Utrecht Manifest

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UM5 - 26 juni 2015

UM slotmanifestatie 26 juni 2015

Dromen of niet dromen, dat is de kwestie

Na tien jaar kwam er op 26 juni officieel een einde aan het programma van Utrecht Manifest, op de plek waar het ooit begon, de Pastoe fabriek in Utrecht. In de oude loods die nu dienst doet als conferentiezaal luisterde op deze warme zomerdag een publiek van rond tweehonderd – van veteranen van het sociaal geëngageerd ontwerpen tot bevlogen jonge wereldverbeteraars – naar antwoorden en vervolgvragen op het centrale thema van Utrecht Manifest: hoe draagt de ontwerper bij aan een betere wereld? Met de geur van vers gebouwde kasten als een subtiel parfum op de achtergrond, zoomde een rij sprekers het weefsel van vragen, antwoorden en de discussie daartussen af, dat het afgelopen decennium was gesponnen uit de tentoonstellingen, debatten en publicaties van vijf biënnales voor Social Design.
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UM5 - 06 juni 2014

Het ontwerp van het sociale - Een gesprek over social design tussen Henk Oosterling en Nynke Tromp

Waar het in het jonge vakgebied van social design vaak aan ontbreekt, is een scherpe visie op wat nu de unieke bijdrage van de ontwerper zou moeten zijn. Dat stellen filosoof-activist Henk Oosterling en sociaal ontwerper-onderzoeker Nynke Tromp vast in vurig tweegesprek over de verhouding van ontwerp en maatschappij.
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UM5 - 06 juni 2014

Designing the Social - A Discussion on Social Design between Henk Oosterling and Nynke Tromp

There is one thing that the philosopher and activist Henk Oosterling and the social designer cum researcher Nynke Tromp agree on without any reservation: the recently developed field of social design still lacks is a clear perception of just what the designer’s unique contribution should be.
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UM5 - 05 juni 2014

Facing Papanek

The program of the kick-off event of the 5th edition of Utrecht Manifest in December 2013 may have been a bit too dense, Rosa te Velde writes in her impression of the afternoon. On the other hand, the event made a welcome exception to the rule that social design may exclusively be discussed among designers.
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UM5 - 05 juni 2014

Proposition for a ‘Skeletor Methodology’: The Curious Case of Holmes’ ‘Smart’ Murder Castle

Boris Čučković observes a rupture between the discourse of the creative industries and the critical framing of socio-economic issues in the humanities and social sciences. In this contribution Čučković speculates on the possibility of bringing into view the unchallenged problem-solving premises of contemporary design practice through spooky cases of crime design ingenuity. Surprisingly it is Skeletor, the ultimate villain in Mattel's Masters of the Universe franchise, who acts as Čučković' guide on his speculative expedition through design history.
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Designing the Social - A Discussion on Social Design between Henk Oosterling and Nynke Tromp

There is one thing that the philosopher and activist Henk Oosterling and the social designer cum researcher Nynke Tromp agree on without any reservation: the recently developed field of social design still lacks is a clear perception of just what the designer’s unique contribution should be.

Oosterling perceives a role for designers in realizing a shift in the interaction between people and products, from our ‘radical mediocrity’ to one of ‘inter-est’. Tromp offers designers a conceptual framework to design this relationship from a social perspective. Together they explore how these two views relate to each other, and how they delineate the field of contemporary social design.

This is an abridged version of an article by Tromp and Oosterling that previously appeared as ‘Wie denk je wel dat je bent? / Who do you think you are?’, in Dutch Design. Jaarboek 2013.

Nynke Tromp: Many of the social problems that confront us today are actually caused, in part, by designers. Our collective mistake is that we have arranged our world in such a way that services and products cater mainly to the short-term and personal interests of the individual. These products and services encourage behaviour and create patterns that are damaging to us all in the long term. For example: unhealthy and excessive eating is logical in an environment where sweet and fatty foods are more easily, and often even more cheaply available. As we have also developed elevators, escalators and all kinds of delivery services, it is almost unnecessary for us to remain physically active. In other words, by designing the environment in such a way that it caters to our short-term personal desire for comfort, designers are contributing to the obesity that is such a worldwide problem today.

HO: We have to understand again that a medium is an expression of a relationship and to take that relationship as the point of departure. I refer to that ‘state of being’ as simply inter-esse/inter-est: being (esse) in between (inter). The heart of the problem in today’s society is our radical mediocrity. The media – from iPhone to automobile – are so frictionless in their ubiquity that it seems like a natural situation that provides for our primary needs. The medium has become ‘the message’. And in concrete terms that means: in its transparent invisibility, it dictates all of our thoughts and actions. It has become our environment. So we must broaden our understanding of caring for the environment. If we want to transform reflexes into reflections on our relationship to objects, to our surroundings, our environment, then firstly this requires media literacy, but ultimately eco literacy. That is the crux of our Medial Enlightenment. And we cannot start soon enough with this process: thus it begins with education.

NT: I don’t think I disagree with that strategy, but in my view it is one of the many. The fact is you cannot expect people to be constantly aware of the effects of their actions on the ecosystem. Indeed, it is the question whether we would want to live in a world where we continually have to weigh up our own interests against those of society, in the short and long term, before we decide to act. Aren’t we already driven crazy by those ‘fair trade’, ‘eco’, ‘better life’ and other labels? Moreover, the danger of this strategy is that the complexity of our world system is necessarily reduced to a designation of ‘yes’ or ‘no’, ‘left’ or ‘right’. In so doing we are not making the significance of our actions something that we can experience; we are actually reducing it to a ‘conscious choice’, which is therefore not all that conscious. That is to say, we have realized such large-scale systems with interdependencies that the consequences of a choice for A or B are incalculable when we just want to buy a bar of chocolate to have with our coffee.

HO: Agreed! But what being well-grounded in eco literacy means for a young person in the Bloemhof district in South Rotterdam is different to what it could mean for the CEO or the board of directors of a large multinational company. If everyone constantly had to command a view of the whole, it would require an unbearably alert state of consciousness. Because everything you do is significant: there is no resting place anymore in an intertwined global system. It is impossible to have an overview of all the feedback loops. Every group of individuals has its own scale. So reflection needs to be developed in scales. And the politicians must make the decisions that provide insight into that feedback. Look, ultimately this is a political problem, not an organizational, managerial or administrative problem. But the fact that we must eventually reappropriate everything back into the system, for instance cradle-to-cradle, is self-evident. The time will come when everybody thinks ‘oh boy, what a moron’ when somebody does otherwise, of that I am sure.

NT: So you want everyone to be pervaded with the understanding of how media effects them and what this means for the system, small or large. But is that actually realistic?

HO: Yes . . . what is realistic? I am a philosopher in order to go beyond that. I’m an activist to present this as clearly and methodically as possible. Then it gradually becomes clear what is realistic.

NT: From my angle your strategy is to transform the conflict between personal and collective interests by making it something that can be experienced. By making the loop smaller, you increase the likelihood of people taking their responsibility: namely because they feel the effects of their actions. But I believe that we can also work towards a world where there are simply fewer conflicts, or in which we avoid conflict. The crux lies in the design of behaviour that is desirable from a social perspective and that is in any case experienced as meaningful. But it is not always the case that this ultimately increases the eco awareness, nor is that always necessary in my opinion.

HO: But give us an example then.

NT: Well, a good example is a project by a graduation student, whom I supervised as part of my research. In his view, it was extremely important for the residents of the Afrikaanderwijk, which is next to your Bloemhof district, to simply recognize each other as fellow neighbours. Ultimately, he believed that recognition is vital for solidarity and the shared ability to act independently in a neighbourhood. But because people don’t immediately experience collective interests, like the shared ability to act independently, as being in their personal interest, self-initiated contact between neighbours often fails to occur, particularly when they have different cultural or ethnic backgrounds. His design to overcome this conflict is the platform Solidshare,1 where people can borrow quality tools, such as a hammer drill, a sewing machine or a minibus. These tools are provided by the housing corporations in question, under the condition that the residents store the tools themselves. So when someone needs to use the hammer drill, he or she reserves it via the website, after which they receive an email with the address at which the drill can be collected. And that, of course, is the moment when the recognition of each other as fellow neighbours occurs. But, out of the personal interest in being self-sufficient and effective.

HO: Nice. Yes, so these are design approaches that are contrary to the current paradigm, which is all about user-friendliness, or the traditional marketing message of comfort. You have created friction in the usage, and thereby you compel people to relate to others.

NT: But the designer has avoided the actual conflict. The action is meaningful because a personal interest is addressed, while this does not contribute to his or her eco awareness. Indeed, the users probably aren’t even aware that their actions are beneficial to society!

HO: There you actually go straight to the heart of the matter: in the conscious use of tools which you need for skills, attention is focused on the interpersonal relationship. The transaction is aimed at interaction.

NT: What then, in your view, is the role of the designer in all this?

HO: Social design is the design of the social. It is not the case that design is social. Using media, tools and products you design relational fields, networks. The social aspect lies in the connectivity, in making connections. Social design should primarily have a scenario-like character: participants in social design not only realize the design, they also realize what their contribution is to that society. Designing also has an open-source quality: as open-design it allows us to learn. The design is eventually incorporated into a lifestyle. I believe that the designer should also be oriented towards that.

NT: I agree with the idea that the designer should consider the relationships that their design creates. The method that I’m researching, Vision in Product Design, also has this as its main tenet: you never design a thing; you design the relationships by which to realize it, or in fact mediate it, in the words of technology philosopher Peter-Paul Verbeek. So as a designer you have to think about how you want your design to relate to these relationships. But if I hear you correctly, you want to place the responsibility for the creation of those relationships largely with the user(s). At least, you see design as an open podium in which people give shape to their own actions through reflection. But I remain sceptical of whether that is desirable or achievable in everything we do, from painting nails to cleaning the bathroom, and from parking to booking holidays. Moreover, design has an unavoidable influence without people being aware of it. It’s up to the designer to exercise this implicit influence on human behaviour responsibly.

HO: You are thereby placing the designer in a rather ideological position! Just who do you think that you are? Aren’t you then ignoring all those people who have long been consciously designing their green lifestyle? A great deal is already underway: from geopolitical actions by Greenpeace to local products and local exchange marts. Your approach denies people the opportunity to experience that responsibility once again and to learn.

NT: I’m not excluding your approach from the field of social design, absolutely not. I am perhaps more realistic. I don’t want to idealize humanity and in so doing ignore our laziness. Thus I strive for a minimal social aspect in all design. As social designers I think we have to develop our expertise in this. We have to understand when the transformation of the conflict, as I term your approach (and which you rightly call the maximum social aspect), is appropriate, and when the resolution or avoidance of the conflict is a better approach to encourage socially responsible behaviour.

HO: That’s nice. By defining the social as a relational scale we can demarcate social design as a discipline. The ‘minimal social aspect’ focuses on the reflexive eco-social effect of our actions, and the ‘maximum social aspect’ focuses on eco-social reflection on our actions. In the transformation from radical mediocrity to inter-est, the designer’s responsibility shifts to the user. Then everything within that spectrum, I call social design.


1 Solidshare was the result of the graduation project of Amine Rhord, realized by property developer Estrade/Vestia.

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