It's a common refrain: ambitious designers develop brilliant, potentially world-changing solutions to the large-scale problems... which never leave the poster presentation or PDF precisely because they're simply too far-reaching. Even when researched and developed to a degree of realizable specificity, few designers have the resources or network to actually execute their vision, and investors are more inclined to support the likes of, say, Rap Genius, as opposed to a water filtration system for the developing world, which may never see any kind of quantitative ROI.
Yet social problems such as lack of food and water beleaguer the everyday lives of billions, and (perhaps more insidiously) environmental issues haunt our existence with no ostensible consequences... until a 100-year storm ravages a city or nation.
Thus, the INDEX Design Awards represents a new definition of design that is at once broader and more nuanced: moving beyond beautiful objects towards the intent to "improve life." The very premise of the award is that it might ultimately render itself obsolete—that humankind might eventually prevail over the various humanitarian crises that we face today, that we might achieve ecological homeostasis, that we might reach a point where there is nothing left to improve.
If it seems like a grand vision for what design could or should be, the organization is putting its money where its mouth is, with a total of €500,000 in prize money, as well as new initiatives to connect 'designpreneurs' with business training and savvy investors. And if the notion of "improving life" seems like too broad a directive, each of the finalists of the fifth edition of the biennial celebration of design offers a concrete solution to a remarkably broad range of issues.
The jury team winnowed the field of over 1,000 entrants down to 59 finalists, which can be viewed on the site (we'll have more on the five winners shortly). We've covered several of them before, but the INDEX Awards were a nice occasion to catch up with the likes of Massoud Hassani, who mentioned that his team is working on a new version of his much-lauded Mine Kafon; Dong-Ping Wong and Archie Lee Coates IV are hoping to launch the + Pool test tank in the East River next summer; and Scott Summit of Core77 Design Award-winner Bespoke Innovations, who mentioned that they'd actually started collaborating with another finalist, Ekso Bionics, just before we'd suggested that they work together in our write-up of the latter. We were also glad to see several previously-covered projects in the mix, including hydrogel, the Nest, Rabalder Parken, Skillshare and Wilmington Robotic Exoskeleton.
Another contingent of the finalists tackled a broad range of issues in the developing world: we'd previously seen the Liter of Light, but there were two solar-powered lights as well, plus solutions for sanitation, water supply, infant mortality, literacy, textile recycling, e-waste recycling and harvesting, mobile payment and financing—you name it.
Although the field skews towards humanitarian efforts, the inclusion of everything from Liquiglide to Google Glass and TEDx to the Makerbot Replicator 2 illustrate the breadth of the selections.
I was also interested to discover projects such as Float Beijing and Drones +, representing a playful and a paranoid take on global politics, respectively. So too was I glad to have the chance to learn about one of the most buzzworthy finalists, which I missed when it first hit the web a few months ago. Born and raised in poverty-stricken Togo, Mansour Ourasanah eventually ended up in New York City, where he was struck by the radical contrast in food culture. Designed in collaboration with KitchenAid, Lepsis is a grasshopper terrarium that forces us to rethink our foodways and their cultural import. This is precisely what "design to improve life" is about.
Next up, more on the five winners