On a social mission

The Royal Society of Arts is becoming a real force for change, as borne out by its new Design & Society manifesto, says Lynda Relph-Knight

Matthew Taylor is on a mission. Since he relinquished his role as a political advisor to Tony Blair and took over as chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts in 2006, he has flown the flag for citizenship big time across all aspects of the organisation’s diverse interests.

In his inaugural speech at the RSA he highlighted the need for ‘a radical rethink about social change’, calling for a ‘citizen-centric model in which we reinstate ourselves as the authors of our own collective destinies’. What has followed bears this out and Taylor’s blog makes interesting reading.

Once the RSA appeared to be a slightly worthy organisation, with a modicum of campaigning for, say Tomorrow’s Company or better school meals. It had a key part to play in design through an exemplary student bursary scheme that launched the careers of some of the better-known design players and as home to the Royal Designers for Industry, but it was rather on the edge of things, even in our community. Now though, under Taylor, it is bidding to be a vibrant force for change, with sustainability in its widest sense at its core.

It is against this background that RSA director of design Emily Campbell launches the society’s Design & Society manifesto for its engagement with design tomorrow (Thursday).

Since she joined the RSA in October, leaving the British Council, where she was head of design and architecture, after 12 years, Campbell has become something of a pamphleteer. True to the political traditions espoused by Taylor, she published a pamphlet last month on prison-visiting, which seeks to boost the importance of service innovation within design education, with more to follow.

This shift away from design purely as object or environment is echoed in the pamphlet published tomorrow. With the title ‘You know more than you think you do: Design as resourcefulness and self-reliance’, it points to designers as facilitators to unleash the creative talents of everyday folk.

The key messages outlined by Campbell are, on the one hand, ‘to show how design contributes to self-reliance and resourcefulness because it gives people confidence in addressing problems’. The creative community is unlikely to dispute that.

On the other hand – and here could be contention from the industry – she says the RSA ‘believes that designers have an opportunity to redefine themselves, not as making beautiful resources, but as making people more resourceful’.

There has been much celebration in design about the growth of so-called service design as a manifestation of the broader role design can play in shaping society and businesses. Initiatives such as Designs of the Time, backed by the Design Council and held first in the North East in 2007 and now being planned for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, and consultancies such as Ideo and Live Work have done much to further the notion of a loftier role for design as a visionary pursuit, while casting designers as enablers.

But there are concerns among professionals about ‘co-design’ and how far public involvement in the process should go. Architects faced with a similar dilemma over ‘community architecture’ in the 1980s satisfied themselves with involving local people in setting the brief – as the Sorrell Foundation does with schoolchildren through its Joined Up Design for Schools programme. But full-blown co-design could go further than that, once it develops from largely being a topic for discussion on the conference platform.

Campbell asserts that designers should adopt a more enabling role in society to give people more choice and to help unlock their latent creativity. She calls for new business models to achieve this, highlighting a hunger among young designers ‘to demonstrate a social and ethical value beyond the context of industrial production’.

She points out that the process has already started, particularly in the public sector. She cites projects by the likes of Live Work, whose involvement with Haringey Housing comprised workshops to hand over the design process to public-sector staff.

Campbell is right to champion this movement – and a conscious return by some elements in design to Victor Papanek’s view in the 1960s that everyone has innate resourcefulness, ‘for design is basic to all human activity’. It fits with Taylor’s vision for the RSA and the political mood of the moment. How easy it will be to bring the design community on board remains to be seen. Many are pleased to engage in community projects, but for most they are a sideline to the day job of designing.

We will hear more of this in due course. More pamphlets are planned, some by Campbell and others commissioned by her. But the highlight will be a contribution by Stephen Bayley, due in November, to fuel debate about the role of the professional designer in the 21st century. That should get things moving.

Key RSA project strands in the manifesto:

  • Design Directions, which includes an awards scheme for student designers to apply their skills to social issues
  • Design & Opening Minds, which features a curriculum of interdisciplinary project-based modules
  • Design and behaviour change, which promotes design as encouraging behaviour change
  • Manufacturing, making and repair, which will feature a public debate on the future of manufacturing in Britain
  • The designers in everyone, which will encourage designers to promote resourcefulness among the general public

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