Design Is Cool. From Co-Creation to Design for Social Change. The Question Remains What Makes Design Strategic?

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This is a week of design for me, meeting with two talented design practitioners in Boston who are running a very successful company, talked to the folks running two of the top design schools and interviewed 4 designers respectively from London, Brazil, LA and Toronto. And catching with my design reading on the weekend. UK has been a big believer that design can solve many problems and forget the role of economics in many of these issues.

People should not forget the advise of architect William Pena: "To put it positively, a social problem calls for a social solution. After there is a social solution then it can be part of a design problem for which there will be a design solution. You cannot solve a social problem with an architectural solution. Let me add another category of design, call it "Social Design".

Design, design, design. Why is suddenly design is so popular? Why business leaders are suddenly talking design? What does design has to do with strategy? Other than sexy products, design thinkers are aspiring to solve the big problems that face modern society. From sustainability to schools, poverty to healthcare, it’s the future perfect.

One very popular concept is co-creation. Here’s an example how it is in practice. Architect Will Alsop was asked by the British non-profit organization Rideout (Creative Arts for Rehabilitation) to rethink the concept of prison. If Idea Couture is doing the project, we will start with ethnography. We will send in a team of anthropologists and human factors to do a week of field work.I am not sure we have people in the office with that vertical experiences (unless I don’t know).

What Alsop did was he handed large sheets of paper to a group of inmates and asked them to draw a new cell. Each participant (minimum of 15 years) drew the cell in which he was already incarcerated. He asked if they would like more space. Next, he asked them to draw what they’d like to see from their windows. They all drew gardens. In prison, there is time to watch things grow. Alsop’s conceptual solution uses an old space-saving technique: build upwards (photo below).

In a series of brightly colored towers, The Creative Prison (yes prisons can be creative and may be Richard Florida would be interested in doing a study too) provides inmates with more individual and collective legroom, surrounding each structure with deep moats of greenery: working gardens, training areas and sports facilities. Next, he tackled the community issues. Rather than caging inmates in massive cell blocks, he proposes units designed to house groups of up to 14 prisoners. For socializing within a wider community. The crazy part is he proposed to add a restaurant, barber shop and radio station. He did not include a spa. I would add an XBox room for them to play Grand Theft Auto, everyone there should beat the game in 15 minutes.

The London Design Festival will begin in a week and this is always one of my favorite events, unfortunately I cannot attend this year. Royal College of Art will be holding two major exhibitions, one is exploring new ideas in solar energy and he other is people-centered design. EPFL+ ECAL Lab, a new Swiss initiative to foster innovation at a crossroads between technology, design and architecture is presenting Sunny Memories.

Sunny Memories is a project that explores the potential of a newly invented technology: dye solar cells. Inspired by photosynthesis in plants, the technology harnesses solar energy with flexible, colored and even see-through surfaces. Over 80 students from the Royal College of Art’s Design Products department, the California College of the Arts, the University of Art and Design Lausanne and the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Création Industrielle in Paris took part in the project, under the guidance of top-level designers. Lots of design minds working together.

Concepts include a letter box which sends an e-mail when the post arrives; a bench which lights up public parks to make them safer and more welcoming; a signpost for cycle tracks which provides useful information to users; a charger enabling homeless people to recharge a small radio on the street; a radio where the cells capture almost all of the light spectrum; while a fruit bowl suggests a fundamentally new way of positioning solar cells.

Another great design idea is the Dream ball, a brand new soccer ball which is made by recycling famine relief packaging. Since a lot of children in third world countries cannot afford a soccer ball, they usually use pop can and other to use as soccer. A team of Korean designers observed that all aids provided by NGOs are usually packaged in boxes whether they contain medication, food and consumer products. Unplug design came up with an idea that can reuse these boxes to turn them into different types of balls depending on the size of the boxes. They can be made by simply cutting the perforated cardboard boxes and weaving the pieces together. Hats off to Hwng kung chan, Jin song kyou, Lee hak su, Han min hyun and Jun jin of the Seoul based design studio Unplug .

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