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Why and How We Use Design:
Designing Action for the 21st Century

21. Sep 2021

It is the ultimate paradox: As humans, we have created a future that will likely not be fit for human life. Our ability to design things to meet our growing needs has breached the planet’s limits. Design has for too long been part of the problem. Today, our commitment is to make design part of the solution

Long reads

By CEO of DDC – Danish Design Center, Christian Bason

At no point in recent time has the consequences of the human paradox been clearer than in the summer of 2021: While half the world was drowning, the other half was burning. One week, villages in middle Europe were washed away. Another week, wildfires blazed across the South.

Add to that a raging global pandemic the likes of which we have not seen in a century, and which we are still feeling the aftershocks of.

If we didn’t know better, it would seem that we’re doing our darndest to eliminate our own kind – and every other living kind on the planet in the process.

Fortunately, we do know better. We know that humans are capable of leading and driving change. We know that humans are creative beings. We know that — when given the opportunity and the capacity – humans are both willing and able to imagine and realize solutions for the greater good.

Whether we need to change our behavior, or when we need to do it, is no longer the question. We’ve had that conversation, time and time again. 

Neither is it an option for us to sit back and wait for others – decision-makers, institutions of power – to take charge and act on our behalf. When it comes to creating a sustainable future, we are the decision-makers, and we do have the power to act now.

The fundamental question is how we can foster action in the face of uncertainty. How do we unleash the human capacity to create a true and lasting impact?

At the DDC – the Danish Design Center – our commitment is to activate design to build capacity for change. Used the right way, design is a powerful approach to innovation and sustainable growth in business and society. 

We recognize that, as an agent focused primarily on commercial innovation, design has for too long been part of the problem. As a concept and as a professional field of knowledge and action, design must be expanded and redirected towards long-term, systemic change. Moving from linear to circular, from finite to regenerative, from transactional to relational. In simple terms: From human-centered to life-centered. 

At DDC, we are working in three tiers to achieve this.

First, we have homed in on three transitions, directly tied to the UN Global Goals, where we believe the need for change is most urgent and where design as a method and mindset can make the most difference. Our primary focus is building capacity for the transition to a greener and more circular society. Adding to this goal is the digital transition to a society, where ethics are an integral part of our digital infrastructure, and human beings are the outset for the development of new solutions. Aligned with the green and digital transitions is a social transition to a society where the most vulnerable are included in the decisions that define their existence and have access to the resources that can help them shape their future.

To achieve these complex and long-term transitions, we have built a design-driven approach to working with missions. Why missions? When put into play with design, missions can help set a clear direction amid uncertainty. They are targeted, measurable, and time-bound. Missions offer a platform for mobilizing resources; they unite and inspire people across business, academia, and government to work towards a common goal. Missions build capacity: they constitute a framework for direct participation and learning through experimentation.

All of our work is guided by the desire to learn, experiment, and share the design expertise and methods that drive change forward. We teach, train, and collaborate with companies, organizations, educational institutions, and policymakers across the globe. We design strong partnerships where businesses and organizations work together across industries to design new solutions. As a non-profit, we provide access – openly and free of charge – to new knowledge and tools such as our scenario kit and Digital Ethics Compass, which can help everyone take concrete action towards their goals.

To a large extent, we have built our world today on the assumption that our future will resemble our past. This has left us extremely fragile and unprepared for moments where deviations from normality require us to think and act in new ways. But what if this moment – a moment when we are at our most fragile – is the very moment to act? Design is not a formula for perfection. But it is an approach to shaping concrete solutions to our most urgent challenges. It is a catalyst for action.

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