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Design, Wealth & Solving Problems

I had the pleasure recently of attending and presenting at Compostmodern13, an inspiring design conference. It offered an extensive and thought-provoking range of perspectives on resilience. It also offered a tremendous opportunity to discuss how dMASS strategy can be used in design to build sustainable and resilient businesses, economies, and societies. Prior to the conference, I wrote about wealth, sustainability and resilience, stating that expanding wealth for more people is the critical missing element in most discussions about sustainability and resilience. We cannot achieve sustainability until everyone has a stake in it. Recycling and alternative energy are important ingredients to building sustainability, but they are not enough. Mass poverty leads to global migrations, political instability, and many other issues that distract us from solving our underlying problems.

For me, the question has always been, “What will it take to create enough wealth to include eight billion people in a robust and sustainable economy with a fixed resource base and within environmental constraints?” Many years ago, I learned from Buckminster Fuller that wealth expands with ingenuity, only as more people are actively engaged in identifying and solving important problems.

That is why, for many decades, Fuller urged architects and designers to use their unique skills and take the initiative to solve problems on behalf of all of humanity. He wanted designers to figure out what needed to be done and then do it.

At the conference, fellow speaker Paul Polak echoed this sentiment, pointing out that a vast proportion of designers have been working for the 10 percent of the population whose basic needs are most well met, while so many unmet needs – and corresponding opportunities – exist. Polak is working with innovators around the world, designing new types of multinational corporations that can serve a large portion of the world’s population not presently served by the global economy. They will do this by learning about the needs of this population and finding new ways of solving their problems in the marketplace. The idea is to sell to the more than two billion people who earn less than $2 per day, and become $10 billion companies in the process. Polak helped start one company that deals with water, another that focuses on nutrition, and a third delivering waste management. They all partner with existing shopkeepers and they employ radical technologies and tools (like solar electro-chlorination for clean drinking water). Polak expects these companies to be in 10,000 villages within two years.

There was also an important talk from Terry Irwin, the new Head of the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon, about moving past 19th century ideas that focused on designing pieces of systems to solve isolated problems, and instead seeing the bigger picture, seeing the world as a single integrated system.  She asked us all to question why we frame problem solving within a reductionist view of the world, and to think about designing for complex systems -- realizing that our designs are part of a larger social, political, and economic fabric.

Finally, I was struck by one of the observations from DESIS founder Ezio Manzini concerning the inherently democratic nature of distributed systems that involve social innovations, or collaborative creation. He argued that people will cease to be passive consumers, accepting whatever is offered, and begin to take the initiative to help create what they want to see created. It's designers solving problems, not necessarily through new science or technologies, but through rearranging relationships and social structures, looking for better ways to do things.

Broadly defined, "design" is the intentional arrangement of information or energy for a desired purpose or outcome.  From this perspective, everyone at the conference, regardless of his or her training or discipline, is a “designer.” The world's innovators, whether in science, architecture, engineering, planning, business, policy, or other fields, are designers. The conference provided a real sense of the emerging roles of all designers: solving real-world problems, and giving people the tools to create what they want, in the ways they want to create it.  To find the people who exhibit new behaviors, and help them shift established patterns of work, buying, and providing services.

The conference left me feeling extraordinarily hopeful. Being in the midst of 500 designers who were willing to take time from their regular work, to use their free time, and to pay to learn how to be more effective at making the world work and making life better for people around the world should be enough to make anyone feel better about the future. It was for me.