can designers save the world?

Risk-avoidance is the topic of concern, even more so, since we do all now fear that the same fate as to those poor people in Japan could happen to us as well. The collective angst, which predominantly finds fertile ground here in Germany, is in line with one of our basic needs – security: we do want the world to work according to our desires and vision – safe, in order, fair and fortunate.

That’s why politicians will do everything to ensure us that they can protect this state of heaven – and with that, hope for our vote.

In the meanwhile we know, that whether left or right, green or liberal, all use our angst to drive us, voters, into their political camp: the insecurity they accordingly address varies from prosperity in an economical sense, to fairness in a social sense, down to safety in an ecological sense. And business does the same, they also promise to take care of all our problems.
With each step we climb up the Maslow Pyramid, the nature of the insecurity seems to get more complex: since we do not have to bother about getting food anymore, we now worry about whether food will damage our health on the long run; since it is self-evident to use energy to make our work a piece of cake, we now seem to suffer from stress; in a world where we are free to express our thoughts, we are now afraid to be indoctrinated by peoples thoughts; and since we now all can fulfil our wishes, we seem to become isolated, lonely and spiritless.

How come that with every step we make up the ladder of needs, it feels if we move further away from happiness and satisfaction? Maybe it’s the underlying insecurity that drives us to progress, and therefore we are locked in a vicious circle: we are bound to question every step me make. Maybe we lost our view on where progress should bring us because we lack the vision where it could lead to?

Our ancestors were driven by visions of a better future: hey, they still had many steps to climb. Their visions were needed to overcome the more rudimentary hurdles of a developing civilization. But now, where we have reached the highest step, those visions seem to be lost and insecurity seems bigger than ever before…

Here I wonder whether a design thinking can help to articulate visions of a better future, in order to overcome the insecurities of today?

Nobel prize winner and sociologist Herbert Simon gave a fitting definition of what design actually is: he said that everybody designs, who devise a course of action with the aim to improve for the better. Design, according to Simon, is not what things are, but how things might be.

Well, this definition covers quite some bit, since also the nail design studio at the corner of the street can somehow put this on their flag, also they have plenty to improve for the better… Therefore design remains a fuzzy thing and a subject, to which a lot can be associated to.

But what this definition captures quite well, is the inherent motivation underlying design – to change things for the better. This motivation seems to be based on an attitude of dissatisfaction of the status quo, and on an irresistible and obsessive will to intervene and improve.

There it is – designers need to improve the world, they can’t help it!

This strong urge to adapt and alter, most likely also stems from the rather sensitive and empathic nature they possess, which causes a low threshold level concerning issues which seem to be just not right. I do observe this sensitivity with many designers: they look at what’s around them and see that it is not right. There always seem to be objects, occurrences, services and systems, who obviously miss their point: products, which cant be used, services, which only serve the pocket of the provider and experiences, which are disruptive instead of holistic.

And particularly that what the economy is doing to the resources and the health of mother nature is of deep concern to many designers: despite the many possibilities at hand, sustainability still is an add-on to most products and not part of the implicit feature package. This all can be done much better, and that’s why, according to Simon’s definition, we have to devise the course of action!

In this fashion, the designers can develop from improving products and services to actively drive the creation of a sustainable, ecological-sound economy. Designers should be able, through their empathic and creative abilities, to articulate new concepts for a better world in such a way that we can embrace the future, instead of resigning from progress, because we are feared to death.

The question remains as to what the concept of the better world should feature, for it to truly provide vision and to be widely accepted. And, does the economy really want this, or is insecurity still too attractive to do business with?
Or do designers need to be pushed in the right direction, to further articulate and shape it for the better?

Who will start?
The chicken or the egg?

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