Designing Futures

Dieter Rams the designer was interviewed by Gestalten to promote a new book and exhibition, and despite a lifetime in design, he said that the challenge for design in future should be around designing how we live, rather than around designing stuff.

Acquiring stuff is easy, particularly now. We can all accumulate so much stuff that our houses are unpleasantly cluttered, countering our preferred minimalist aesthetic. Or we pay money to have our possesions held in storage, making space to accumulate more.

There can even be a sort of fetishistic love of stuff, the super luxury goods, "design" goods. But I think these are dead ends. An unproductive manifestation of materialism.

The real challenge is for us to determine how we will live. It is surprising that when there are a million designs for chairs, we have so few models for how we might live. There is probably a whole academic discipline, but rather than do any actual research, working for first principles.

We can arrange ourselves formally or informally.

So formal arrangements would be places like work, or voluntary organisations where people are ascribed clear roles and are expected to perform a certain function. In some situations money would be a factor, in others it would not. Another example would be where there are rules or conventions, such as how to behave in meetings or how to play a sport.

Then there are informal arrangements where there are not clear rules. These would include families, or friendships, and potentially flat sharing.

Asking a few questions to figure out how these things work -
why would people participate ?
what do they get out of it?
how do you make them work better?

why would people participate ?
often because they want to, or they have little choice. Looking at a family the adults get something out of the arrangements, mutual support, the pleasure of each other's company and a shared vision. For children participation in the family is generally less optional, but they would share the same benefits, although they would arguably be putting less into the family.

what do they get out of it?
sticking with the family, it is generally an easier way to live. People have scope to specialise, so that they can support the family doing what they do best, and avoid doing what they do less well. Many people find working together more natural and reassuring than working alone. Most people will enjoy company. Over a period of time, a diversity of approaches will reduce risk and increase robustness. Leading to an important point, a lot of the benefits of a family will accrue over a period of time, but they are hard to quantify.

how do you make them work better?
You can make any of these arrangements work better by appreciating the contribution of others more, by communicating effectively about issues, by establishing mechanisms to resolve disputes and reach important agreements. Ultimately there may need to be the sanction of excluding someone, but in practice this should be rare. I think that there does need to be a shared vision where the arrangement is informal. In theory where people are simply paid to work for an organistion, it really does not matter whether they are aligned to the goals of the organisation as long as their incentives direct them productively, but in practice we do seem to be moving away from that sort of purely theoretical model. It is difficult to imagine someone who was completely at odds with an employer, motivated solely by money, being a useful employee. Work nowadays requires too much discretion to be comfortable with people not sharing some overall vision.

Looking forward, I do think that we need to place a lot more emphasis on how we all live together. At the moment it is one of those things like air that we don't see, even although it is all around us.

Perhaps we do need to be returning to extended families all living together in the same house. But if we are, then we need to design our houses differently.

Perhaps we need to move to portfolio careers where people have much more job mobility and can take extended periods out of the work place, supported by family.

Perhaps we need to have a much more flexible idea about what is actually a meaningful contribution to society.

The existing stereotypes no longer work. The welfare state has created a system that incentivises dependency. We need to move to a system that incentivises independence, creativity, flexibility and imagination.

I am not sure that we can afford, or should tolerate a society where all the menial work is performed by university educated migrants, when our own population is unemployed or underemployed, passively consuming and disengaged from society.

We need to re-engineer society and the incentives that it offers so that everyone is able and encouraged to contribute as they can, while people are supported when they need to be. I don't think that breaking society down into the individual atoms of individuals is really helpful in this. There is a limit to what the state can achieve. People should be able to find support amongst their family and friends for the bulk of their issues, with the state providing support as a last resort. Where the state needs to step in it should be seen as a failure of society, and we should seek to reengineer society better.

All this will only work where there is a shared vision of what our society is about, what it should achieve, and where it is going. That is why the war gave society purpose and cohesion. Perhaps if we can create a clear enough vision of success for our future society we can knit together our individual atoms into something far greater than the individual parts.