Design as Development

What comes to mind when you hear of design? Something trendy like fashion? A plan or blueprint of a building of some sort? Perhaps it’s something more aesthetically pleasing, say, an art piece or something from a home decor catalog. Or to those with a practical mind, it should cater to your needs, like the mobile phone we all depend on so much.

Whatever is your answer, you are not wrong. Design connects a great number of disciplines and its application is varied. But what should strike people the most is that design is no longer just associated with creating something pretty and functional. Design is now involved in solving some of the world’s biggest problems in an innovative and creative way.

That’s what social design is. Whether it’s creating something that has never been thought of before, or making systems run more efficiently, it is about using the process of design to bring about social change and make lives better.

Design Solution – Swedish Design for 170 Years (on at Songshan Cultural Creative Park unil 10 April 2016)

You may not already realise that it’s already happening around you. When you select that Ikea couch thinking it’ll just match with your interiors for a good a price, you were unlikely aware that there was a whole process into making it not only a quality and good-looking piece of furniture, but affordable, and therefore accessible to you. Don’t you feel great when you have more quality choices within your means to choose at will? Now imagine that on a large scale. And instead of choosing a couch, you are able to choose better education, smarter ways of travelling, a more comfortable place to live – basically, you’re able to exercise greater individual agency in every aspect of your life.

We are recognising that design creates more opportunities for people to do this. World Design Capital (WDC) acknowledges a city’s efforts and accomplishments in using processes of design to make cities smarter, more efficient, competitive and liveable, and by doing so, people’s lives are improved.  Awarded biennially, this year’s  World Design Capital goes to Taipei.

Last week on 18 March at Taipei’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel, the International Design Gala as part of WDC‘s Signature Events paid tribute to the efforts and achievements in the Design community. Most notably the World Design Impact Prize 2015-16, awarded by the International Council of Societies for Industrial Design, celebrates feats in design that contribute to the process of social change. Change such as solving the world’s water crisis by producing and storing clean water in places that need it most.

Warka Water is a water tower that harnesses water out of thin air. The structure, made of bamboo, plastic and rope, is dependent only on natural phenomena such as evaporation and condensation to collect water. Designed by Architecture and Vision to be easily set up and maintained by locals with minimal environmental impact, Warka Water is a cheap and sustainable way in harvesting our most fundamental resource.

Inspired by stories of which villagers who need to walk for hours to collect water, the Warka Water allows locals to source water easily under shelter.

There are many design projects like Warka Water that has a strong vision towards solving social problems, most of which is collaborating over a number of disciplines previously considered incompatible. Refugee Housing Unit, for example, is a partnership between UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the Ikea Foundation to build innovative shelters with improved living conditions for people displaced by conflict and natural disasters. Ikea’s well-known expertise in flat-packing and assembling units coupled with UNHCR’s considerations to the social and cultural values of displaced people, resulted in not only providing the basic necessity for shelter, but promises to uphold human dignity and thoughtfulness in the most desperate of times, something that is easily forgotten during conflict.

The Refugee Housing Unit or Better Shelter takes on the underlying principle of any assembling furniture from Ikea. Only 4 people and anywhere between 4-8 hours to assemble. Photo courtesy of Better Shelter.

When design meets multidisciplinary cooperation as such, greater holistic solutions are formed. That’s why entities such as 5% Design Action is so important. The winner of this year’s Social Design Golden Pin Award, also at the International Design Gala in Taipei, is a think tank that incubates and put design ideas into action by linking professionals over multiple disciplines to co-create solutions. The idea behind it is to ask people use just 5% of their time to focus on social innovation, discuss social issues and put solution ideas into practice.

Such entities are quickly changing the way we understand design. We see that it is now becoming accessible to people who need it the most, the poorest of the world’s population, who have previously been deprived of design ingenuity. Though there is still much to be developed and promoted in the area of social design, it is hard to not be impressed by the vigour that comes from designers determined to help.

When I asked cofounder of Warka Water, Arturo Vittori what he would say to cynics of social design, he calmly responded with the following:

With great innovation there is always great risk. I am ok with criticism. We do not pretend to solve all problems. Rather we lead by example. Mistakes are learning tools [and] we tweak designs to adapt to [changing] conditions. But what I think is important is that we don’t compromise on beauty and authenticity. If there are issues, we try again.

Design for development in itself is an ever-developing process, and I don’t think design could be much more intrinsically authentic and beautiful than that.

With Arturo Vitorri at the media forum of  WDC’s International Design Gala, Taipei 2016

The city will play host to some major international design events throughout the year now that Taipei has been chosen as World Design Capital for 2016. It’s an exciting time for Taipei and if you happen to be here like I am, there’s plenty more to explore in the world of design! Check the official website for more events and details.