“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.
And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.”
Oscar Wilde, 1910
London may no longer be capital of design production, but we can still stake our claim as the capital of design thinking. Last year’s inaugural London Design Biennale, Utopia by Design, as it was then themed, saw the results of design intelligence applied with purpose to the world’s biggest issues, including pollution, education, ageing and healthcare. This year, as our city welcomes the 2017 London Design Festival, design has become inescapably political: burned into our social consciousness by the tragedy of Grenfell – ‘a testimony’, writes design academic Catherine Rossi in the FT, ‘to how design is failing London, and London is failing design’; and a recognition: that ‘politics defines the design of materials, systems and structures that shape our everyday existence.’
Design, as Herbert Simon recognised in 1967, is “about changing existing situations to preferred ones”. For too long, the politics of design, and its transformative potential, has been mismanaged or under-utilised. But now there are signs in London that design is reclaiming its voice as a nakedly political force in the world we inhabit – and policy makers are paying attention. Fixperts is an initiative that connects designers to people with real needs and shares their design story with the world to inspire others to do the same. London-based REAL Foundation promotes social equality through the built environment, and is currently exploring new models of affordable housing.
Then there is London-based Uscreates: an interdisciplinary, socially-focused service design consultancy, founded by two Goldsmiths students, that exists to ‘design better experiences and better futures’. Like their predecessors IDEO, their ‘design thinking’ approach recognises that persistent challenges – for example, childhood obesity, and prison reoffending – sit at the heart of a sticky web of social, environmental and economic factors, leaving traditional single-sector solutions grossly inadequate. Its team ‘seeks to understand people, design with and for them, to make sure that solutions work for the people involved.’
Above all else, design thinking escapes the tyranny of expertise – the inevitability that as we get deeper into a field of knowledge the more limited our sight lines become – and instead roots success in curiosity, humility and empathy. As Cat Drew, creative director of Uscreates explains, ‘[g]etting to the root cause of the problem, [requires] not just addressing the symptom but the cause, which often might lie far outside a policymakers’ own remit (and therefore require getting a partner to do something, often without giving them any money – which requires influencing skills).’
Stevens recently led Radio 4’s series The Fix, which brings together 12 bright young minds from all disciplines and backgrounds, with zero experience on the issues at hand, to solve intractable problems using Uscreates’ design-thinking approach. The results are fascinating and well worth listening to. Read more about Uscreates’ award winning solutions to childhood obesity here.