Lessons from Corona: What can designers learn?
Since the outbreak of the Corona crisis we witness the biggest disruptive systems-level change since WW II. All of this is very frightening at the moment and no one knows what will happen next. As we try to cope with this we may ask ourselves what the crisis can teach us as designers. Can Designers be the super-spreaders of ideas and tools?
The power of design and systems-level change
Designers in new and emergent fields seem to be convinced that they can change the world: Some approaches of social innovation designers sound as if they want to put the whole world in a repair café. Some designers for digital transformation seem to believe that a system update is all it takes to make the world better. Design activists believe in participation and tell us that everybody is a designer who can make a little difference that will eventually add up to bring about big changes.
All this is great and valuable work, but will it be sufficient to accomplish systems-level changes that we have to reach fast when it comes to climate change, migration, social, ecologic and demographic issues?
Most of us will agree that design has a lot of power to shape the lives of people and the future of the planet. However, this power of design is not necessarily the power of designers. Design sits on top of technological and economic power. Without them design can’t do much.
Where are the designers?
Designers don’t have superpowers. They can only hope to contribute a tiny extra that will work as a catalyst to make the expertise of others better. Lately we listen to medical doctors, politicians and economists, but not designers. Designers don’t have a seat at the table of decisionmakers and maybe they are better off as consultants in the background. But if designers manage to have the ear of the leaders: What do they have to say?
Chances are designers will come up with ideas of how to communicate better for home offices and home schooling, organize help for neighbors, stay in shape while in quarantine or do smarter shopping. All of this might be helpful. But it is not systems-level change. Where are the designers specializing in social innovation and futuring, strategic design and design fiction, transition and transformation design? Did they develop plans for how to cope with global emergencies? Did they conceive alternative health systems on a global scale?
One examples of this kind of anticipative design is pre-earthquake architecture that uses the studies of earthquakes as a foundation to design new buildings and infrastructures that will resist these catastrophes and will help to limit devastation. Obviously, it took a lot of earthquakes before these projects got started. As we witnessed outbreaks like Ebola, Sars and now Corona we have to ask: can we use these experiences to learn and to conceive pre-pandemic alternatives? Will we have to specialize in emergenc design?
Helping to fight a crisis is one thing, preventing a crisis is another. But this is only true from the privileged perspective of most western designers as the majority of the global population lives in permanent crisis. And this is not because of a lack of design, but because it is designed to be that way (see Mike Monteiro). Most designers in the western world help to perpetuate constant crises.
The modernist framework of values and methods and its narrative of progress are a success story. But not for everyone, as the movement for the decolonization of design reminds us. The modernist success story comes to an end because it can’t be applied on a global scale. As a part of that vanishing story design will have to find a new narrative. The challenge is to “stay with the trouble” (Haraway). No more purity in white cube showrooms and business as usual.
Systems-level change for design
Most models of design stack activity levels, starting with graphics and product, followed by interaction and service, and ending up with process and system. Thus systems-level change appears as the most comprehensive dimension. But is it really true that our expertise in traditional design fields will magically add up to form a set of competences that allows us to address systems-level change?
I think the contrary is true: If we designers want to be actors on the systems-level, we need a systems-level change for design in the first place. As a consequence, instead of aiming for higher goals we should rigorously analyze our basic assumptions. What is our understanding of an object, of politics, of economy, of intervention? How to connect values and facts?
The bad and the good news
The bad news is that while we fight Corona the other crises like climate change do not wait. The good news is that we witness disruptive and profound changes becoming possible overnight. Most of us accept the explanations of experts and the radical actions taken when they can see their personal benefit. With Corona there might be a chance for a reset of values that links the personal benefits closer to the health of a global community and a healthy planet.
Will designers rise to the occasion and reset their foundations so they can become catalysts for systems-level change?