The 2016 International IDSA Conference was hosted in Detroit last week with a focus on the theme of "Making Things Happen." Detroit, with it's wrought morality tale of decline from the richest city in the United States in the 1950's and '60s to it's recent designation as the country's poorest city, is a place that could use the optimism of "making" and the problem-solving approach of design to transform the lives of those who live and work in the city. Today, 60% of all of Detroit's children are living in poverty. Fifty percent of the population has been reported to be functionally illiterate. And 18% of the population is unemployed.
So how might design address some of these wicked problems?
Turns out, the answer is unclear. At the end of 2015, Detroit was named a UNESCO "City of Design," the first US city to receive the prestigious designation. And during the IDSA International Conference we heard from some hometown heroes including Moray Callum of Ford, Ralph Gilles of Fiat Chrysler, Richard Lambertson of Shinola, Scott Klinker of Cranbrook, Veronika Scott of Empowerment Plan and Olga Stella of Detroit Creative Corridor Center who spoke about the work their teams are doing to honor the recent UNESCO designation. We also heard from practitioners working outside of the city including Core77 contributor Mickey McManus and Professor Yongqi Lou from Tongji University on the future of design. Even though there were no concrete ideas for how design might help transform this "City of Design," throughout three days of programming and conversation, two themes emerged:
1) The future of design requires designing systems and the artifacts that function within those systems
2) Co-creation and interdisciplinary teams are integral to innovation
On Designing Systems
At Tongji University in Shanghai, Professor Yongqi Lou is spearheading a new era of design activism and education through DesignX, first introduced to Core77 readers in 2014 by Don Norman. DesignX is an, "evidence-based approach for addressing many of the complex and serious problems facing the world today." At Tongji, every first year student takes an open-source hardware and software class as part of their foundational curriculum—not to learn the technology but to introduce them to the "mindset," of solving problems through systems thinking. The DesignX approach is exemplified in the case study of Chongming Island where the university built an innovation hub to collaborate with local residents and farmers in designing the future of their rapidly urbanizing community.
Prototyping at Design Harvest on Chongming Island
Taking strategies from both the Shanghai urban center and from Chongming's rural setting, the "Design Harvest" institute nurtured a two-way conversation between urban and rural. The approach was described by Professor Lou as acupuncture design—small, focused interventions that can heal the whole system. Ultimately, learnings from the innovation hub were brought back to Shanghai to help develop a small but connected urban farm while the design interventions on the Island have changed the ecosystem of the community, empowering over 100 people to make their living in a new way.
Mickey McManus, Autodesk Fellow and Chairman of the consultancy and innovation lab MAYA Design, spoke last year at the Core77 Conference about the near future of "unbounded, malignant, complexity," brought on by the rise of the internet of things, digital manufacturing and machine intelligence. At IDSA, he followed up with a deeper dive into designing new ecologies and a community of things. In the age of networked matter, McManus asks, how do we put people first? One way is to invest in new ways of learning and making. As Randy Swearer, Vice President of Autodesk Education, wrote last week, there is an "urgent need to abandon the Industrial-Age approach to higher education that dominates today. Studies of siloed individual subjects assessed by antiquated systems and given value by an increasingly irrelevant system of credits are no longer productive. The process of learning needs to be reframed to keep up with today's employment landscape."
Generative design options for a chair.
McManus argued that there is a shift from top-down design to a world of emergence and co-creation. Designers must learn how to design in a world of more complexity. Automation will continue to take jobs and new jobs will emerge where people must collaborate with machines, and learning will necessarily be lifelong.
Ralph Gilles, Fiat Chrysler Global Head of Design, shared an honest assessment of the challenges and opportunities facing the auto industry. In the "Mixology of Automotive Design," Gilles discussed everything from autonomous vehicles to big data, to designing the third space where auto designers will need to "minimize machine and maximize space," taking pages from the playbook of Apple Stores and Starbucks franchises. To address the coming demands on the auto industry, Gilles is assembling a diverse, interdisciplinary team, pulling talent from the worlds of fashion, trend, lighting and interiors. For him, the future of automotive design is in the power of co-creation, folding insight and knowledge from a wide range of collaborators from inside and outside the industry.
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Back in Shanghai, Tongji University has actually designed a high school where design thinking is being used to connect siloed subjects—math, geography, history, biology and physics—and offering an interesting model for design to be the primary language for interdisciplinary collaboration.
And Shinola makes the case for collaborating with suppliers. Co-Design Director Richard Lambertson brought years of experience in the leathergoods industry to his role at Shinola where he's been cultivating relationships and manufacturing processes with American tanneries. Each product can require at least 6-8 months to develop the the leather itself but the Detroit-based company has been able to create over 580 jobs in Detroit alone through local-manufacturing, assembly, administration and retail.
Shinola's leather factory.
Finally, Molly McGlynn, a strategist at Ziba, offered some insight into storytelling and developing a brand at the annual Eastman Innovation Lab breakfast. As McGlynn defined it, a "brand is the emotional interface between organization and people." In her talk, McGlynn outlined the three ingredients to tell a good brand story: 1) Show your story 2) Find your Fight and 3) Design to Engage. The last piece of her presentation really offered a new lens into how we might be designing effective, and communicative products for the future—when designers are designing "permeable" objects that encourage consumers to not only engage but co-create and calibrate their own experience WITH a product.