Designing a Desirable Future

Designing a Desirable Future

Critical Design/Critical Futures was organized by Associate Professor Damian White (pictured above) and Ian Gosher MFA 06 FD.

When Google pulled the first prototype of Google Glass—the hands-free smartphone and recording device worn like a pair of transparent glasses —off the commercial market in January, Cameron Tonkinwise was thrilled. The unexpected move gave him hope that we actually have the ability to constructively criticize emerging technologies.

“[Google Glass] was backed by of one of the world’s largest companies and supported by powerful fashion designers,” notes Tonkinwise, director of Design Studies at Carnegie Mellon University. “Many of us begrudgingly assumed it would inevitably become part of our everyday lives. However, society collectively rejected this technology as an undesirable future. It’s an interesting moment to consider.”

The quick-witted thought leader made these observations at Critical Design/Critical Futures, a fascinating full-day symposium held last Friday at RISD’s Metcalf Auditorium. Sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), The Pew Charitable Trusts and The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the provocative series of roundtable discussions was organized by Associate Professor Damian White, head of the RISD’s department of History, Philosophy and the Social Sciences (HPSS), and designer Ian Gosher MFA 06 FD, a faculty member at Brown’s School of Engineering. Makers, writers, practitioners and educators from RISD, Brown and Parsons The New School for Design gathered to exchange ideas about the complex ways contemporary design influences forthcoming political, social and economic engagement.

Tonkinwise went on to urge members of the audience to challenge the status quo and push back against ill-conceived design decisions. “There are academic movements based on the premise that it’s futile to imagine what’s coming next,” he noted. “Some students are told it’s sufficient to tinker with materials and experiment with 3D printers. But that’s not enough,” he maintains. “We must actively design our future realities so the world doesn’t become viscerally horrible.”

Introducing the premise of the day’s discussions, White proposed that complex environmental problems could be alleviated using the same type of critical design thinking that emanates from RISD studios. “Prototyping, prefiguring, doing things differently, failing—and then starting all over again—are all core components of a design education,” White notes. “This process is essential in creating viable frameworks for sustainable, global solutions.”

Abigail Crocker

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