Designing for de-growth relies on engagement across sectors, agree #FrameLive x DesignMarch panellists

The COVID-19 crisis brought industry to an unprecedented halt all over the world. The result has been disastrous for economies, but has also revealed how our environment can rebound with dramatic action. How to stabilize COVID-era financial systems while simultaneously combatting the climate crisis will be the challenge of our lifetime. If we viewed this time as an opportunity to rewrite our collective priorities, what would designing for ‘de-growth’ look like? It’s a question we explored in collaboration with Icelandic festival DesignMarch, for a #FrameLive talk with a panel consisting of Hrund Gunnsteindsdóttir, managing director of Festa, Centre for Sustainability in Iceland, Anna María Bogadóttir, architect and founder of Úrbanistan, and Nils Wiberg, interactive artist and interaction designer at Gagarín. The conversation, led by our founder Robert Thiemann, covered the topic from the perspective of past, present and future.

Pre-pandemic: stress, over-consumption, waste, pollution and growth exhaustion

Thiemann kicked off the panel discussion by asking Gunnsteindsdóttir, Bogadóttir and Wiberg what symbolized the pre-pandemic period to them. Gunnsteindsdóttir shared a photograph taken by her 16-year-old daughter, a traffic sign toppled over in the streets of Reykjavík. Prior to the lockdown, her daughter had admitted that she hadn’t felt so good in a long time – that everything had calmed down. And for Gunnsteindsdóttir the image is a reminder that even in a time of ‘extreme stress, information overflow and rapid development’, ‘signs like this’ can come down.

Bogadóttir’s representation also touched on the topic of relative ruin: she shared a visual from a documentary on the deconstruction of an abandoned modernist bank in downtown Reykjavík. ‘This building was a symbol of the future when it was erected in the 20th century,’ she said, which caused her to think about the temporal, material impermanence of the built environment. ‘How can we not only build something new but maintain what we already have around us?’ Wiberg’s illustration, instead, focused on consumption. His snapshot into the pre-pandemic world was a screenshot of a webshop selling a gold Stone Island vest, sold out but still available for purchase. ‘It’s emblematic of the value chain, supply chain and logistics that we have created up until this point,’ he said. 

How can we not only build something new but maintain what we already have around us?

Lockdown: a stand-still, time to reflect 

‘For the more privileged of us on this planet, [the lockdown] gave us time to reflect,’ said Gunnsteindsdóttir. ‘Down to the core, it reminded us to be grateful for us to be able to sleep with a roof over our head, to have food for our children.’ She continued, pointing out that it’s a ‘great luxury’ to be able to keep a distance – that so many in dense cities are unable to: ‘We’re only starting to understand the magnitude of the challenges COVID-19 is presenting to us.’ Thiemann posed the pressing question: how can people with less privileges be included in the conversation? She replied, ‘One of the biggest skills of creative thinkers and designers is the ability to be empathetic – your ability to put yourself in others’ shoes. Now we’re faced with a situation in which we need to redesign the whole financial architecture that was put in place after World War II.’ During lockdown, Gunnsteindsdóttir found interest in observing how global investments were evolving. 'The investment funds that have fared the best – at least in Europe – are plans that focus, among other things, on sustainability. They either did as well as conventional investment funds, or even better. That shows this opportunity to really build on that. It’s already happening and accelerating. How are we going to make the most of that?’

The pandemic has positioned us to think critically about the statement that ‘time is money’.

Bogadóttir spent the six weeks of lockdown on a farm, which gave her the opportunity to think about the generations who had lived there before: ‘They were much more dependent on cyclical culture. They had to think seasonally. We’re quite far from those necessities today.’ She believes that the pandemic has positioned us to think critically about the statement that ‘time is money’. If you look at construction and building, she noted, ‘the pressure of time and the notion that time is money are big reasons for a lot of deconstruction and waste’. She wonders, as a result, what the potential for changing our sense and expectations of time could be, and how that could positively impact design processes.

Wiberg turned the conversation to technology, specifically its role in surveillance capitalism. He believes the emergence of the system raises a ‘completely new design space’, and highlighted a picture taken by a thermal camera inside a drone over Wuhan. He explained that China had used the technology to ‘prove how efficient they were in fighting the COVID-19 virus’. ‘Here we have a view of the world which we cannot see – but we have technology that can see it, and it’s being used as a sort of power structure. Currently, there are no almost no designers involved in this design space: unless they do get involved, someone else will take the lead. Designers have to catch up and take back control.’ Wiberg thinks that there is the potential for user-experience designers to make these interfaces more transparent for operators, ‘so that [they’re] more aware of the freedom and rights of other people that [they’re] suppressing by being the surveyor of these systems’.

Short-term future: first steps towards de-growth — what can design do?

‘We are now living in a time of disruption,’ Gunnsteindsdóttir thinks of the short-term future. ‘This disruption was forced upon us by the invisible virus – a humble intrusion. It has acted as a prism for the societies in which we live. It has shown us where we are fragmented and broken.’ She believes that finding solutions depends on collaborations between design and other sectors, like finance and science, for example. ‘In a world of entrepreneurship and innovation you want to rethink the world you live in. This is an invitation and encouragement for designers to think about their role as leaders, and to help other sectors understand where they’re coming from – to interpret their language so that they can understand what they have to contribute and offer; to try and work together to facilitate this disruption that’s taking place and be a guiding light. Designers have so many methods, tools and mindsets to work with. I miss design thinking in so many sectors of my society.’ 

I miss design thinking in so many sectors of my society

To this, Thiemann responded that for ‘designers to be able to step up to become a part of the establishment – of structures and institutions that dominate conversations about innovation and leadership’, these entities need to be open to designers and expand their idea of what role creatives can play. Furthermore, it is his opinion that design education needs to go further, focusing more on design thinking and non-material concepts and innovation than ever before. Gunnsteindsdóttir concurred, saying that ‘designers need to be introduced to environments that are unconventional to them’. 

Wiberg envisions short-term de-growth as a scenario which does not necessarily shrink the economy itself, but instead ‘the anthropocentric footprint that our economy is having on nature’. ‘Instead of tracking people, I think we should start tracking nature – to see it how it “feels” and make that a measurement of success rather than just financial metrics.’ He thinks introduces the possibility to recalibrate the economy and our over-reliance on the ‘extraction and refinement of nature’.

Long-term future: design for de-growth — more prosperous people and a healthier planet

What do these considerations mean for the future? ‘Thinking long-term is one of the great challenges faced by all democracies today,’ explained Gunnsteindsdóttir. ‘We tend to think, in policy-making, at most four years ahead – because we’re waiting for the next election cycle. Contrast with that an old tradition among indigenous people who think seven generations ahead. They would not make any big decision without thinking about how it would affect seven generations ahead.’ Now, as she reminded the audience, you have four generations living at once, making the need to think long-term imperative. ‘Year by year, we have much more potential to monitor the impact that we have on biodiversity and the planet. It helps us take stock of how we’re doing. We have never done anything where we know for sure how it will turn out. The financial recession of 2008-2009 was a good example of that. [You ask], what is more reliable: analysis, projections or plain intuition? But it’s important just to continue, to try our best. And to work from our values, from broad horizons, skill sets and diversity, and be very intentional about whether we want to live in a sustainable world or not.’

It’s not just politicians that have to engage with designers – designers have to totally start engaging with politics. Design has, for a long time, been almost politically illiterate

Wiberg and Bogadóttir echoed the need for cross-sector engagement to do so. ‘Designers have to engage at this level,’ said Wiberg. ‘It’s not just politicians that have to engage with designers – designers have to totally start engaging with politics. Design has, for a long time, been almost politically illiterate.’ The times are ‘too dire’, he thinks, to continue in this way. ‘Governments are thinking about how they can restart an old economy rather than thinking how they can create a new one. Financial infrastructures and production infrastructures have to be completely revised for a new future where we capture carbon instead of releasing it. So why not get designers busy on that?'

‘You have to approach every project, every collaborator, every client and environment with respect and be able to be wrong when you are wrong,’ said Bogadóttir. ‘To start again, and believe in the impossible. It’s not a design industry for designers only. We have to be a group that connects the dots of these different systems and sectors.’

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