A tool for humanity

This year’s Davos summit offers an unprecedented opportunity for design to influence events on the world stage. Angus Montgomery reports

The title of this year’s World Economic Forum meeting at Davos, Switzerland – Improve the State of the World: Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild – shows the scale of its ambition. Referring to last year’s global recession, Professor Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the WEF, says, ‘We have to look at our meeting in the context of what’s happening in the world… and we see that, clearly, the present system of global co-operation is not working sufficiently.’

But the 40th WEF meeting, which starts today, faces more immediate concerns, following the devastating earthquake that hit Caribbean nation Haiti on 12 January.

Schwab says Haiti will feature heavily on the agenda, stating, ‘We hope that we can present a major common effort to the world community showing true corporate global citizenship in Davos.’ Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of Architecture for Humanity and a WEF Young Global Leader, says, ‘Haiti is all-consuming right now for us, and I haven’t done any of my homework for the panels.’

Sinclair and other designers will be attending Davos in the hope that they can bring design-thinking to bear on both long-term issues such as the global economic meltdown and immediate crises such as the relief effort and rebuilding programme in Haiti.

Chris Luebkeman, inaugural chairman of the WEF’s Global Agenda Council on Design and director for global foresight and innovation at engineer Arup, says, ‘Our goal is to bring design and design-thinking to the cognisance of the business thinkers at Davos.’ Fellow GACD member Tim Brown, president of Ideo, says the meeting will be important in promoting ‘design’s ability to contribute to complex systems such as sustainability, energy conservation and organisational change’.

Paola Antonelli, senior curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and another GACD member, says, ‘[The meeting] will be about how design can team up with other disciplines to tackle urgent issues. In the past, for instance, we have proposed to our colleagues in other fields to help them envision methods for visualising responsible behaviours in order to make people more aware and prouder of their good judgement.’

With regards to what designers can do to help in Haiti, she says, ‘I do not want to give you any facile answers, I do not know. Some activists have been sending out calls to arms, but I do not know what arms, yet. The country is devastated, this is not a matter of helping people design a new temporary building or build a better stove.’

For his part, Sinclair says he will be co-ordinating top-level meetings at Davos in a bid to create a coalition for reconstruction. His Architecture for Humanity organisation is currently involved on the ground in Haiti. Among other projects, it is setting up community resource centres to supply architecture and building services to those involved in the reconstruction effort, and translating and distributing its Rebuilding 101 manual, which was developed in response to Hurricane Katrina and the Asian tsunami.

Brian Collins, founder of US design consultancy Collins and a member of the GACD, says, ‘Sinclair is a great example of designers playing a tangible role in crises – not writing a policy paper on the issue, but actually going in and making things happen.’

He adds, ‘Designers are very good at triage. If you were to drop 150 designers of all disciplines – architects, industrial designers, graphic designers – into Port-au-Prince, it would make a huge difference to that city.’

In Collins’ opinion, it is design’s ability to ‘connect strategy to craft’ that has made it such an important discipline for the Davos business leaders. ‘Davos has a massive appetite for design,’ he says, ‘particularly the way we [the GACD] are framing it.’

Last November, the GACD launched a manifesto at a WEF meeting in Dubai which states, ‘At a time of crisis and unprecedented change in every area of our lives – economic, political, environmental, societal and in science and technology – design is more valuable than ever. The crisis comes at a time when design has evolved. Once a tool of consumption chiefly involved in the production of objects and images, design is now engaging with developing and building systems and strategies, and in changing behaviour, often in collaboration with different disciplines.’

Some of the design sessions taking place at Davos

  • A debate on sustainable design, looking at why some projects succeed and others fail, moderated by International Herald Tribune design critic Alice Rawsthorn
  • A discussion on how design-thinking can help to tackle social and economic problems, moderated by Ideo president Tim Brown
  • A debate on the future of design and science, moderated by Rawsthorn
  • Arts, Culture and the Digital Age, moderated by the New York Museum of Modern Art’s senior curator Paola Antonelli
  • Crisis and Culture, looking at how the recession has affected culture, moderated by Antonelli

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