Role of Design – response to APDL Design Online

Christian Duell, manager of the Asia Pacific Design Library posted an article on Design Online about the designer’s role in faciliating change in communities – Bottom Up, Top Down. His comments are important to consider in dealing with the complex challenges ahead. Here is my reflection:

Christian’s article Bottom Up, Top Down brings up several important points, two of which I think are particularly important for design practitioners.

The first is the deficiency in the role that design practitioners currently have in society: that we are not involved on a strategic level to enact change or to influence government policy.

The second, related, point is about communication: My colleague Jim Gall and I presented a paper at the Nordic Climate Change Adaptation conference in Helsinki in late August. The persistent concern during the conference was the lack of communication between policy and research sectors. How do scientists and researchers effectively communicate facts for policy makers to act on? And what is the communication link back from policy makers to researchers?

Interestingly, in a conference of around 300 people involved in climate change adaptation, there were only a handful of practitioners. Yet, the forum was the perfect opportunity for architects, designers and urban planners to participate in these discussions.

The simple concerns about a lack of communication between policy and research confirmed the fact that communication is the key, at all levels across all sectors, in designing our future. This is where the role of design practitioner as a facilitator of knowledge transfer and action becomes important.

To take the example of redesigning our cities to adapt to climate change, the role of design practitioners is to use broad knowledge of research output, technology, social systems, culture, economics and policy, and to work through a process which masters the complexities of our urban environments. In essence the designer facilitates the interactions between these disciplines of knowledge.

This is then related to the design practitioner’s strategic role. The question ‘What should we be researching?’ is along the same line of thinking as ‘What should we be designing?’ which is central to designing sustainable futures. This is in line with the bottom up approach that Christian refers to, as it would be in the power of designers to influence process, rather than consume ourselves with changing government policy.