Design after Design
Lecture given as part of University of the Arts' 5 Days. Ten Years. 1 Planet festival, September 2020
Thank you for joining me this afternoon. I have got just 30 minutes to present a provocative suggestion, namely that the founding principles of design as defined in the modern project are, at best, challenged by the climate emergency, at worst made irrelevant by it. By the modern project, I mean the project of the past two centuries that is defined by the principles of progress, growth, order and reason. Arising out of the philosophical moment of the Enlightenment, the modern project remains the dominant mode of thinking and acting in politics, in economics, and most of all in the conjunction of these two in the ideologies of neoliberalism and late capitalism.
My argument is twofold. First, that design has been implicated in the perpetuation of the modern project, and that many of the principles on which design has been founded are principles of the modern project. Second, that the modern project, with its addiction to progress, growth and extraction, has been the primary cause of the climate emergency. So, if the climate emergency, and the accompanying crisis of COVID, confront head-on the viability of the modern project, then they at the same time call into question the foundation stones of modern design.
The title 'Design after Design’, is knowingly provocative, suggesting as it does that the climate emergency makes accepted notions and values of design at best fragile, at worst unviable and so redundant. The provocation is meant to reflect the urgency of the environmental crisis and with it the pressing need to consider radical alternatives to design practice as it is presently constituted. If, as many argue, the emergency demands systemic changes to dominant economic models, social structures and behaviours, then what are the implications of these changes for design and its education?
DESIGN AND THE MODERN PROJECT
First, however, I have to establish the relationship of design to the modern project, and in such a limited time can only do this through quick sketches that may descend into caricature. Let me take the four terms that I used to outline the modern project – progress, growth, order, reason – and apply them to design to show they may be related.
Progress: If the modern project is underpinned by the need to maintain progress on all fronts, then design is used as a messenger for that urge. This is why words like 'innovative', 'fresh', 'pioneering' are used to signal 'good' design, particularly in the corporate sector. In the clutches of progress, design is never allowed to rest. It must continually reinvent itself, which in turn fuels both the market for design (because the market requires the production of endless novelty in order to sustain desire, and with it consumption) and also the marketplace of designers (because they are needed to compete against each other in the production of novelty).
If one scratches beneath the shiny surface of these 'innovative' design, one often finds that the underlying design has not shifted much or, in the case of housing design, has often regressed into a botched pre-modern version of the world. Here technology is to persuade us that progress is being made – smart cars, smart homes, another app – and even if the gains are marginal, design is used as the signal of progress.
The second term is growth, the twin sibling of progress, because the modern project is only deemed credibly progressive on the back of markers of growth, most pervasively those of the economy such as GDP. The trouble with growth in relation to design is threefold. First, it is predicated on extraction: more stuff means more extraction (through methods such as upcycling and circular design are now challenging this). Second, growth means the invention of new products to keep increasing demand, and with this the pushing of things that we just did not know we needed, many of which then become redundant when we discover that we did not really need them. Third, in the shadow of growth lies obsolescence. Often the only way to maintain the sale of the products is to design in obsolescence – to extent that we are now meant to feel grateful that mobile phone manufacturers guarantee three years of upgrades. All three by-products of the design for growth – extraction, redundancy, obsolescence – lead to waste. All three, in turn, magnify the conditions that have led to the climate emergency.
The third term of the modern project is order. As my intellectual mentor Zygmunt Bauman notes, the unruliness of the pre-moderns was seen as a threat to modern mind: "the response to the shock was a dream and an effort to make order solid, obligatory and reliably founded." The modern project was, and still is, a project of ordering and categorising, and with it a project of excluding and privileging. In terms of design, this most obviously reflected in a dominant aesthetic but, more importantly, to achieve this the other of order has to be suppressed. Design is consequently overseen by canons of taste, and these are constructed by particular Eurocentric world views that in so many ways exclude difference – of race, of class, of place, of gender.
The final term is that of reason: the application of rational thought to a given context in order to better it. The world is viewed as a set of problems, which only the expert, rational, mind is in the position to 'solve'. It is from here that the commonplace definition of design as a 'problem-solving' activity comes, one which brings with it assumptions of clear and systematic thought. Although these assumptions are challenged by some contemporary design scholars, the paradigm of problem-solving retains an attractive aura.
CLIMATE AND THE END OF THE MODERN PROJECT
The modern project, with design as its handmaiden, is so entrenched and so powerful that it presents itself as the natural order, one that accepts the exploitations and inequalities that accompany it as an inevitable part of the system. The self-determined rationality of the project smothers any attempts to confront its injustices on ethical grounds; and the contingent claims of ethics do not present an obstacle to the march of progress, growth, order and reason; these must continue whatever the consequences. The only option, therefore, is to confront the modern project with the irrefutable evidence of its own catastrophe, its future demise. The only way to do this is to expose it to the hard facts of the climate emergency, and the multiple implications of these facts on the future of the planet. The conditions of the climate emergency present fatal challenges to my four terms of the modern project, and with this unravel the stability of design within it.
First, the emergency brings to a shuddering halt the very principle of progress. Hold up the mirror of shattering ice shelves, failed crops, species extinction, mass migration, extreme weather events, and much more, to any notion of progress as defined by modernity, and it shatters under the reflection. With this goes design's association of progress with certain aesthetic, formal or technical innovations, because these are exposed as impotent in the face of the storm of the emergency. I feel this redundancy, and so decadence, of formal innovation most keenly as an architect, where for too many years 'progressive' architecture has been celebrated on the grounds of fresh forms, most of which fly in the face of even the most basic climate mitigation measures.
Second, the climate emergency demands we reconsider all notions and definitions of growth. As framed by the modern project, growth compels more consumption and with it more extraction, particularly of fossil fuels, and more disruption of the natural world. As Isabelle Stengers asks, will the future define growth as irresponsible, even criminal?
Third, the climate emergency cannot be subjected to order. It is by its very nature an unruled, unruly, disruption of climatic cycles, bringing with it terrible destruction. Trump's lying claim that one could stop the West Coast wildfires through a bit of tidying up of forest paths and undergrowth is an indication of the futility of order in the face of such violence.
Finally, reason. The technocrats of the modern era still hold out false hope that the climate emergency is a problem that can be solved through scientific method. More and more extreme technological solutions are proposed, from carbon capture to spraying the sky with 'sun-reflective' particles of sulphur dioxide (which just shifts and magnifies the problem elsewhere.) Yes, we need to eliminate carbon, but that brings with it a stream of interconnected complexities that need different modes of ecological thinking and empathetic acting if any sense is to be made of them.
DESIGN AFTER DESIGN
If my very sketchy premise is along the right tracks, then what happens to design? If design is in the thrall to, and the servant of, the modern project, and if the modern project is no longer tenable under the urgencies of the climate emergency, then the implication is that design as we know it has run its course, even contributing to its own redundancy. What happens, to be clear, to design after the modern project of design is found wanting? The climate crisis fundamentally disrupts the value system and with it the cultures and identities, on which design has thus far been founded. The emergency demands we come to provisional answers, and soon; it forces the condition of design after design, in which previous assumptions and operations are replaced with new ones. This might sound like a negative scenario — the dismantling of a discipline — but I suggest otherwise. The climate emergency presents not so much new opportunities, but a radically new set of demands and conditions, which bring with them radically new social contexts which need design to think through them.
Of course, there are already multiple inspiring examples of design practice and thinking that resist my broad-brush argument. We have seen many in this week of talks, including work from across the university research centres. These examples begin to suggest what design after design might mean. What we see is a radical shift from design being attached and addicted to the production of the new, and into practices that pay attention to what comes before the object and what comes after it.
Before the object we see designers alert to whether an object is needed at all, thinking first to redesign social systems that obviate the need for more stuff. This entails engaging with collaborative techniques which displace design from the domain of the expert and into a shared venture, and thus one that has more meaning to those who will use it. Here we move away from received notions of design as ordering and with it the perpetuation of an established canon of taste and culture, into a world that is accommodating of difference. Also, design is not seen as a problem-solving exercise, in which only the expert has the solutions, but rather as a collective enterprise of sense-making.
Design before the object is also necessarily sensitive to systems of production, both material and human. Materially, it looks to eliminate the extractive processes on which previous design has been founded, through the use of tactics including circular design, upcycling, and retrofitting. In human terms, design before the object engages with forms of labour that avoid the violent exploitations of late capitalism, many of which also wreak environmental damage.
Design after the object looks to the consequences of design in terms of its environmental and social impact. Most obviously this is concerned with reduction in carbon use, but also with the designing out of obsolescence, of designing for flexibility and adaptation, and so on – much of which is covered in the work I did with others on the design of scarcity.
These ideas of design working away from the production of the new are documented by many others, who give pointers to what design after design might mean. What I want to finish with now is a reflection on how the current conditions that we are living under have accelerated the need for design after design, and also give clear indicators as to the spaces that design could move into.
The pandemic is an ecological crisis brought about the overwhelming demands of growing urban populations encroaching on nature and wildness, a story that starts with bats and then spreads like wildfire. And it is a crisis of globalization, as unprecedented flows of people drag the virus across the world. And finally, it is a crisis of capital because the market simply does not have answers, except in the exploitative moves of hedge funds shorting the system. In all of these ways, the pandemic is closely related to the conditions of the climate emergency, acting as a window into what might be coming, and with it an opportunity to rethink the way we live.
The modern project, at least in its ghoulish manifestation under Dominic Cummings, has attempted to deal with the COVID crisis and is palpably failing. Disaster capitalism is in overdrive, throwing open the miseries of human life to be exploited by the free market, and allowing billionaires to increase their wealth as food banks collapse under the pressure. We only have to look at track and trace – for example the fiasco of Serco and the other privateers versus the successes of localised, human, systems such as seen in Kerala in India – to understand that the methods of the modern project are bereft in the face of the systemic change thrown up by COVID and climate. And we look on in despair as technocratic 'solutions', such as the hubris of the "moonshot" in the UK, are dismissed by experts from all sides.
Instead of these ideologically driven approaches to the COVID crisis, which are also appearing in the neo-liberal rhetoric around climate, it is more productive to look at some of the models and situations that COVID is throwing up or else implying as necessary. A provisional list might include conditions:
- of the local over the dominance of the globalized economy
- of the distributed over the centralized
- of openness as a virtue against the increasing closing of discourse and control
- of communal cohesion over the social atomization of capital
- of the circular system over the linear
- of valuing people for what they do rather than what the market determines as their worth
- of the regenerative over extractive
- of multiple scales of operation over the bigness of economic titans
- of agile forms of social and technical innovation against the static hold of the centre
- of a return to the vernacular as the truly progressive against the shininess of the desire-making machine
Taken together, this list begins to suggest a radical shift in societal relations, most of which can be also be understood as new models within the climate emergency. In all cases, these models demand design, not in the traditional sense of the proliferation of objects, but design understood as making sense of and then intervening in societal formations. If one basic definition of design is that it takes a chunk of the world - be it material, societal, natural or a combination - and transforms it productively for the better, then the new societal conditions of COVID and the climate emergency need design to assist in their formation. This, then, becomes the location of design after design.
My optimism lies in the fact that this work is already underway, right in front of our very eyes, in the extraordinary work our students did during lockdown. Against all the odds, in the face of sometimes overwhelming personal circumstances, they managed to reinvent in two ways. First in terms of all their practices, which necessarily became more agile, and touched the earth more lightly. Secondly in the issues that they addressed and then transformed as the intensity of their personal experience was carried through into their work. The external conditions of COVID, race and climate often became central to their work. It would be good to have someone trawl through the online showcase to interpret and document these new modes of design, but my hunch is that our students have already brilliantly shown us that there is design after design.
London: September 2020