Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 147, September 2016

Design After Progress

Why is so much design still bad? Yes, we got wheels on the suitcases, but it took a few hundred years of luggage carrying to get there. Why is it still so hard to sharpen these fancy new kitchen knives? And to repair sneakers? Wasn’t the winning mix of design, competition and capitalism going to fix all this, and what about “radical creativity”, the latest “disruptive innovation” and “design thinking?”

If design is about making things better, the discipline is inherently connected to the idea of progress, that the world, in all its aspects, can be transformed to the better by human agency. Designers may study some history, but design is about the future, a more desired and more reasonable future. The idea of progress is hardwired into design itself and part of the cosmic order of our contemporary culture. Progress is the unspoken religion and mythical universe of modern society.

There seems to be an arc of progress in design, at least when it comes to consumer stuff: smaller gadgets, smarter materials, and better energy efficiency, just to name some changes. If we use ecologist David Orr’s definition of design as “the shaping of flows of matter and energy for human purposes” then much of the global consumer societies have seen a lot of design progress come along with modernism, primarily fuelled by cheap flows of energy, material and labor. But this came at the cost of environmental degradation and rising inequalities.

But if we look at design, can we really agree with Martin Luther King’s famous saying that, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”? Does design contribute to the advancement of moral progress along the arc of justice? And as design today moves into more social domains, of services and experiences, can we see any social or moral progress coming with it? Can it really be said we are on an arc towards becoming more virtuous, more sensitive, more compassionate?

Let’s shortly examine four interlinking types of progress intersecting with design:
1. Design and technological progress
2. Design and economic progress
3. Design and social progress
4. Design and moral progress

The first two types we can easily recognize: better “stuff” and economic growth in markets. Yet, both these types of progress have gotten an increasing bad reputation lately. Most new technologies seem corrupted by surveillance and advertising, and the planetary limits of economic growth seem all the more urgent to address. On a similar note, the progress of these two fields are never equally distributed, but it may even be inequality that propels their progress. That is, they flourish under unjust conditions.

The second two types are more tacit and inherently soft. The social progress could be law and safety, labour regulations and environmental protection, while the moral progress would reflect the values, commitments and behaviours of people at large. Social forms often seems to change more rapidly than moral ones, and they do not necessarily share a common goal, not even direction, but conflicting goals may oppose and undermine each other.

Across the line, various types of progress and their emotional payoff substitute for each other. A technical progress may replace an economic one, such as when smarter devices overshadow economic safety. For example, “sharing” services for cars and mobility may conceal that few can afford to buy a new car, yet we feel “progressive” for not owning one. Or one type of progress offsets its waste into another, such as when the environmental costs of technical and economic development forces consumers to behave more sustainable, and thus recycling and frugality appears as a form of “progressive” morality. One type of hope acts as surrogate for another. But what happens if the general idea of progress can no longer be upheld?

More and more, the real world invades the protected domain of design and progress. Keeping low costs on cheap energy, material and labour is not sustainable. We face a decline of resources and global migrations pushed by climate disruption. If we take these conditions seriously, design needs to reevaluate its ideology of endless progress towards identifying its role within a zero-sum game, perhaps even face a general recoil from modern idealism.

As Blaise Pascal argued, “man’s greatness comes from knowing he is wretched.” With such knowledge, how can design deal with our shared and imperfect vulnerability, that is, how shall we design to live together under limitations, conditions of decline, with the shrinking of our shared pie? What moral and social changes do we need to design for in a time after progress?

Is there a process of de-progression, a design for de-industrialization? Is design really adept to reduce human misery? Or perhaps more poignantly: is there a design after hope?

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