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Conference Report: DesignBoost

Note: We strongly encourage reader reports from the field. This is John Manoochehri's take on the recent DesignBoost conference. In the interests of full disclosure, we should mention that Alex Steffen was initially a scheduled speaker, but had to bow out because of conflicting demands.

DesignBoost is an emerging Scandinavian conference, network and brand created by communciations designer David Carlsson, and design entrepreneur and trend-hawk Peer Eriksson, both based in Malmö, Sweden. The first event took place last year - with the theme 'sustainable design' - and consisted of chats, talks, and a show (i.e. invitation-only conversations for international designers and other professionals), talks (lectures to a paying audience), and a show (a design exhibition). This year, the event was titled "Long Live The City!", took place 15-17 October (with the exhibition going on until 16 November), and had sustainable urbanity as its guiding theme. Sponsors included the city of Malmö, Region Skåne, Audi, Ittala and more. For a full report on the event - including the book that will emerge - check out http://designboost.se . These are my notes on the event - from the perspective of a participant with a vested interest, so only partial and quite personal.

There's huge interest in sustainability right now, and it makes perfect sense that every professional group and government should get involved in promoting the issue. The question is whether the interest can move beyond enthusiasm (and mere strategy) to actual delivery and development. For at least three reasons, the design community may have a uniquely hard time in making their contribution to sustainability count.

Firstly, designers are curiously often divorced - at least in the creative, idea phase - from research and science. This means that for all the the enthusiasm they naturally come up with, they can end up not reaching, or at best messily replicating, the ideas and strategies evolved in the best of the academic world. Who reads Papanek before coming to a sustainable design conference? Or Christopher Alexander? Or Buckminster Fuller? Or Palladio? Or Vitruvius? Not many. But the history of classical design, and latterly sustainable design, is littered - in fact, built upon - pregnant ideas of what the good life is, and how to durably build it. Is it really effective to reinvent a whole tradition?

Secondly, the design world is professional hitched to the very heart of the machine. Desigers are not just the finishers, in many instances, of environmentally unwholeseome stuff, they are often its originators - and always the image and narrative builders which make this stuff sell.

And thirdly, curiously, the depth of education, the extent of disciplinary orthodoxy, and the power of personal artistry - let alone any professional inertia - in the classic professions, architecture and urbanism, make it really hard to credibly introduce sustainability. Who wants to tell a global architect that mahogany and marble aren't the thing, if that's what he has built his style, vision, and career on?

And yet, for mirror reasons of all of these, design has answers where currently none exist, to the environmental problem.

The expert community - researchers and theorists - are by definition expert. But if we imagine expert to mean 'positively influential' we seem to be making an understanable but dangerous mistake - in fact, we probably are. The entire expert community, from one perspective, got us (globally) into the mess we are in, and at least haven't prevented it so far. Anyone who has spent any time at postgraduate level will confirm that 'innovation' and 'university', or 'social change' and 'university', are rather tricky couplings. So maybe, strangely enough, it is time to break ranks, to shake it up, to reinvent the wheel? Indeed, last year's DesignBoost did come up with a 'Sustainable Wheel' that has no detailed connection to any (of the many) other sustainable design methods or traditions I've seen - they reinvented it - and it looks good, in principle.

And, regarding design's link to the 'machine', the methods by which it serves it are precisely the means by which it can reverse its effects. If new parameters are set - design for recycling, new materials to work with, new types of efficiency including maximisation of solar gain and biomass, and minimisation of petrochemical plastics and energy waste, and much more - then design can set the 'machine', perhaps, in reverse: harnessing the market, for truly sustainable ends. And what the left hand of design hath wrought, the right hand can sell. Etc. In principle.

As as for design's deep disciplinary base, there is indeed a struggle to cultivate real skills that achieve - naturally - good sustainable design, still harder is it to achieve blending of really high-quality aesthetics and high-quality sustainability. But dialogue between environmental scientists and policy makers (who can frame what actually needs to be done, if it is to be sustainable) and top designers (who can define how it should be done, if it is to be liveable), is surely the only way to find a union between the environment 'problem' and the design 'solution'. In principle, that is.

These relfections, on design's contribution to the problem and 'in principle' central role to the solution characterise the flow and content of DesignBoost: the chats and talks and show reflected different aspects of these dichotomies.

Some of Scandinavia's top designers were giving talks - names like Gert Wingård, Bjarke Ingels, Anders Wilhelmsson, Ilka Suppanen and more all made it clear why Scandinavia does have a design reputation. And should. And international design thought-leaders - like Jeffrey Inaba, Jennifer Leonard, Krystina Dryza offered insights. Many others participated in the chats (some of them having given talks in the previous year; see website for all the names). The exhibition had materials from Ittala, Audi, the region, and other sponsors and partners. The visual and printed materials were gorgeously presented, and the whole event was well prepared, thanks to Peer's and David's work, that of their team, and with the support of the regional bodies. Sweden organises things well - I think sometimes they don't know how well.

The chats, for me, were extraordinary. It's a genuine luxury to have a day with international thinkers and technicians and creators, to discuss advanced questions of social progress, design, urban development and sustainability: without having to prepare anything, nor do anything other than listen and contribute and learn and enjoy. (And eat and drink.) The chats took place in Malmös premier location and current design icon, the Turning Torso tower, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, pretty luxurious. I myself was part of debates on

- quality of life in the sustainable city: we worked out that this was not a game of working out 'ideal outcomes'; it was a game of working out and implementing 'good processes', by which heterogenous users and places create and renew their own quality lifeworlds;
- on the 'authentic city': we worked out that the authentic city is one where the 'narrative' of the urban space is what people actually live and experience, and indeed what they create themselves;
- and on whether innovation was always good: we worked out that the problem defaulted to what we considered 'good' was, and then worked out, beyond this, that whatever 'good' may be, if innovation tends to greater complexity, its unlikely to achieve overall good.

All conferences should be like this!

In the talks, there was a variety of approaches and content (not all of which I could attend). Some talks were very conceptual and aesthetic in tone and others were 'just the facts'. Some took the environmental issue as a problem that smacks us (or someone at least) in the face, others saw sustainability as something of a perfume and a mood that influences design decisions. Yeah, maybe you can tell I was a bit puzzled by some of the content. What is clear, though, is that there the new convergence of talent and creativity on the design question is intense and global. No-one was cynical, still less outright dismissive of the agenda, and everyone was seeking some way to put the issues into the heart of what they are about: and this is a quiet and significant breakthrough in itself, seen historically.

Bjarke Ingels apparently had a lot to say (which I missed), not surprising if you know his work, but I did catch Jeffrey Inaba's input which offered hauntingly beautiful images of futuristic sustainable technologies, and some immaculate competition-focussed renderings of a huge coastal development project in South Korea, intending to implement a wide set of sustainable technologies - and already catching the eye of the Korean government. Gert Wingårdh was very confident about both his own contribution, and the potential for things to be solved. Lisa White, Ilse Crawford, Kristina Dryza and others offered inputs filled with creative insights and offerings, and Jennifer Leonard demonstrated a kind of intuitive-yet-concrete magic for weaving together concepts of sustainability, place, urban narrative and continuity, personal engagement and technology.

Fascinatingly, the two most different presentations were next to each other, one from Michael White, and the other from Johanna Stål with Kerstin Sylwan. Michael White didn't really pretend that he was 'into' sustainable design, he just showed us what good, provocative, curious design is and how it works, and made a striking implicit case that good, provocative, curious design tends to be sustainable. (I was kinda convinced.) Johanna Stål and Kerstin Sylwan made a case for a variety of very sustainable offerings, focusing around their new book on energy, delivering a classic, wholeseome (organic) dose of sustainability meat (tofu, maybe) and potatoes without too much time spent on design sauce. The fact that Johanna, editor of Sweden's top eco-lifestyle magazine, Camino, and Michael, global design icon-renegade, were on the same stage, is evidence of the convergence that is happening in this space - or rather what DesignBoost is uniquely achieving.

Later in the afternoon, there was a very thoughtful piece by designer Ilkka Suppanen, and two grounded inputs on the concrete problems (human sanitation in the third world; waste-based informal economies in megacities) from Anders Wilhelmson (who is developing a one-use, self-sanitising toilet bag), and Maria Cecilia Loschiavo from the University of Sao Paolo (who talked about supporting and learning from waste-reclamation social groups and economic activities). Perhaps the most impressive presentation of the day from the perspective of action was offered by Guido Verijke of Ikea. Guido very humbly showed that Ikea's vast cotton supply chain, with all its chemical, water and other impacts on the environment, is going to be rendered sustainable, whatever it takes, by 2015: and it takes a huge amount. This kind of work goes on behind the surface of design, and of the radar of public environmentalism - but is vast. Some things really are changing. My own presentation (the last one of the day), tried to frame out both the challenge and opportunity for the design community in respect of urban lifestyles which, 40 years out, need to be hugely less consuming of resources, but likely will also have to be 'consumerish', if not consumerist. I tried to show that the conventional policy and economic science frameworks are not so good when it comes to getting a design handle on urban consumerish lifestyles, but using what I call 'functional design' principles we can get closer; and examples like Skype show us how technology is already leveraging them.

The overall was a concept and practice world of great diversity and richness, and yet, to my ears, imperfect harmony. A huge, wild bouquet of insights and ideas on the 'sustainable city' emerged, from countless perspectives. Almost everyone had some direct or indirect promotion of a sustainability agenda - who disagrees with motherhood and apple pie? But looking at the portfolios of the design-leading participants (even the organisers), it is not easy to determine that the overall balance of concern or professional practice of those present is to achieve sustainability. But surely we all know that, unlike 'better design', a 'more sustainable society' is not something that we can take or leave? Conversely, looking at the work of the environment-leading participants, it is hard to detect that their work has gone to scale, and, still less, been taken to heart by the world's discerning (or just demanding) consumers.

I felt it was like this: we are not yet performing the same orchestral work. But rehearsals have taken place place, the orchestra is on stage, and instruments are being warmed up. In that moment before the orchestra is finally tuned, music lovers will recognize the splendid chaos and cacophony of individual instruments playing passages from the piece, finding their pitch, generally being diverse together, before the real deal. DesignBoost is a concert platform for sustainable design, and as it grows, I feel that the music we will hear, with all the different contributors finding their place in the score, will be gorgeous and magnificent. This is good because though sustainability badly needs to just happen, the lesson increasingly is that it just won't, unless it is indeed gorgeous and magnificent.

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