Sunday, September 5, 2010

Thoughts from Helsinki Design Lab 2010

How can we, the insanely successful, truly find ways to develop new constructs of meaning, purpose and action through strategic design to build prosperity of mind and behaviour that could unlock transformation for the millions of individuals in our societies across the globe that we currently fail?

A well facilitated conversation with a wide range of participants from around the world, sitting in a double-ringed circle the size of a mini ballroom, can create a crucible within which some serious thinking can take place.

The third and final day of Marco Steinberg’s inspired and inspiring Helsinki Design Lab on Friday 3rd September 2010 was just that.

In ‘A Changing World’, the first of two facilitated sessions, Alan Webber, (editor, reporter, speaker, writer and co-founder of Fast Company magazine), asked the panel comprising Mikael Jungner (General Secretary of the Finnish Social Democratic party), John Kornbum (distinguished American Diplomat and former US Ambassador to Germany), Ramchandra Kulkami (CEO of Cybernetic Research Labs, India) and Tuomas Toivonen (an independent architect, musician and thinker), ‘Where do you look to see the future?’.

In listening to the panel’s responses and the conversation that these triggered, three thoughts came together in my mind, each of from different times in my life. Firstly, from five years hard yet deeply rewarding experience back in the Eighties teaching in a tough, local secondary school. Secondly, jumping forward nearly twenty years, being engaged in a national design strategy project for Her Highness Sheikha Mozah Bint-Nasser al Misned in Doha in 2007/8 and finally, rather bizarrely, on something glaringly obvious – but only once it is noticed – from that science fiction television series of the future – Star Trek.

In October 2007, Her Highness Sheikha Mozah was awarded the Chatham House Prize in London. At the award ceremony she gave a defining speech which included her vision for design.

Sixty years ago, the people of Qatar were largely dependent on pearl fishing - a poor society with no role on the global stage. Today, thanks to the discovery of high grade petroleum in two fields off the coast the Qatari nation is now extremely rich. If I remember the numbers correctly, there are only 171,000 indigenous Qataris in a population of 800,000 that is projected to grow to some 1.2 million by 2015.

The Chatham House speech was a powerful stimulus and guide to myself and John Geldart, then Director of VCUQ's* Design Research Lab in Education City, on our work for Her Highness in designing an International Design Zone for Qatar. Her Highness’s vision was that design thinking, as separate to the faculty of critical thought, could help to bring about “prosperity of mind and behaviour” in Qatari society.

I felt this to be a remarkable and challenging insight. Anywhere else I have worked in the world on design policy, in developed or developing economies and societies, the thrust for design (and its rationale to political systems), has always been for competitiveness and wealth creation.

In Qatar that was not the goal.

In a society that had become suddenly very, very rich and that had been subsequently propelled onto the global stage bringing with it the punishing realities of rapid expansion, Her Highness had recognised the urgent need to address future social coherence and cohesion. Considerable financial wealth could surely, over time, erode innovation and entrepreneurship in its most far-reaching sense.

‘What sort of society do we want to have and how do we, in the face of great wealth, (that is assured for at least the next one hundred years), preserve the self-actualising spirit that is necessary to keep an indigenous society alive, vibrant and innovating?’

In the spirit of the Helsinki Design Lab, I therefore firstly reflected that it could benefit all of us to consider how we might work towards eradicating poverty of mind and behaviour.

My second thought was about learning.

'Education’ seems to be a word more widely and easily used than ‘learning’. And yet, for me, education and the systems of education that we maintain, can be founded on the notion of what is in effect nothing more than a ‘postal delivery service’ - the 'posting' of content and knowledge from a sender to a receiver. Surely this can never reflect the multiple dimensions of human potential.

As a society, I believe we pay too little attention to the far richer concept of learning – where and how and in what ways it can really take place.

What systems, or better still, in the words of panellist Ramchandra Kulkami, what attitudes do we need to develop in order to create individual and personalised learning experiences tailored to our emerging understanding of multiple intelligence and diverse learning styles. What methods and experiences can we frame and inspire, (not curricula), that would seed a love of learning for a lifetime and improve access to opportunity?

Many in design have come to accept the benefits and principles of Design for All

Could we not then accept and explore the notion of ‘design learning for all’

This is not meant in the sense of a traditional design education, in order for everyone to be, or become, a designer. Marco Steinberg reflected on his view of design as pattern recognition. Others spoke about constructs of strategic design within a systemic view of the world. Our view of design and what it can be is maturing. How can we effectively introduce strategic design approaches into learning contexts in all levels of general education?

Design learning for all, from kindergarten upwards, would bring added value to millions of individual learners who would otherwise be schooled mostly in reductionist, linear thinking utilising principally word and number.

It would sensitise the next generation of politicians to strategic design long before they become politicians. They would see the value and have the tools and language to re-design political systems and discourse in order to discover better ways to confront complex challenges within long-term, rather than short-term, vote-driven, timescales.

Our economies would also benefit. All young people destined for a lifetime in business and industry, but who don’t even know it yet, would already be exposed to design-enriched attitudes, language, methods and approaches by the time they get there.

Design learning for all would be a useful first step in providing all sections of schooled society with a new set of personal skills, attitudes and capacities. These strategic design insights and know-how would help them to confront their future lives in the turbulent wake and uncertainties of the globally networked societies and economies.

And I should add, as a side effect, it would also lead to better, more strategic designers across the wole spectrum of design disciplines.

And so to my third thought.

Spurred on by facilitator Alan Webber’s question, ‘Where do I look to see the future?’, I found myself recognising one particularly surprising aspect about Star Trek that I hadn’t really thought about before.

In Star Trek, there is no money.

Looking perhaps a hundred years ahead, not twenty, could we not now at least be starting to create a tiny seed, or at least the ‘design specification’ for a seed to speculate upon and to visualise how we might go about designing out money?

Could we begin to envisage the architecture of that opportunity?

There is no doubt, as we kept reminding ourselves last week, that the Helsinki Design Lab was a group of the very privileged, educated few – the “insanely successful” as someone commented on Friday.

So what can happen now? Let me know what you think.

* Virginia Commonwealth University Qatar

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