Postcards from the Future: Social Dreaming

14th December 2017
by Brenda Dermody

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Billed as an exciting and immersive festival of ideas, attitudes and innovations the Future offered four strands of presentations and discussions covering a range of fluid and overlapping themes including; analogue entrepreneurs, new opportunists, future pioneers, place & space makers, the new studio and more. This postcard from the Future touches on some of the ideas and themes that interested me as a designer, an educator and a human being.

Spatial Dreaming
In an interview the late poet and philosopher John O’Donohue described landscape as something that forms each of us. He believed that ‘it makes a huge difference when you wake in the morning and come out of your house whether you believe you’re walking into a dead geographical location which is used to get to a destination or whether you’re emerging out into a landscape that is just as alive as you but in a totally different form’. Insights into how designers conceive of and manipulate space and materials was for me one of the most interesting and thought-provoking themes to emerge. Speaking from the Future stage Ilse Crawford noted that we spend 78% of our lives inside buildings and as a consequence of the digital age what we crave in these interiors, and thus in our lives, is the physical and emotional sensation of natural materials such as wax, cork, velvet and wood.

Grafton Architects’ Shelly MacNamara considered how the natural and built environments we inhabit have a profound effect on the individual and collective psyche. She spoke about a range of recent projects, including the campus for the University of Engineering and Technology in Lima and a redevelopment project for The London School of Economics and Political Science. In approaching each new project Grafton Architects view the earth as client and buildings as the cartilage that holds the free space between ground and sky. According to MacNamara this concept of ‘free space’ is about intimacy within a social infrastructure. ‘It describes a generosity of spirit, a sense of humanity and nature’s gifts of sunlight air and gravity.’

On the reverse side of this considered manipulation of space, light and materials, is the impact of ill-conceived urban planning in socially deprived areas which, according to O’Donohue, doubly impoverishes the poor through the ugliness which surrounds them. Stefan Sagmeister echoed this in his presentation on beauty when he spoke of how the High Line, a recently created public park on a disused elevated railway in New York city, has a zero crime rating. He cites this as an example of how the design and consideration of a space has created and sustained positive social impact. Graphic designer Paula Scher, who created the visual identity and wayfinding for the High Line commented on one of the flaws in the functioning of this graphic system. She believes that the graphic elements failed to address local communities living beneath this public park. As a result the people from these communities do not use the High Line as they do not feel it is for them.

Social Dreaming
New models, programmes and resources for design education are continually emerging from both inside and outside the academy and this was evident at the Future. Experience designer, filmmaker and activist Dr Nelly Ben Hayoun spoke about her recently established University of the Underground, a free MA programme based in Amsterdam and London delivered by a stellar team of ‘social dreamers of the day’. The increasing cost of higher education is one of the factors that has inspired Ben Hayoun to initiate this project. She is driven by a passionately held political belief that education should be free and that in her native France the entire country would not move for as long as it took to ensure that this happened. She asserts that the nation state is broken and consequently the education system is broken and it is the younger generation who are most impacted by these factors. One response to unsustainable levels of student debt that has emerged from US was the explosion in 2012 of MOOCs or Massive Open source Online Courses which you can find out more about here. Pioneered at Stanford University by Andrew Ng, MOOCs are now available from a range of top level international providers. These packaged segments of learning are available for little or no cost to learners with options to pay to submit assignments and earn qualifications. Although this is not a new model—The Open University was beaming distance learning through our television sets in the 1970s—precedent has shown that the internet can have a dramatic impact on industries and institutions. Ng believes that MOOCs could potentially change the economics of higher education.

Ben Hayoun’s University of The Underground takes a different approach, seeking to build a sustainable educational model that preserves small class sizes, peer learning, tutor contact and a studio culture. The plan is to educate 1600 postgraduate students over the next 100 years through funding secured from state and industry partners. Currently running in the UK and Amsterdam she plans to grow this project internationally.

Also discussed was Lecture in Progress a new offering from the It’s Nice That team. This is an educational resource that seeks to support students and graduates in making better informed career decisions by exposing the workings of the creative industries. Lecture in Progress has positioned itself to bridge what it describes as the ever-increasing gap between industry and education. It is accessible online for a small annual subscription. It comprises editorial features, podcasts, an advice section, and directory of career and information resources.

Ilse Crawford showed a series of glimpses of projects by students from the Man and Well-Being Department she founded at Design Academy Eindhoven. As an educator I would welcome more opportunities for discussion on the philosophies, practices and structures underpinning existing centres of excellence and driving new ventures in design and arts education internationally.

To finish, a postscript: The future is moving towards gender balance. As I mapped a schedule for my visit it occurred to me to see whether it was possible to select presentations, panels or interviews featuring female speakers from each of the 24 time slots across the two days. It almost was… almost.

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