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Designing for Tomorrow Today

Designing for Tomorrow Today

As the first speaker in ID’s 2015–16 lecture series, European writer and design advocate John Thackara challenges students to design a better world.

“I need a drone to steer the microphone,” quipped writer, philosopher and event producer John Thackara, speaking to RISD students from a café in Vienna, Austria. As the first speaker in the Industrial Design department’s 2015–16 lecture series, he presented a talk with the provocative title Tomorrow’s World Today: Should a designer think like a machine, or like a forest?

In picking up on the machine versus forest idea, Thackara asked those who attended his midday talk on October 14 a grand question: How can design thinking help individuals and small groups who are working on local issues transform overarching, global systems like capitalism, factory farming and climate change? In his estimation, which he emphasized in the discussion that followed, the capital-A answer is in fact through a network of small, local – and most importantly – social activities.

A former journalist and magazine editor who is now based in southern France, Thackara was the first director of the Netherlands Design Institute of Amsterdam. He’s now a senior fellow at the Royal College of Art in London and a member of the UK Parliament’s Design Commission.

After considering several examples of design-powered local interventions that Thackara cited from his recent book How to Thrive in the Next Economy: Designing Tomorrow’s World Today, Horatio Hán MID 17 asked if advanced technologies can play a role in local movements that give priority to artisanal means of production. In a response that epitomized his central message, the British design thinker emphasized the importance of initially using “low-tech” approaches and then introducing more high-tech tools once a project is underway. Likewise, he recommended to another audience member whose work involves building creative networks across Rhode Island colleges and universities that she include perspectives outside higher education as well. “Work with people who are not like you,” Thackara said. “Inspire them with what your design thinking and skill can do, but learn new ones, too.”

Invited to speak here by Associate Professor of Industrial Design Claudia Rebola, Thackara pointed to projects like the Real Economy Lab as a prime example of activists employing design skills to help social and environmental justice groups “think in systems” and unite for the greater economic and ecological good.

“Leave the world healthier, rather than sicker,” Thackara urged students, many of whom left his talk newly inspired to take small-scale steps to effect large-scale change.

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