FRONT / OPINION
Design’s watershed moment Speculative projects should aim to do more than ‘spark debate’ – amid crises, design can show the way to what comes next, says Yosuke Ushigome
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FROM WILDFIRES TO the pandemic, the past year has been marked by a number of crises – and we are nowhere near the end of them. Few could have imagined 2020 would be the year that governments would financially support workers or restrict private-car usage on city roads to promote greener, more active modes of transport. Crises redefine our ways of being and open up prospects of transition. The Overton window – the range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time – is wide open, allowing us to glimpse the possibilities of other worlds. And yet, during the pandemic, we have seen too many mainstream design practices remaining trapped in the current paradigm, proposing a barrage of speculative product or app ideas – essentially making marketing stunts out of a crisis that has been horrific for many people. There is a limit to the extent to which individual products can provide solutions to wider systemic issues.
Yet design as a profession is of pivotal importance, and the urgency of the present should make this our watershed moment. As crises act on the world, our values are changing. We can’t go back to normal. Neither should design. As a society, we are in a position where we can initiate an intentional transition into a more just, ethical and sustainable future, and design has new roles to play within it. Mere speculation or provocation is not enough. What we need are tangible pathways towards the other worlds that crises allow us to imagine. Instead of proposing a speculative product that supposedly solves a problem in a vastly simplified and idealised world, designers should strive to create outputs that describe and respond to what the world could become. By valuing pathways over products, and processes over results, successful projects would allow people to interrogate those possible futures by interacting with real and actionable objects and ideas.