Can Clever Design Save the World?

As part of Sydney Design 2013, the Powerhouse Museum invited Nell Schofield to host a panel of experts to talk about the pleasures and pitfalls of socially-responsible design.

“It is 2018, and we hear the rummbling sounds of the earth. They are the sounds of a tsunami surging our way, and washing out most past of Sydney. Most people have to  take refuge in the Olympic stadium in Homebush. There’s one building that remains standing, enduring the massive forces of nature…..”

Panels are usually not my favourite way to learn / be entertained, but I was happily surprised by the approach of Storytelling Nell took.

With storytelling being an important way to engage people today’s meaning economy, it was refreshing to see a panel of experts being taken slightly outside of their comfort zone, creativity engaged to form the story.

The main word used, discussing the rebuild of the urban landscape (caused by the hypothetical tsunami) was community.

David Sheppard, president of the New Zealand Institute of Architects, talked about the rebuilding of Christchruch after the major eathquakes in 2011. He found that government has not had a very innovative approach to the rebuild process. Instead of helping those people who get up and want to create something, they are holding on to their laws and processes in place before the earthquake. So something like setting up a little community café becomes impossible – as they have to go through a expensive and lengthly process of getting licenses and government approvals – which then they don’t get. Fixing your own garage is currently a matter of being on a waitinglist, where you wait for the authorities to approve your request. You’d think the government would love to just get you started on fixing your own property?!

This ties in with what Antoine Hermens proposed – it’s all about ‘Shared Value Creation’ and getting non-traditional partners working together on non-traditional solutions. He talked about the new Business School building – the Tree of Knowledge – in development right now, lead by the famous Guggenheim architect Frank Gehry. The building is designed for collaboration, both between academics and students, and cross-discipline.

Paul Pholeros, also seen at Tedx Sydney, is the director of Healthhabitat, working with indigenous people to improve their health & living environments. In the Housing for Health projects, he’s learnt from the practical approach of the indigenous: building a(n urban) life starts with ‘Water In and Shit Out’. He claims that today renovating seems to mean ‘to add’. If the city of Sydney would stop rennovating for 1 year, they would be able to achieve their energy goal. The reason why we keep making homes bigger, is because there’s no actual incentive at the moment to make them smaller….

Veena Sahajwalla, director for Sustainable Materials Research & Technology (SMaRT@UNSW), closed the night with discussing a question about the responsibility of designers. You might create a product , and design it so it is easy to dismantle into the different kinds of material, at the end of it’s lifecycle. But making it recyclable, doesn’t mean it actually get’s recycled. And when a user does put it in a recycled bin, it still dones’t mean the material is actually reused or recycled. So as a designer, you have to take responsibility and think a bit more about the materials you use and their properties in terms of durability it’s impact on the environment. Cheap is not always the cheapest option for the world in the longrun.

The storytelling idea was a good one. However when taking such an approach, I think you have to ensure the story is tailored to every panel member’s expertise, making sure it facilitates a chance to express their most interesting and informative thoughts.

Image: VacciPak design by Hollie Baigent –

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