What can design do?

Facing up to global challenges.

“If you had $50 million, what would you spend it on?”
- Larry Page

In his essay, “Thanks for Asking, Larry” Sean Lally describes his encounter with Larry Page, a co-founder of Google. Page’s above question was posed to a group of experts at a science and technology forum which Lally, an architect, had managed to sneak into. He recounts the scripted ‘elevator pitch’ responses for big picture transformation: invest in clean energy, geo-engineer the atmosphere, prepare for the AI revolution.

Lally provided a different kind of response. He critiqued the mentality of 'solving the problem’ with only a technological fix - a get-out-of-jail free card allowing us to continue with our consumption patterns. Instead, he suggested a mix of education and speculation could help to ‘pull’ people into the future. Change happens faster if you can alter demand before you push supply. For example, the transition from coal to oil was promoted through the imagining of ‘a new tomorrow’, a whole new way of life oriented around the motor vehicle. Lally believes we need to bring designers into the conversation - to create images and stories describing new places and environments, uniting people around a new future that we can work towards. It’s exactly this approach that I think is an indication of how designers can find agency to address global challenges.

This designer’s approach interweaves rather than opposes art and science. I see this in our work at HASSELL - a practice that intersects strategic multidisciplinary intelligence with cutting edge design. Working as an urban designer, I have to make decisions based on research and supposedly objective facts. These facts are interpreted from various data sources, helping to form strategies for urban transformation. However, the reality of urbanism is that there is no single objective solution, but instead many possibilities. The best design strategies are packaged within captivating stories which provide a hook to mobilise clients and the community around a collective vision. This intersection of technical and conceptual thinking creates fertile ground to enable key discussions across disciplines, and is something that we as designers can bring to the table to help address our global challenges.

Thinking bigger

I think it’s important that we try and understand and think critically about the big-picture systems in which we are working. As urban designers, architects and landscape architects, we are taught to focus our attention on improving cities. The logic is that if we make cities more liveable, sustainable, efficient and convenient we are doing our best for the planet, one commissioned project at a time. However, alongside this discrete project work, I think we need to think broader and further into the future. We need to conceptualise cities not as bounded objects but as interconnected urban regions. Every city is dependent upon vast territories of resource extraction and production to fuel its growth.

For example, with every new tower in the city we build, there is an inverse effect - a hole in the ground that is the elephant in the room: never talked about. Resources are literally extracted from the ground through mining and transported across the planet to be recomposed anew. Jane Hutton describes this idea in her essay on ‘reciprocal landscapes’, where the selection of particular materials in various landscapes in New York has had direct impacts on the territories they were extracted from. We need to develop a new level of responsibility towards this system of production and material circulation and our ability to acknowledge and consider alternatives through our design projects.

Fuelling rapid urbanisation requires large scale infrastructure such as hydro-electric damsenormous highwaysconcrete riversvast water circulation systems – constructed with extracted resources at the expense of the natural environment. This ‘mega-infrastructure’ is optimised entirely around efficiency and profit, but in reality is rigid and inflexible under increasing pressure from extreme weather conditions (for example during times of floodingand times of intense drought). And it’s only going to get worse in cities all over the planet with the full effects of the climate crisis coming into play.

Despite understanding that we are interdependent upon planetary processes, landscape architects – the self-proclaimed stewards of the biosphere – appear to only be affecting very few places around the world, usually in wealthy pockets. The challenge for us as landscape architects, urban designers and architects is to consider what we can bring to bigger debates, to engage in the real forces shaping our world – whether they be urban policy or ecological process. As Naomi Klein might say, climate change is not an environmental problem, but a social, economic and political one. If you are not thinking about these issues then you are not relevant today.

Resilient by Design – a model that intersects art and science

The good news is that there are increasing opportunities for design practices to engage in this through their work. For example, the Resilient by Design competition presents a positive step towards implementing community-oriented initiatives that build greater resilience in the San Francisco Bay Area. The project followed a process of collaborative design, involving numerous groups with varying expertise including international and local designers, ecologists, engineers, government agencies and community groups.

HASSELL participated with a proposal anchored in intersectional thinking which is at the heart of our design philosophy. The team collected data of the whole territory, using maps to understand and represent the various complex issues and challenges. This technical analysis was distilled to form a clear strategy to create a distributed network of connections around the Bay, moving both people and water down to the waterfront.

At the local scale, our team proposed pragmatic and implementable moves: bio-swales along streets where water flows, schools as water collection reservoirs and community parks, canals transformed into public terraces overlooking a naturalised water stream. This portrays a different kind of relationship between people and the natural environment, where nature is incorporated into their daily lives.

As part of their design process, the team set up an open-door storefront in the Colma Creek area. This allowed ongoing dialogue with the local community and the collection of their ideas, but more importantly, direct engagement with the very people who will take ownership of the project, driving its ultimate implementation.

This project works on multiple fronts. It indicates how designers can bring intersectional design-based thinking to complex multiscale and multidisciplinary challenges. Working at the local scale, while understanding the regional implications in parallel and building client and collaborator networks allowing us to make this kind of work a focus of our practice.

I like to understand the intersectional design process described above through the term negotiation. Imagine this situation: a group of people with different intentions gathering around a table, discussing drawings that will shape the future – this is what design looks like. The ability to synthesise different ideas together, formulating a series of proposals which are negotiated into reality. Negotiation recognises the design process as a dialogue – different groups have different intentions, but they need to work together to understand them and find suitable compromises.

These could be between the sensual and the technical, or between different disciplines, or between ecology and urbanity. Ultimately, it’s in the ability to find a compromise and intersect things unconsidered that innovative approaches are formed. The global challenges are enormous. However, if design is embraced as a process of negotiation and as the basis for a rich dialogue of speculation and imagination, we can help to navigate towards more informed responses in a world desperate for meaningful and integrated solutions – not just technological fixes.