2022: A Radical Agenda for Design16. Dec 2021
True, we’ve talked about change for decades. But if ever there was a tipping point calling for real change in business, government, and society, it is now. The implications of today’s turbulence are wide-reaching for all of us. As we look towards the new year, we need an agenda for radical change. Here are three ways to embrace it
This Christmas, a new Netflix film will hit our screens. Don’t Look Up is the unlikely tale of two scientists who discover a huge meteor plunging towards Earth. It is on a path to hit us within six months. The impact will end life as we know it.
This kind of narrative is familiar in our popular culture. It is also weirdly real: The notion of planet-destroying events is not so foreign anymore. Think climate change, but also the destruction of our planet’s biodiversity and environment. Think of the pandemic, but also of the global crisis of health and care. Think of sexism in the workplace, but also more generally of the drab, toxic work environments that millions of people are subjected to in hierarchical, bureaucratic, creativity-killing organizations every day.
Given everything we face these days, you would think we would act. Really act. But the most realistic (and scary) premise in the film Don’t Look Up is exactly that: No one reacts. The scientists’ warnings about the upcoming mayhem are ridiculed, ignored, and downplayed by politicians, media, and people in general. No one takes the seemingly obvious need for change seriously.
And that continues to be our problem. Yes, incredible innovations in technology and medicine do happen. Yes, there are a few ambitious policies on climate change. Yes, some businesses are trailblazing a different path to more human ways of organizing.
But on balance, we are not really reacting. Mostly, we are not anticipating. And profoundly, we are not envisaging what a better future could be like. And if we don’t, how are we ever going to change it? As an advocate of design – the most future-oriented field of practice we humans have – I believe there are three major steps, radical steps, we must take now.
Feel the facts
First, we must work even harder to connect with the true, factual nature of the problems we face. On the one hand, we need to be much colder. To harvest more data, map it, dissect it, analyze it, and create scientific syntheses that are hard and robust. On the other hand, we must be warmer. We must creatively find ever more powerful ways, on a visceral level, to connect emotionally with the consequences of our current actions. With traditional ways of living lost due to imploding biodiversity. With the crushing effects on individual lives from a lack of care. With the emotional damage of exclusion and harassment. Maybe we can better connect by spending time in real situations. Maybe we can leverage media like audio, video, AR, and VR to see, hear, and feel what victims of change are experiencing.
An inspiring example is the Danish Red Cross, which in its Copenhagen HQ has built an immersive experience of what it is like to live in a refugee camp. The visitor journey is so real that you never forget what it feels like to constantly walk in the mud – a distinguishing characteristic of refugee camps worldwide.
Maybe we just need to listen harder to people’s stories. Whatever it takes, we must find better ways that can make us feel the facts. We need to empathize with problems in order to mobilize action.
Make the mission
Second, we must become much, much better at imagining a better future together. If there is one thing that films like Don’t Look Up and its host of cataclysmic, cinematic cousins like Impact, Geostorm and Armageddon are good at, it is envisioning and realizing wild new worlds that we – for a moment – believe in. But why not turn such imaginative world-making into a tool for real change outside the movie theater? Could people within and across organizations access the ability to collectively create scenarios that they would actually like to experience? We need to connect policy-making and business strategy on an entirely different level with the deeply human ability to make a desirable future feel real.
Take the New European Bauhaus movement. Inspired by this visionary European program, we at the DDC and our partners have worked for the past year with more than 150 Danish actors in design, architecture, art, construction, technology, policy, and business. Together, we propose the vision of an irresistible circular society. Soon we hope to start work on a set of place-based interventions that will exemplify what such a society might look like. With a combination of tangibility (what are the new aesthetics of a social housing estate?) and radically sustainable design (how can a city enhance biodiversity?), we want to mobilize people and institutions across Europe to realize a sustainable and attractive urban future.
We must insist, in every project, on co-creating a purpose that we feel deeply passionate about. We must make desirable futures specific and hands-on so they can become shared actionable missions.
For years, I have been a proponent of innovation labs – small, dedicated teams of people that work within or across more traditional organizations to generate change. The work of labs is ambitious, difficult, and often fun. Usually, a lab is an attractive workplace with an informal environment, supportive tools, and a meaningful role. Paradoxically, then, labs espouse everything their parent company or organization is not – while still hoping to change it. No wonder it is difficult, if nearly impossible, for labs to achieve long-term transformational impact.
I have come to believe we should stop building labs in isolation. Instead, we should tear their existing parent organizations apart, and assemble them from scratch based on a new set of design principles: Human, meaningful, creative, caring, collaborative, trusting, thriving. We need to make the entire organization the lab.
At the DDC, we are trying to set an example of how this might be done. Building on a set of shared beliefs in human beings we have experimented with self-management. We have failed, learned, and adjusted. We are now seeing some amazing, positive changes. But it is a humbling experience. It is hard. It also tells me how far we still need to go to make all organizations into places (virtual and physical) of truly meaningful work, life, and play. We share our thoughts about this transformation at a Design AM event on February 1, 2022.
As we assemble new forms of human collectives, we should ensure that they mesh and network with others, and form coalitions around problems worth solving. At the DDC we have chosen three missions to start with: Designing the irresistible circular society; Enabling ethical, responsible digitization; and addressing better mental health for young people. If you also find these problems worth solving, reach out.
This Christmas I will be watching Don’t Look Up, not only because of its stellar cast but because I believe the film has something important to tell us about ourselves. I hope it will make me laugh, and I suspect it might make me cry. If it does, it might help me act, too.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Read the article in Mandag Morgen in Danish here.
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