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CONNECTING'07: Where do we design from here?

The CONNECTING'07 World Design Congress last week in San Francisco celebrated the history of industrial design, but it may have squandered an historic opportunity to inspire and prepare thousands of designers for the future.

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Thousands of representatives from international corporations, design firms, government entities, and institutions of higher education, spanning more than 35 countries around the world, attended the CONNECTING'07 World Design Congress last week in San Francisco, the largest and arguably most influential gathering of industrial designers to date.

Did it live up to its promise? The short answer is: yes and no. There were early warning signs for the "no": The opening ceremony was a long-winded and largely self-congratulatory celebration of the two organizing bodies, ICSID and IDSA. In his opening keynote, ICSID president Peter Zech set the tone for what the conference turned out to be: a celebration of industrial design's accomplishments as well as an ambitious overview of the richness of what's out there right now -- but not so much a departure towards (or at least a vision of) a new and exciting future of industrial design. No wonder then that after showing a promotional video that featured the dolce vita in next year's World Design Capital Torino, everyone rushed to the buffet (piles of sushi! I wonder how consternated the Japanese attendees who had just gotten off the airplane must have been).

The opening night's impression remained throughout the conference. It soon became clear that the main problem of the Congress was that it had a motto ("Connecting"), albeit very broad, but it lacked an agenda or a distinct purpose. No new paradigm was born, no overarching theme emerged, and no new star rose. No battles were fought, no heated debates were held. The conference was primarily designed as a forum for designers to reassure each other of the value of design. As for the debatable value proposition of industrial design in the 21st century, a consensus appeared to have been reached even before the first panel began: Yes, designers are committed to beauty. Yes, they are committed to connecting commerce, technology, and culture, and they provide a holistic, systemic perspective. Yes, they are humanists and environmentalists, acknowledging and acting upon their ecological and ethical responsibilities. Yes, they are, as Peter Zech described it in his keynote, "The most influential creative discipline because we shape the things of the everyday world." But the vehemence with which all of this was proclaimed inadvertently revealed how insecure designers still feel about their tangible and yet so inexplicable profession.

Despite the harmonious and leveling mood, the conference was not devoid of many outstanding moments. Some of the old icons, in particular, demonstrated that they're still on top of their game. The Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa took the audience on a riveting journey through the "core of awareness," illuminating how the shapes of things live in us. He presented product designs that respect our pre-conceived notions of how objects have to look. He argued that good design "notices the unnoticeable," providing a-ha moments rather than wow effects. Furthermore, some of the popular advocates of "design thinking" such as Tim Brown from IDEO or Roger Martin from the Rotman School of Management, who had been instrumental in transcending the traditional boundaries of design by embracing its innovative potential for social and economic change, reinforced their compelling cases. The idea behind design thinking is simple: Design is not just design. It is a way of thinking that tackles a problem at the input and not just the output level. With the words of Tim Brown, design thinking examines the desirability of a product or service (human factors), its economic viability (business), and its feasibility (technology). And based on these insights, it then develops design solutions for increasingly interdependent (eco)-systems of producers and consumers. All design thinking presentations were eye-opening for those unfamiliar with the matter; however, who really is? Brown et al can consider it a huge accomplishment that, thanks to them, design thinking is not such a radical novelty anymore; it is a widely accepted concept that designers may in fact mistrust more than business people do, as frog design founder Hartmut Esslinger knowingly said in his speech.

Speaking of business: Where was it? The perspective of corporations, except for presentations by HP and Tesla Motors, was greatly missing from all of the plenary sessions and would have added a lot of value to the discussions. The same holds true for web 2.0 phenomena (ironically, the Web 2.0 summit took place at the same time only a few miles away), particularly the convergence of software and hardware, virtual and real, online and offline: what about virtual communities like Second Life, 3D printing, or virtual displays; what about web 2.0, social media, and amateur culture and their implications for industrial design? These issues did not get the level of attention they deserved. You could have forgotten in all the talks about eco-design that Al Gore had not only fostered the green movement but also invented the Internet. Fortunately, there were speakers like Bruce Sterling, the self-acclaimed "design visionary," who ruminated on his notion of "spimes" in the upcoming "Internet of things" -- new types of products that are defined as ideas or memes that can be tracked through space and time throughout the lifetime of an object in an ever-connected world (simply put). Or forecaster Paul Saffo, who depicted the notion of "design after the information revolution." In general, the best plenary sessions were those that served as a homage to the future rather than a homage to someone's lifetime achievement. Product designer Richard Seymour, for instance, gave a fascinating update on the Virgin Galactic space tourism project. Alex Steffen from Worldchanging.com offered some practical advice for navigating the future markets of green innovation.

For the most part, though, a certain nostalgia clouded the program, and the key for designing the future seemed to lie in the past. Consequently, most of the attempts to make sense of the conference theme were actually proposing a "re-connecting" rather than a "connecting." The wonderfully witty Sir Ken Robinson urged the audience to re-connect the ecology of human resources with the ecology of nature. Janine Benyus, in her fascinating study of biomimicry, suggested we re-connect industrial design and engineering with nature, understanding and mimicking its far more sustainable shapes and processes. The main lesson to learn here is that nature does not produce any waste. While we almost always build top-down -- starting with the larger material from which we deduct the eventual object -- nature does it better: it builds bottom up and grows organically.

Nostalgia may have also been the reason for revisiting some of the big industrial design truisms. One of them is the importance of emotions. Laura Richardson's attempt to rationalize emotion by quantifying its impact ("emotion engine") was interesting and unique, but other presenters were simply stating the obvious (and long established) link between understanding people's emotional needs and the design brief. Left-brain vs. right-brain, analytical vs. emotional thinking, form follows emotion etc. -- the conference treated these topics like museum exhibits. But as far as emotions go and creativity, advertising has long been outperforming design: The Clio award commercials that were shown during session breaks were more "out of the box" than many of the products shown in the PowerPoint slides before and after.

A much discussed example of emotional design is the one hundred dollar laptop. For Yves Behar "design must create values and value." Behar demoed the device and showed how easy it is to record music or to connect with others in the same area that are online with their laptops as well. On the way out to the lobby I overheard a conversation: "That's exactly the problem. Hundreds of these laptops in the Bay Area. But no one in Africa will buy them." But maybe that's exactly not the problem. Maybe the point is that the developed world needs a product that makes it feel better about the developing world. I don't mean this in a cynical way at all. What if this laptop, rather than connecting kids in Africa, is our emotional connection to these kids? That may not be the product's original purpose but that doesn't make it less legitimate. Maybe, in times of human and natural disasters, stripping off the negative association from the word "feel good" is a brave act.

If you recognize anxious times, that is. The Congress panels did not articulate any fear of future technology or a sense of paranoia or angst (with the notable exception of Fiona Ruby's and Anthony Dunne's session on "designs for fragile personalities in anxious times"). While the catastrophic consequences of climate change were widely discussed and were mostly embraced with profound optimism, nano-technology or bio-genetics were simply left out of the equation. I found that surprising. If "the future doesn't need us" (Bill Joy), tomorrow's design will certainly not need designers. As design pretends to provide the accessories for the ongoing illusion of human mastery, it is in fact already in a constant state of emergency. Given the radical progress in advanced nano-technologies, design may be nothing but proof that "something can be done even when there is nothing that can be done" (Peter Sloterdiijk). "Design thinking" is nice but it will become meaningless if (when) artificial intelligence will start doing the thinking (and the design) for us. Already, the designer's responsibility is shifting from designing things and experiences to designing the conditions for design (and thinking), creating human links between bits, atoms, neurons, and genes. What if the designer's major task in the 21st century is to be the devil's advocate, providing a (false) sense of personal safety in times of genetic engineering, personalized machines, and a new singularity? What if it is time to start designing for a time after design?

Those and other potentially disturbing questions remained unaddressed at the World Design Congress. At the end, after three days of digesting the over-scheduled and vastly divergent CONNECTING program, it had become almost impossible to somehow connect all the disparate dots. The Congress had lost itself in a diversity of topics, perspectives, and disciplines that came at the expense of one strong message. CONNECTING'07 was a great experience and certainly connected designers from all over the world. But was that enough? I'm not sure. It celebrated the history of industrial design, but it may have squandered an historic opportunity to inspire and prepare thousands of designers for the future. In this regard, Sir Ken Robinson's words aptly summarized the conference's shortcoming without intending to: "We don't fail because we aim too high and fail. We fail because we aim too low and succeed."