociology, anthropology.
  • We should be making them ‘eat their own dog food’ as much as possible, living with the things they design instead of demoing or prototyping things to a deadline. The unintended consequences are only apparent then.
  • Finally, we should be teaching them about profound empathy by letting them work with the non-profit organisations in their communities.

All of this and probably a lot more are things I think are worth experimenting with within the confines of education and training. Is it design in the way people understand it today? No. It is design in the way people might understand it soon though. A mess of economics, creativity and environmentalism.

I’m interested in prototyping these ideas as a summer program in 2020 in the UK so if you’d like to get involved by giving a talk, introducing concepts, offering space, offering sponsorship, get in touch at alex (at) designswarm (dot) com or comment below.

 

 

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