Where to, Global Design Forum?

With the latest iteration of the Global Design Forum upon us in ten day's time, I thought it might be interesting to revisit a piece I wrote about the GDF 2012 to see what has changed:

The Global Design Forum, held on 18 September in London, was billed as “one day to set the global agenda for design”. It fell well short of this lofty ambition. It was about design, yes, but it wasn’t particularly global and it certainly wasn’t a forum. The agenda setting was hampered by the too tight agenda of the conference itself. Not enough time was dedicated to discussion or debate. The stars were trotted out, but they failed to shine. Not for any shortcomings in their presentations, (although we’ll forgive one audience member that had to be roused from a wall-rattling snore in the afternoon session) but due to poor briefing and curation. The potential for provocative conversation was there - but nobody was allowed or even encouraged to enter the ring. The audience was presented with a string of talks that contained nuggets of good content, but were disconnected from one another and the wider programme. Overall, this rendered the GDF no better than the average design conference. Inspiring? A bit. Thought provoking? Somewhat. Missed opportunities? Numerous. Imagine if we’d been able to have Anders Byriel square off against Charles Leadbeater. The CEO of Kvadrat, with his assertion that business should be entrusted with the creation of culture because it is not hampered by democracy, would have provided a good counterargument to ol’ Crowdsource Charlie’s claim that people must not allow the geeks of Silicon Valley to dictate their futures. Imagine if Astro Teller, Google’s galactic thinker, who urged that making things 10 times better is easier than making them 10 percent better, had had the opportunity to directly debate Mat Hunter, CDO of the Design Council, the champion of incremental innovation. Imagine the intellectual bust-up we’d have witnessed if “we are only limited by our imaginations” Richard Seymour had met “a milligram here and a milligram there really adds up” John Thackara face-to-face in a well-lit alley. These, and others, would have been the conversations to launch a real debate about the future of design. Instead, we got personalities instead of issues. Certainly, I was inspired by the boundary blurring of Anab Jain of Superflux who illuminated the growing world of hackerspaces. And also by Thomas Heatherwick, whose energy and intensity was counterbalanced by his deep belief and humility. Kudos as well to Yves Behar, who prefaced his piece by saying he was not going to talk about his work. But we were a long way from Alberto Alessi’s citation of Oswald Spengler, urging us …”to make as meaningful as possible this life that has been bestowed upon us; to live in such a way that we may be proud of ourselves; to act in such a way that some part of us lives on.” That kind of action takes the collective courage to engage with one another and test our beliefs in an open forum that nurtures, but doesn’t overwhelm us, with debate. Perhaps next year’s GDF can consciously create the necessary conditions for meaningful dialogue. It certainly must do so to if it wishes to remain relevant and not just run-of-the-mill.

After taking a look at the programme for GDF 2016, I can only say not much has changed. The structure is certainly different - each of the Forum’s seven days has only a single, hour-long panel discussion, followed by a 90-minute design-star-led masterclass - but there is still a frustrating lack of opportunity for any real debate. Once again, this GDF is primarily about personalities, not issues. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy listening to designers discuss their work, especially if they are effective at articulating their process. But it ultimately all becomes self-referential, leaving the audience nothing to walk away with except a pleasant, “inspiring” experience. What is it about designers that we aren’t willing to challenge one another in public? Most other creatives, be it painters, writers or architects, often engage in impassioned debate. It would be great for designers to do the same. We don’t need to spill blood over our ideas, but surely a few bruised egos wouldn’t hurt.

If we are to move the profession forward, we’re going to have to learn how to apply some intellectual rigour to our arguments. There is a glimmer of hope in some of the panel discussions at the GDF. “Fabrication Futures” on Thursday, 22 September, will look at “what the so-called ‘fourth industrial revolution’ of new robotic fabrication technologies might mean for the future of architecture, engineering and making.” This is promising, especially in light of the shortcomings of 3D printing when it comes to actual industrial production, its poor scaleability making it unsuitable for typical manufacturing. While additive manufacturing (AM) has been very useful in the creation of prototypes, one-offs and highly individualized items, such as hearing aids and dental crowns, it is unlikely to ever surpass current speeds of industrial production, despite breathless claims it will. So let’s shift the conversation to what AM may be well-suited for, namely the production of buildings. I’m hopeful that this particular panel will interrogate the possibilities thoroughly.

The “Imagination for the Future” panel set for Monday, 19 September, will have a tougher time of it, being an invitation to “join a panel of forward-thinking designers, innovators and scientists who at once have the grand vision for looking decades or centuries ahead, but who combine that with a practical application in order to help this future to come into being”. This is a rather vague and undirected premise which will likely not go anywhere in the 60 minutes allotted to it. Why don’t we just focus the conversation on artificial intelligence? That is a huge topic for designers - what responsibilities will we have in the design of algorithms? And where is behavioural design? We’re already doing it, but do we have the moral authority to be so deterministic? Or organizational design? The key to our success often lies within the structures within which we operate. How can we get better decisions designed? There are so many topics of burning relevance to choose from. Unfortunately, the GDF is not going to be the forum in which they get aired. “Debating Designs on our Future” is going to look in the rearview to find meaning, when we all have to keep looking forward and dive headlong into robust debate about our future.

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