Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 114, Nov 2012

Design, congestion and pollution

We have seen another round of biennales, and themes like “Common Ground” in Venice, and “Adhocracy” in Istanbul brings us the current themes and the design ideologies delivered in nice packaging. With themes suggesting social issues as well as urban and small-scale interventions the themes put questions on the designed everyday. There seems to be a new wave of serious attempts to move design away from being a mere response to the market and power. But tangents of these themes also address two urgent issues of design perhaps more and more obvious to us these days – designed pollution and congestion.

We experience it all the time on our daily commutes, the exhaust fumes and traffic jams. But we also experience it in the shopping mall, in the queues and the frantic consumption patterns that we keep on increasing. Throughout the last century we designers have ridden a wave of success; we have produced more and more stuff, cheaper and cheaper. Even under the most severe dictatorships, with no citizen participation in politics, we have managed to “democratize” design. Or to be more accurate; we have transformed many everyday social services into products which can be efficiently mass-produced; washing machines, cars, radios, ready-to-wear clothes; stuff, stuff, stuff – stuff for everyone.
For many of us, today’s world is congested, overcrowded with design. Not only do we need extra storage space for all our things, happily turning the balcony into an improvised depot of underused designs and shop new efficient systems for our maximizing our wardrobes and kitchens. We also fight in the social realm for a space that is not already too congested by competitive consumerism.

In traffic, if we come early, we may not notice the crowding that follows during rush hour. Similarly, the first tourists love to talk about their authentic experience in the pristine landscape; that perfect beach where we are all alone with nature. But coming into the traffic a little later, or to the beach next year, it is congested. The freer we are, the more we imitate and follow each other. Most of us look for the same thing, and the design market makes it easily accessible. But we all get stuck in the jams on the designated roads.
And let’s face it; most of our meaningful activities today are based around how we spend our money on branded experiences, services and of course stuff. We consume brands through our food. Every job is a branded position. Much of our education, our holidays, and not the least our entertainment is branded and filled with “meaning”. And we happily expose it to friends and over Facebook. We are consuming every aspect of life. At least if we are to follow the tempting trails laid out by designers.

Next time you take the ferry, look out over the Marmara Sea. You can see the faint trace along the horizon, the signature of progress; the black shadow of pollution. It is the price we pay for mass-production of stuff. And next time you follow a friend out shopping or log into Facebook to see what your network is up to, look out over the designed landscape you see around you, and you see it there too; the black shadow of pollution. Not exactly he same, but also here it is the price we pay for social mass-production.

Yes, just like the polluted air around us, we also pollute the social realm with design. It is the dark side of our practice. And just like we over time have become better at handling the poisoning of the air and the smog, through better fuels, smarter heating, unleaded gas, filters and policies, we will also need to start thinking about how to address the social congestion we create, how we design to funnel all experiences through the market and the channels we make. It may be the clothes we design, the branded souvenirs that should evoke happy memories, or the social platforms for communication outlined with advertising and evocative desires for design-driven conformity.

We can see and touch the traffic congestions, and we create solutions, for example make special bus lanes to support public transport. As designers we will also need to see the social congestion we amplify and find a way out of it. Design fuels the arms race of consumerism, and the current paradigm of identity production through designed stuff keep filling up our social realm with pre-packaged experiences. We will need to be smarter than this. Luckily we can see some of the discussions emerging on “collaborative consumption”, services for sharing, initiatives for barter and non-market means for social engagement and also along the critical tracks of the biennales, but we will also need to integrate critical perspectives it into education, our organizations and our policy instruments.

We need to be better at addressing design on a meta-level, how design acts out in the social realm and affects the social fabric. The last biennales have takes huge steps to move design beyond the sponsored sales fairs and wind tunnel-shaped sketches of glossy products. We just need to make sure the discussions can trickle down to the main practitioners, far beyond the biennales.

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