Tuesday, March 11, 2008

the end of big questions?

[to be unrambled]

Last night I was in the audience at the Design Museum for a talk entitled "Can Design Save The World?" Awful photo (was right at the back) but here's proof I was there:

The panel consisted of Chris Medland from the highly commendable Architecture For Humanity, &Made, Orsola de Castro (From Somewhere) and Ross Lovegrove.

The evening opened with the promise of an apocalypse, which turned into the big question:

Can design save the world?
That's a pretty big question. And the thing with pretty big questions is that they cause expectation to bubble up inside you.

I work in marketing. I have experience in PR. So I understand the need for packaging a concept. Calling the event "Can Design Save The World?" sounds much more exciting than "Some case studies about sustainable design". Sadly, the latter was more appropriate.

One by one, the speakers went through a ppt presentation of their work. And there were a few interesting things, although nothing I couldn't have stumbled across browsing Treehugger, PSFK or Inhabitat. My notebook remained mostly empty throughout the evening.

Now, a LOT of the work these designers are doing is highly commendable and of value across the globe. That's not why I'm frustrated.

I'm angry at the lazy format of the event: Choose a theme, pick some presenters, sell some tickets. But my frustration extends above and beyond this evening and even this industry. It's a frustration ladened (confusingly) with potential positives. I'll try to explain:

Adrian, over at Zeus Jones, posted some thoughts on subtlety vs statement. It touched on some things I've been thinking a lot about too.
... it feels that we are moving from a period of big, dramatic statements towards an era of modulated or qualified statements.
On Barack Obama, Adrian's writes:
Clearly he's incredibly inspiring, but it's not because he's making huge promises or making dramatic statements or flourishes. I think his ability to inspire comes more from the confidence he instills.
I think we can all sense this shift. And in many ways, this is great news, but it is altering the very fabric of culture and in ways we are yet to fully realise.

ALL change is incremental. It only appears to be otherwise when we miss the in-betweens. Think of an older relative that you only see once every three years. Compare her with a relative you see every two weeks. The difference? You notice the first relative's aging process much more. Why? Because you skip three-year chunks. It's like watching a 6 fps film vs a 30 fps film. The more in-betweens, the less dramatic the change.

One of the effects of our hyper-connected, fluid world of information and access is that we are losing the possibility for a slower 'frame-rate'. No one gets to go away for a year and then come back with a big idea that no one else has been thinking about like scientists did a hundred years ago. Everything is a dense, fluid conversation. We are now living at 100 fps and all the in-between frames are archived for everyone to see.

Why is this relevant to "Can Design Save The World?" Because when we live at 100 fps, a question like that can not be matched in impact by an answer. It creates the illusion of conditions that no longer exist.

Big answers don't necessarily exist any more, so maybe asking big questions doesn't make sense any more either. None of the panelists seemed to arrive with even a smidgen of a 'statement' to make. They appeared (like we all do) to be conditioned by our 100 fps lifestyle to the point of submission that all they could do was continue doing what they're doing and hoping it helps to make a difference. It probably is all they can do. What more can we ask of them? It's certainly more than I'm doing.

So I turn my frustration back to the framing and format of events like this: A question with no answer and a few PowerPoint presentations.
Like Len Ellis said, our new world "requires a feminine approach of attracting, listening and involving". Such a grand, Apollonian question was not the right way to frame that talk, nor to create something useful out of it. Neither was a series of off-the-shelf talks, some light humour and only twenty minutes for open questions.

My anger is probably coming through in my words. I am angry. Not entirely at the people behind this talk, but partly at myself and this strange time we live in. I'm frustrated that I arrived last night with a naive sense of optimism that the promise I read between the lines of the event name might be kept. I also don't have answers, but it seems clear to me that topics as huge as 'saving the world' require new thinking in organising ideas and input. If we are shifting from a culture of big statements to pragmatic, incremental change, then what should last night's event have really looked like?

If I felt like being facetious, I would offer an alternative question for consideration: Can ppt presentations save the world? Answers in the comments section.

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