Critical Design Can Change the World

Critical Design Can Change the World

The industrial barge-turned-art-studio Illutron exemplifies the participatory design tradition Pelle Ehn discussed at this year’s Critical Design/Critical Futures events.

In early May, scholars, designers and activists gathered on campus for the second annual Critical Design/Critical Futures (CDCF) symposium co-sponsored by RISD and Brown to consider the past, present and especially the future of democratic and sustainable design in the US and throughout the world.

Featured speakers Pelle Ehn, a longtime leader in the Scandinavian participatory design movement, and architect Hillary Brown, founding director of NYC’s Office of Sustainable Design, offered insight and optimism about the prognosis for human progress. And while each designer focused on innovations of differing scale—with Ehn discussing “democratic design experiments in the small” and Brown addressing “sustainability writ large”—both inspired their audiences to consider how to design a better future for the planet.

Marking the occasion of what would have been the 100th birthday of urban studies legend Jane Jacobs, CDCF co-founder and Associate Professor Damian White introduced Ehn’s Thursday evening talk by suggesting that a better future for our cities requires critical cooperation between those working at the top of social institutions and the public they profess to serve.

In a presentation called Design, Democracy and Work, Ehn chronicled the history of participatory design movements in northern Europe over the past 50 years—decades of rapid technological and economic change. The growing prevalence of computers at work and home has led to collective efforts to establish a “utopia where workers craft new technology through play and prototyping,” he points out.

"Stop thinking [just] about projects. Engagement has to be more sustainable."
Pelle Ehn

Admitting to a “melancholic” view of the democratic struggle against entrenched power, the professor from Malmö [Sweden] University urged designers to expand their horizons when seeking opportunities to create participatory cultures at work and in society. “Stop thinking [just] about projects,” he admonished. “Engagement has to be more sustainable. Design [is] not just [about] the production of objects but also [involves] the parliament, the democratic discussion and the assembly of actors around those objects.”

Speaking at the half-day symposium on Saturday morning, Brown drew from her book Next Generation Infrastructure to deliver a talk titled Future-Proofing: Infrastructure for the Anthropocene. Invoking the warning of geoscientists that human impact on the environment has gone “outside the lines” of sustainability, the principal of New Civic Works shared examples of urban infrastructure projects around the world that integrate “the complex collection of inputs and outputs” that structure and support modern ways of life. From water treatment facilities that have been built into a driving range in the Bronx to a civic amphitheater on the Canary Islands that houses a solar desalination plant, her examples amply succeeded in “showing designers ways in which they can find multiple purposes.”

Following each talk, speakers invited a panel of respondents and members of the audience to further discuss the issues they raised. Architecture Professor Anne Tate (whose students showed new work in the CDCF-related show Reimagining Providence) echoed Brown’s call for designers to play a serious role in renewing the infrastructure in the US.

“You don’t normally think of this as your purview, but no one else does either,” Tate pointed out. “If you can think as a designer about systems and interconnectedness and interrelations…, it’s a huge opportunity to reconceptualize [large-scale infrastructure]. And if that’s not a design problem, I don’t know what is.”

"Now [design is] changing because [the current generation of students believes] you have a far bigger role to play in this society than we ever allowed ourselves to believe. [...] You're out to change the world."
Lili Hermann, professor of architecture

In response to a student seeking ways of connecting his work to communities in Rhode Island, Landscape Architecture Professor Lili Hermann made an impassioned call to this new generation of design students who are “redefining the disciplines.”

“In my lifetime, we’ve gone through a number of recessions that have completely changed how design is practiced,” Hermann pointed out. “But now it’s all changing because you believe you have a far bigger role to play in this society than we ever allowed ourselves to believe—maybe because at some level we still felt that we had to fit into the world that was. You guys don’t believe that—and you shouldn’t. Because you’re out to change the world.”

Related stories

Designing a Desirable Future

At Critical Design/Critical Futures, makers, writers, practitioners and educators exchanged ideas about the ways contemporary design influences forthcoming political, social and economic engagement.

Talking Tools

Students, faculty and visiting artists consider the link between digital interfaces and the imagination as part of RISD’s new tool ( ) series.

Hope and the Humanities

Renowned critical theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak speaks with the RISD community about globalization and the role of an aesthetic education.