Reflections on Rewarding Social Design – INDEX Design to Improve Life

Social Design Talk 12

Friday 20 September, Victoria & Albert Museum

Speaker: Liza Chong
Respondent:  Jeremy Myerson

‘There are enough white teacups in the world’ is one of INDEX’s mantras. And coming from Denmark — land of clean modernist lines and of domestic coziness — this may seem a strange declaration. But this represents a clear move to signal another side to Danish culture and politics.

Photo credit:  Jenni Parker

Photo credit: Jenni Parker

As respondent Jeremy Myerson noted, cities and countries brand and differentiate themselves as ways of attracting inward investment and know-how; it is interesting, he added, that Denmark should use social design as a tool to do this. INDEX certainly reflects the democratic, consensual and socially motivated politics of its host country and Liza Chong explained how it allowed for a championing of this other side to Danish design discourse.

Liza Chong eloquently took us through the background, rationale and processes of INDEX to show that ‘improving life’ doesn’t stop at the front door. It courses through all aspects of public life.

At the heart of INDEX’s activities are its biennale design awards. Five of these are made, each being for €100,000. This is an gargantuan amount in the tight margin world of design and it is admirable that the Danish government commit so much to this. Past finalists range from humble but impactful products such as Lepsis’s grasshopper growing kit through to entire Copenhagen’s city plans for dealing with changing climates. Many more of the awards and finalists can be found on INDEX’s excellent website.

INDEX also undertakes outreach work, developing design and innovation workshops in schools. It is also engaged in linking designers with impact investors in order to marry financial investment with creatives who have strong social design concepts but can’t, as yet, bring them to market. The commercial potential of social design is an important consideration for INDEX. Where social design is more engaged in public sector, NGO, not-for-profit or charitable institutions, valorization has to be reframed and recalibrated. Liza Chong agreed that we have to find other ways of demonstrating value beyond pure monetary success.

Another issue emerged in discussion regarding the kinds of problems that social design addresses. At the core of design thinking at INDEX is that social design starts with the problem. Thus it is admirably media agnostic — it doesn’t use traditional categories of, say, urbanism or digital design. Scale, client, public or design approach are therefore multifarious within their award rationale. It is how appropriately and effectively a problem is dealt with that is most important, not whether it is the best graphic design or product.

Even so, is there a danger that sometimes the solution to the wrong problem is being addressed? Can a brilliant solution have low impact because of other issues that are not confronted? The example of a cycling helmet (well, actually a kind of worn air-bag) was given by a member of the audience in the plenary discussion. Does the problem reside more in other road users’ use of the roads (irresponsible car drivers, pedestrians on cycleways etc.)?

Copenhagen is the enviable city where 36% of daily commutes are undertaken by bicycle. It is inspirational in the way it has returned cycling into something that is dignified, stylish and democratic: is not just about being sartorial on two wheels; it shows how cycling needn’t be about festooning oneself in reflective gear to be seen (although in London I would recommend that). It makes everyday, social and sustainable practices visible.

So here’s a thought:  why doesn’t INDEX (or any other institution) also make awards to innovations that are not necessarily design-conscious in that they are not undertaken by professional designers? Can there be awards for bottom-up or evolutionary actions that don’t take design as their ends but end up in design-type outcomes? Equally, should there be recognition for actions (such as copenhagencyclechic) that bring social design into wider acceptance and adoption? (See my Design Culture Kolding blog where I expand a bit on this.)

Suneet Singh Tuli, gave a fascinating talk after SDT12. The event was programmed by the Contemporary Team of the V&A to create a social design double-bill. Suneet is CEO of Datawind, the company behind the $35 Akaash tablet. If ever there was an example of someone who is not necessarily a designer, but who marries product innovation with a deep understanding of economic models and of users toward social change, then this is it. In certain contexts, there is too much stuff. For others (e.g. much of the population of India), there isn’t enough.

The statement that ‘There are enough white teacups in the world’ has, indeed, been around for a long time, particularly in Nordic design circles. In 1968 a poster went up at Norway’s National College of Applied Art and Craft proclaiming Vi har tekopper nok!’ (We have teacups enough!). Similar calls frequently appeared in the Norwegian design magazine Boyntt around this time (see Kjetil Fallan’s 2007 PhD on this). Of course, this resonates with many contemporaneous concerns of designers, particularly in Nordic countries and especially after Victor Papanek’s famous Helsinki workshop of the same year.

Forty-five years later, Liza Chong and Jeremy Myerson both give a strong sense that we are getting there a bit faster now. In particular, the representation of design that isn’t just about discreet objects, but also incorporates systems, strategies or services, that mixes tangible and intangible outcomes, is gathering afoot. Perhaps in 10 years time, the kinds of design that are seen at the INDEX awards will be very different.

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