Design and the language of design is very broad. In some ways it is only its inherent practicality that saves it from veering into the nebulous. It is no accident that the crafty New Zealanders, who seem to understand creative industries and innovation far better than we, have long grasped its importance.
Design is much broader than architecture or industrial or graphic design – the forms we are most conscious of – and these are broad enough areas themselves. Design is also very much about processes and the development of concepts across almost all areas of human activity.
This means it also has a high relevance to the development of policy to solve pressing social challenges. In this area the discussion has moved beyond the world of design to embrace the design of the world.
|Hotel Hotel foyer dazzles but design extends to another Canberra industry sector - public policy|
These were just some of the many ideas grappled with in the nine days of DESIGN Canberra this year – only the second one to date after the inaugural event last year. Suddenly it has become like an inflatable mattress. Once you get it out of its bag you find you can’t deflate it enough to put it away again.
One highlight of the program this year was an invitation-only roundtable on design for policy innovation with Dutch presenter Ingrid Van der Wacht from the company FACTOR-I. The presentation covered some of the many ways in which design is relevant to policy – from local, highly specific policy to grand strategic policy designed to change whole regions and even nations. It was tailored for a range of policy-makers, including those from both the Australian and the ACT Governments.
From the start the organisers of DESIGN Canberra have been conscious of a unique strength of the event due to it being formulated and based in Canberra. This is the easy relationship with international design initiatives due to the presence of the many embassies in the national capital and the way this smooths the process of international collaboration and exchange. Ingrid Van der Wacht was present for the roundtable – and for a series of other talks and presentations – thanks to the support of the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
From the start Van der Wacht was upfront about the central importance of ideas in design, quoting Antoine de Saint Exupéry, 'If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.'
Challenging easily held belief
Using design involves being prepared to challenge easily held belief. I was astonished to learn from Van der Wacht that the Netherlands is the second largest agriculture exporter in the world – and according to her much of this comes down to the effective design of its agriculture sector.
Design is also about thinking the unthinkable – for example considering what might be involved in something like printing food. It is also about reframing the issue – for example the issue of food shortage is in reality an issue about food waste, for if this could be successfully addressed, the issue of shortage would disappear.
Van der Wacht brought with her a multitude of examples to make you think differently about the role of design in solutions to social challenges. She referred to the way in which Zanzibar had addressed a problem produced by its tourism trade – a surfeit of empty plastic bottles – and by focusing on recycling them into desirable objects for sale to the very tourists who had created the problem in the first place, helped reduce the problem.
Another design challenge – ostensibly a technical one, the design of smartphones – also involved serious social issues such as waste and technical obsolescence. Designers are working to produce modular components for phones so they are able to be easily repaired and, as technological advances occur, parts can be replaced with upgraded components, prolonging the life of the phone.
This new, broader way of looking at design has also led to new concepts, such as the use of ‘co-design’ where designers work with the communities affected by the issues they are trying to solve to produce a far more robust and rounded solution that is embraced by the communities themselves. Even developing an effective process is a design task. However, this presents challenges in itself because co-design is heavily influenced by cultural differences.
When people interact with each other around issues they are about, it can generate high levels of energy, empathy and innovation – all worthwhile results of the process which help generate useful solutions.
This approach has been used in many of the projects she referred to, including with communities in New York in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
It is important to be clear about both the importance and the difficulties of this. Consulting communities about social issues that affect them in order to develop policies to address the issues can open many dangerous doors. Potential solutions can stall as they come up against questions of ownership, power and money, in the form of capital works budgets. Yet, as Van der Wacht noted, for many social issues often not only the problem but also the solution is encompassed within the system being considered. Of course then there are the really thorny issues where there are no easy solutions and it's never going to be a win-win situation.
Choosing a policy challenge – national and local
As part of the roundtable participants chose a policy challenge they were facing and attempted to progress their method for addressing it. The challenge that interested me was one which underpins DESIGN Canberra itself – how do you effectively and productively meld the local and the national. The reality is that Canberra is a city, a territory and a regional centre, which also happens to be the national capital. It is unique as a city and a regional centre in being home to a large body of national cultural organisations and to the departments of the Australian national Government.
The cultural institutions are legion and legendary – the National Museum of Australia, the National Library of Australia, the National Gallery of Australia, the National Film and Sound Archive, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and the National Archives of Australia. They play central cultural leadership roles for their sectors nationally – and often internationally – as well as in Canberra.
The challenge I was interested in was also relevant to the representatives from the Ministry for the Arts who attended. For them the challenge arises from the opposite direction, as they are the part of the Australian Government which connects these cultural agencies to the rest of Government and they play an important role in helping the agencies strengthen their co-operative activity. They were interested in the challenge of activating the buildings and spaces of the institutions – essentially an issue of how a national institution with a national role also plays a full role and maximises its potential in the local geographic area where it is located.
Innovation – applied creativity
The roundtable underlined the importance of having a clear understanding of innovation – that much used and abused idea of our era – and its link to cultural and social diversity. Innovation is ‘the creation and deployment of ideas’, as Elizabeth Webster, Director, Centre for Transformative Innovation, Swinburne University of Technology has characterised it in ‘The Conversation’.
It is in effect applied creativity. There has long been confusion about the difference between creativity and innovation. For some innovation involves commercialising ideas, so innovation means commercialising creativity. However, innovation occurs far more broadly than just the commercial sector. In the commercial sphere it might be about development of products and services that can be sold. In the community or public sector it is about the broader application of ideas in practice.
Australia has a new Prime Minister who speaks the language of innovation – and in fact almost certainly understands much about innovation. However if we are not to be drowned in an ocean of misuse, as it becomes even more of an empty buzzword, we have to make careful use of this powerful idea.
Social and cultural diversity pay off
To my mind where the concept of innovation is interesting is in the way it places creativity firmly at the centre of economic and social development in the new knowledge economy which represents the future of Australia. It’s link to social and cultural diversity is also fascinating. As der Wacht commented, in developing a process of co-design, it is important to have different opinions or very dull ideas come out of the process.
This has been recognised by influential figures in the current public service, such as Martin Parkinson. Parkinson is the senior public servant who survived a near death experience at the hands of Tony Abbott, only to be resurrected by the incoming Malcolm Turnbull to become his new head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
When Parkinson ran Treasury he recognised that to increase policy flexibility and innovation, he needed to expand the range of mindsets around him. Accordingly, as Peter Martin, Economics Editor for ‘The Age’ newspaper pointed out in a recent article about the experiment, ‘Parkinson not only set targets for the proportion of women in the treasury senior executive, he set about changing what Treasury valued to bring this about. When picking candidates for promotion or special projects, more weight was to be given to co-ordination and people skills and less to conceptual and analytic skills.’
Martin notes that this was because every enterprise needs both sets of attributes. Martin comments further, ‘Diversity matters because the more mindsets you can bring to creating something or solving a problem, the less likely it is you'll miss something out.’
In a world where change is fast and widespread, can anyone afford not to mobilise all they have going for them – to survive, let alone to succeed? Cultural diversity is a big part of that picture. A good grasp of the importance of design is the way to unlock that understanding and apply it in the development of good policy.
Designs on the future – how Australia’s designed city has global plans
‘In many ways design is a central part of the vocabulary of our time and integrally related to so many powerful social and economic forces – creative industries, popular culture, the digital transformation of society. Design is often misunderstood or overlooked and it's universal vocabulary and pervasive nature is not widely understood, especially by government. In a rapidly changing world, there is a constant tussle between the local and the national (not to mention the international). This all comes together in the vision for the future that is Design Canberra, a celebration of all things design, with preparations well underway for a month long festival this year. The ultimate vision of Craft ACT for Canberra is to add another major annual event to Floriade, Enlighten and the Multicultural Festival, filling a gap between them and complementing them all’, Designs on the future – how Australia’s designed city has global plans.
The big picture and long view – creating a cultural future
‘The never-ending election campaign that became the never-ending election tally has turned into the unpredictable second term government. What does this new world of fragmented politics mean for Australian arts and culture and the organisations, artists and communities which live it and advance it? There are a series of major factors which are hammering arts and culture organisations. These intersect and mutually reinforce one another to produce a cumulative and compounding long term disastrous impact. All this is happening in a context where there is no strategic policy or overview to guide Government. It is critical for the future that the arts and culture sector think broadly about arts and culture, build broad alliances and partnerships, never forget its underlying values and draw on its inherent creativity to help create a society based firmly on arts and culture’, The big picture and long view – creating a cultural future.
The grand design of things – the lost unrealised potential of the Powerhouse Museum
‘With its extensive collection of design of all kinds, from engineering to fashion to ceramics and jewellery, and with its links to industry, I always had high hopes for the Powerhouse Museum. Despite its fragmented nature, the Powerhouse was a great design museum precisely because it was also a museum of science and technology – and a museum of social history, which could place it all in a historical and social context. In many ways design is a central part of the vocabulary of our time and integrally related to so many powerful social and economic forces – creative industries, popular culture, the digital transformation of society. That the Powerhouse failed to realise its potential is a measure of the lack of strategic vision, including from successive governments which have never properly grasped the power of culture in shaping society and the need for the long-term substantial commitment to enable it’, The grand design of things – the lost unrealised potential of the Powerhouse Museum.
Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst – the looming failure of arts support
‘In the slowly unravelling universe of arts and culture support, organisations – whether they be small arts organisations or the largest of national cultural institutions – need to think seriously about their future. They need to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. This means developing strategies to survive the combination of drastic cuts and slow erosion already occurring and likely to continue into the foreseeable – and unpredictable – future’, Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst – the looming failure of arts support.
Creativity at work – economic engine for our cities
‘It is becoming abundantly clear that in our contemporary world two critical things will help shape the way we make a living – and our economy overall. The first is the central role of cities in generating wealth. The second is the knowledge economy of the future and, more particularly, the creative industries that sit at its heart. In Sydney, Australia’s largest city, both of these come together in a scattering of evolving creative clusters – concentrations of creative individuals and small businesses, clumped together in geographic proximity. This development is part of a national and world-wide trend which has profound implications’, Creativity at work – economic engine for our cities.
The intriguing world of tiny exhibitions – Craft ACT shows what small organisations can do
‘We’re all used to the great big blockbuster exhibitions with all their wow and flutter. What’s really intriguing though is the world of tiny exhibitions, a babbling brook of activity that flows away – often unnoticed – under the tall timbers of the big institutions. At Craft ACT you can get four of them at once – in one smallish gallery space. These are artists who are likely to go on to produce better plumbing and lighting (always a good thing), design theatre costumes with a life of their own, produce unique fabric or jewellery such as you have never seen before, hinting at a history stretching far back, and give you furniture that can be folded simply and put away, but not forgotten’, The intriguing world of tiny exhibitions – Craft ACT shows what small organisations can do.
Like Christmas and Easter, election time seems to arrive before it has even left
‘Like Christmas and Easter, election time seems increasingly to come around almost before the preceding one has passed on. At a pre-election ACT arts forum contenders in local elections pitched their policies and plans. There was too much talk of infrastructure and public arts, not quite enough of local, regional and national (and international) synergies and nowhere near enough of the crucial role of operational funding and the importance of creative industries and the clever and clean knowledge economy of the future’, Like Christmas and Easter, election time seems to arrive before it has even left.
Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding ‘The transfer of substantial program funds from the Australian Government’s main arts funding agency, the Australia Council, to the Ministry for the Arts has had the effect of masking serious cuts to crucial programs run by the Ministry, including its Indigenous cultural programs. There have been cuts to overall Ministry program funds stretching long into the future almost every year since the 2014-15 budget, with the long-term trend clearly heading downwards’, Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding.
Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?
‘With a Coalition Government which now stands a far better chance of being re-elected for a second term, the transfer of the Commonwealth’s Arts Ministry to Communications helps get arts and culture back onto larger and more contemporary agendas. This move reflects that fact that the new industries in the knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape, are both clever and clean. Where they differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they draw on, intersect with and contribute to Australia’s national and local culture and are a central part of projecting Australia’s story to ourselves and to the world. In that sense they have a strategic importance that other sectors do not’, Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?
Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy
‘I always thought that long after all else has gone, after government has pruned and prioritised and slashed and bashed arts and cultural support, the national cultural institutions would still remain. They are one of the largest single items of Australian Government cultural funding and one of the longest supported and they would be likely to be the last to go, even with the most miserly and mean-spirited and short sighted of governments. However, in a finale to a series of cumulative cuts over recent years, they have seen their capabilities to carry out their essential core roles eroded beyond repair. The long term impact of these cumulative changes will be major and unexpected, magnifying over time as each small change reinforces the others. The likelihood is that this will lead to irreversible damage to the contemporary culture and cultural heritage of the nation at a crucial crossroads in its history’, Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy.
Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture
‘A far more important issue than arts funding is how can the broad arts and cultural sector become a better organised, effective voice for arts and culture and its wider importance for Australia? Changes like this happen because they are able to happen – because decision-makers think they can get away with it. The arts and culture sector and its supporters have to be influential enough that decision-makers think carefully about the importance and the standing of Australia’s arts and culture and weigh any decisions they make carefully in terms of the strategic needs of the sector. These current dire circumstances may provide the opportunity we have needed to look seriously at this question’, Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture.
The clever business of creativity: the experience of supporting Australia's industries of the future
My nephew just got a job with Weta – the long road of the interconnected world
‘My nephew just got a job in Wellington New Zealand with Weta Digital, which makes the digital effects for Peter Jackson’s epics. Expertise, specialist skills and industry pockets can occur just about anywhere, as long as you have connectivity, talent and a framework of support that makes it possible. This is part of the new knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape. Increasingly the industries of the future are both clever and clean. At their heart are the developing creative industries which are based on the power of creativity and are a critical part of Australia’s future – innovative, in most cases centred on small business and closely linked to the profile of Australia as a clever country, both domestically and internationally. This is transforming the political landscape of Australia, challenging old political franchises and upping the stakes in the offerings department’, My nephew just got a job with Weta – the long road of the interconnected world.
Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture
‘The developing creative industries are a critical part of Australia’s future – clean, innovative, at their core based on small business and closely linked to the profile of Australia as a clever country, both domestically and internationally.’ Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture.
Valuing the intangible
‘We are surrounded by intangible cultural heritage – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – and often it’s incredibly important to us but we can’t seem to understand why or put a name to its importance. So many issues of paramount importance to Australia and its future are linked to the broad cultural agenda of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In particular they are central to one of UNESCO’s key treaties, the International Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.’ Valuing the intangible.