Social design in a world of digital complexity cc @always__curious

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Earlier this week I was at the V&A Museum to listen to Vinay Venkatraman, CEO of design & innovation company Leapcraft and previously of the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design, speak about design complexity in the digital age.

He took us through some of his research work from India, narrating some intriguing observations that he came across. In Mumbai, for example, he observed that in a back alley, a big company had thrown out dozens of old computer monitors, and people were taking them away, putting CRT tuner kits into them, converting them into TVs and taking them into rural areas to sell them with a warranty, for as little as (the equivalent of) 30 euros! The interesting thing is that the knowledge transfer (hence the warranty) became as much a part of the design process as the actual hacking of the computer screen, and is a huge part of creating sustainable products.

This is something that bears more thinking about: how often do manufacturers think about how the user will make a product her own after purchasing it? Because surely the more confident a person is as an owner, the more weight that product or brand has in the market. I have plenty of objects in my house that are languishing in a corner because I do not feel fully confident in my ability to make them work properly; a definite waste of resources.

Two projects of his that he mentioned that I thought were really interesting were the Tele-Panchayat, a public phone installed in an Indian corner shop that doubled up as a democratic voting booth of sorts (it wasn’t looked upon too kindly by local politicians, for obvious reasons), and Clock Sense, an old alarm clock hacked to indicate how serious an illness is, for rural health workers to be able to assess the seriousness of patients’ diseases. Pictorial in nature, it meant the health workers, mostly educated till Class 10 or 12 and not formally trained as doctors, didn’t find it a problem to understand what they needed to do.

Image via Frugal Digital
‘Clock Sense’. Image via Frugal Digital.

He also mentioned a couple of controversial but very true observations, at least in my point of view.

One, that design schools don’t emphasise collaborative design much. Today’s most interesting projects couldn’t have been built by any one designer. The halo-ed designer who has full control over a project doesn’t exist anymore, and not enough people talk about that.

The second point came up during the Q&A session, and it was asked by someone who was involved with the Restart Project in London: how can makers in the West learn to have more  of a sense of maintaining and re-purposing existing products? Vinay responded (and I realised as he was speaking that he was saying something I’ve had at the back of my mind for a long time), that ‘making’ has acquired a cult status in the West, when the fact remains that it isn’t necessary for people here to make everything. You can buy a lot of things instead of making them. He agreed with the principle of refurbishing products but not hacking for the sake of hacking. In the developing world,  it is necessity which is truly the mother of invention – people hack products because they have to, as they seek to improve the quality of their lives. The tools and techniques of the West are just not available, and more importantly, cost is a huge consideration.

In a lot of work that I see today (and I am absolutely no expert), the designer is still placed on a pedestal, and a lot of things simply don’t need to be made. They’re fun, but they’re vanity projects more than anything else (like a lot of advertising, actually). Don’t get me wrong – I agree that there is dignity in making one’s own things, as there is in more basic, day-to-day stuff – cooking, for example, and you do learn independence. But the context is very, very different – let’s not kid ourselves about that.

A good understanding of local know-how is crucial in building something that is actually used and stops being a show-piece on a shelf; Vinay himself said that the only real measure of success for his products is how many of them you can see in the field. As with the recent debate about the internet of things, we need to stop and ask ‘why’ more often as a society and especially as the marketing industry. Additionally, knowledge needs to be de-concentrated: Seeed Studio in Shenzhen supplies the hardware to the vast majority of the maker community in the west, and they are sharing knowledge gained from one project so others can benefit. This in itself is turning out to be a profitable model for them:

“When a maker asks Seeed to build a circuit board, the firm keeps a copy of the design which can then be used without charge by other customers. Most factories in Shenzhen work for big customers and have long assembly lines where workers perform only one task. But makers typically want just a few items and are willing to pay more, so Mr Pan has split his employees into self-organising teams.”

Lastly, Corinna Gardner, Curator of Contemporary Product Design at the V&A, asked a thought-provoking question about how museums like the V&A could continue to collect interesting products to showcase in a world where data and know-how are becoming more important than actual objects. Vinay replied that the stories are becoming more important than the objects, and so showcasing the stories behind a product’s genesis could take precedence over showcasing objects (I’m thinking how that would affect an exhibition like Designs of the Year, which I’ve been going to annually for the last few years, and though an excellent collection of disparate objects somehow leaves me with the feeling that I’d like to know more about the back story behind the products displayed).

And in response to another question about where these stories could be uncovered: Kickstarter! As I’ve started shifting more of the money I contribute to projects from Kickstarter to Seedrs, looking at Kickstarter as a hunting ground for the objects of the future is a useful way to look at the platform, and makes it more appealing to me. Maybe Kickstarter should start marketing themselves that way!

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