Better Worlds? Yes, but not the unified future we may be thinking of.

Humans have wonderful capabilities to use their imagination, creativity and ingenuity to contemplate the future and continually improve every level of endeavor. We live in a world of conveniences and have a much better quality of life than previous generations. Design has played a role in these improvements by making products and services better and are addressing larger social challenges directly collaborating with local stakeholders.

However, deeply ingrained instincts of status, tribalism and fear can mutilate good intentions into dystopian thoughts, where people are the “other” and hard power stifles individual agency. We live in an increasingly unequal world between extreme wealth and extreme poverty, authoritarianism and the corrosive impact of social media technologies and platforms that design contributed to which is distorting and eroding any sense of shared reality.

Parsons Mumbai’s Better Worlds 2020 symposium was a chance to take stock of these dichotomies. Sponsored by the School of Design and Innovation, (ISDI) at Parsons, Mumbai. It brought together a talented and diverse group of South Asian designers such as Pradyumna Vyas, Geeta Suthar, Neelam Chibber, Sonam Tashi Gyaltsen and Surya Vanka to share their perspectives on endeavoring to create better futures. Some consult at a larger organizational level to reinvigorate atrophied thinking and systems. Many others are focused on impacting hyper local efforts to identify challenges and then weave together a confederation of stakeholders who can inform, shape and benefit from their vision for good. Other speakers included Don Norman, Professor Emeritus in the Departments of Cognitive Science and Psychology, UCSD University of California, San Diego; Karel Vredenburg, Director, Global Design Leadership & Academic Programs at IBM; and myself.

In discussions about creating content for this symposium which indirectly referred to the effects of the pandemic, Dean of Academics Anando Dutta, shared a statement which framed the event’s purpose : “The human race is on a threshold of rediscovery. Everything that appeared obvious and predictable is now a vacant space of yesterdays’ moorings. Nothing is the same and yet we expect and hope that our privileges will resume, will renew.”


We want continuity, with improvements

The symposium statement was informative, as many of the global status quo has become unstable. The current global pandemic has exposed that our everyday freedoms have been curtailed affecting economies, societies and relationships. Our beliefs and behaviors that have been moored to the “obvious and predictable” seem uncertain, causing us to rethink many of the things we thought were under our control.

This uncertainty can cause people to double down on their status quo beliefs. On the other hand, uncertainty can also generate curiosity and put some of us on a course of pivoting to a new “threshold of rediscovery.” Key to the symposium’s statement are two contradictory thoughts: the emerging reality may be different from what we know, and we want to regain “our privileges” from the familiar past we desire. In other words, humans simultaneously seek continuity and new emerging benefits. A passage in the Italian novel “The Leopard” by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa connected these two seemingly opposite feelings “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

This conundrum is analogous to the challenges of connecting classical physics (of the very large) to quantum mechanics (of the very small). The latter world is incredibly seductive and full of potential, but also incredibly frustrating as the rules and boundaries are counterintuitive, with inconsistent results demonstrating our lack of knowledge and skills to control it.


It is hard to create a future when you are mired in tactics

Geeta Suthar’s presentation focused on market trends that are driving design practice. One of her main points was that many designers are focused on doing tactical deliverables based on criteria they didn’t control, in turn reducing their efforts of expression to production outputs. Designers iterate and provide option choices of a deliverable. A large part of design is focused on these activities.

The question of whether artificial intelligence would eventually replace designers was an undercurrent of the symposium. This fear is driven by the confluence of connecting software to making machines without human intervention. Historically, designers have embraced technology but then come to fear it when these technologies do things more efficiently and faster than their human counterparts.

Without a doubt, machine learning is one of the many rising technologies that will change the iteration and production sphere of design. Speaker Don Norman stated that machine learning is already taking basic specifications and creating many highly plausible design iterations. Humans can either accept, reject or ask the system to modify designs. Consequently, designers will need to start shifting their knowledge and skills to areas that machine learning cannot do effectively.


Design will need to shift from tactics to leadership, facilitation and specification setting

The symposium discussed how designers are going to have to shift their knowledge and skills to differentiable areas that machine learning cannot do effectively.

Speaker Surya Vanka outlined that design is stuck in version 1.0 of communication and products, which is the goal of the traditional education model. Meanwhile, the world is moving on to version 2.0 of experiences and services. It is here that non-designers are embracing service and experience design. Parallel to this movement is version 3.0, which focuses on organizational transformation that delivers services. Design is in the very nascent stage of being aware of version 4.0, which is social and planetary transformation. Surya uses design as a framework by tapping into the intrinsic but inconsistent use of individual creativity possible within every human being. By channeling this creativity through design swarms, or facilitated sessions, the power of co-creation can create a foundation for both understanding and purposeful action.

Design is capable of addressing the challenges of versions 3.0 and 4.0,and it is here that a new breed of interdisciplinary designers are focusing on the field as a macroeconomic activity capable of defining strategies and policy. The late John Heskett who spent much of his career at the intersection of economic policy and design stated that design has to move up the economic ladder to affect policy. Traditional design that tries to satisfy the people falls apart at this level because what is proposed for a large group of people or society at large lacks the knowledge or experience in emerging services and offerings when compared to versions 3.0 and 4.0.


Connecting the social and economic by design

Pradyumna Vyas outlined India’s unique operating environment. Speakers Neelam Chibber and Sonam Tashi Gyaltsen embodied connecting the hyper-local problems of the destruction of local crafts due to globalization and underserved healthcare needs. Chibber understood that saving crafts by cataloguing their methods and skills was not going to help craftspeople. She rightly connected their local demise to much larger social, political and economic forces.

Chibber connected enough patterns to create her own framework informed by the 2015 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals a collection of 17 areas designed to be a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all” by the year 2030. Her approach was to create collectives of craftspeople and channel their skills into creating products that could be distributed not only for domestic consumption but also for international markets. By doing so, local craft knowledge, or what she called a “repository for manufacturing and carriers of cultural intellectual property,” can continue and even flourish.

Globally, we are seeing the growth of social design for common good. Glaring inequities of a traditional capitalistic framework that depresses labor costs and increases production quotas to provide products at the cheapest possible cost to markets are being questioned and challenged. What were once considered externalities are now part of addressing hyper-local problems. Regenerative frameworks are now the roadmap.


Design cannot just rely on empathy to solve problems. It takes active leadership.

There is a larger problem facing design: although the industry relies on empathy in considering others’ realities, many designers only rely on general human-centered principles that don’t actually connect with everyday life. In his session, Don Norman stated that “almost all of our solutions are wrong because we do not understand people and communities.” He defined the following key problems with design as a defined field of study and practice:

1) The emphasis of design craft without knowledge and integration of other subjects, and

2) The continuing emphasis that designers work alone and use their brilliant creativity to change the world

More and more designers are becoming product managers and moving up the management chain. However, as Surya stated, what are designers’ responsibilities and accountabilities now that they have a seat at the table?

Many design curriculums are not clearly teaching key leadership skills that will help articulate the potential to both inform and meet business or organizational goals. Most design programs talk about leadership generally but do not actively teach these skills to designers who want to be leaders in their discipline.

The symposium did articulate an emerging refocus of what design’s role is becoming :

  • design is maturing to version 2.0 and is ready for the impact of versions 3.0 and 4.0
  • design is about all levels of value creation
  • design human-centered values and standards are more important than ever
  • design can be a tool for social good

These areas point to larger problems that designers will need to address – not just by serving the consumer needs of the Indian middle class. The  Eames’ India Report defined modern design not as a production of discreet products but as a coalition of people, situations, environments, capabilities, tools and message systems working to advance India’s aspirations. India is a diverse country of 22 main languages within 28 states that are vibrant, layered, and variable. Speaker Pradyumna Vyas eloquently stated that designers need to think original thoughts and dare to fail through experimentation to connect humans and their environment interdependently.

India’s history of social activism combined with contemporary entrepreneurship and use of digital platforms is a promising confluence to iterate on better worlds. The Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Punjabi, Sindhi and Urdu term Jugaad means an unconventional hack, which couples personal initiative with more desirable outcomes. Designers are linking similar concepts together and making change happen within the constraints of their status quo.

Better Worlds 2020 provided a good snapshot how accomplished people in design view their futures and an intelligent platform to connect what is happening now and what we will need to do to get to their particular future. Unfortunately, the mainstream design community they are presenting to is late to addressing the trends and issues presented at the symposium. The community is being bypassed by many other fields that have integrated design as a way of thinking and action at a macroeconomic level. Our desired impact may become increasingly irrelevant to these larger endeavors by being constrained to expression to production activities. Alternatively, we can begin the overdue overhaul of our beliefs, education and exit skills not just creating engaging products. We can broaden our efforts towards the creation of services and organizational change to inform and contribute to the emerging better worlds we all desire.


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