The Luxury of Transformation

How can designers use their tools to imagine not just new products and places, but new ways of life?

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How are you feeling today? To answer honestly: I feel exhausted. I’m devoting nearly all my time and energy to the demands of running my business and raising my family, sure. But increasingly, I’m exhausted more by the mental contortions of trying to reconcile the details of my convenient and comfortable day-to-day existence with my mediated awareness that climate destabilisation and mass species extermination already threaten the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, often most severely affecting those communities least responsible for the extractive assault on our living planet. And of trying to hold those urgent realities at the front of my thoughts, despite contrary social cues and distractions—Where shall we meet for lunch? Look: 12 new messages! How to shift from exhausted, alienated inattention to creative, collective action?

Starting from a position of privilege, I know what I’m scared to lose, but do I understand what we stand to gain through collective action? For the vast majority of those like me, who have the luxury of living in advanced capitalist economies, achieving negative emissions and stemming mass species death will entail a comprehensive transformation of our ways of dwelling, building, working, eating, travelling and much more. We are going to have to share more, consume less, forge connections across differences, prioritise experiences over things.

Make Love, Not Carbon.” Of the many clever, handmade signs brandished at last month’s Global Climate Strikes this update of the 1960s anti-war slogan keeps returning to my mind. Making me wonder: if we do somehow manage the leap to a truly sustainable society, what could we win in terms of pleasure and human connection? And, because my work often brings me into contact with designers: how might they help to midwife this transition?

I tip my hat to the many designers who are hard at work creating better recyclable food packaging, test-tube meat, electric cars, and handbags made by ateliers of sustainable luxury. But in some cases, are we merely replacing elements within fundamentally flawed systems, rather than engaging with the systems themselves? How can designers use their tools to imagine and realise not just new products and places, but different ways of life?

Goldsmith Street social housing, Norwich, UK, Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley.
Goldsmith Street social housing, Norwich, UK, Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley. Photo  © Tim Crocker

How can designers help to elevate the actual and perceived value of common spaces; “common” both in the sense of the everyday, and of the collectively held? That this year’s Stirling Prize for Britain’s best building went to Goldsmith Street a community-centric council housing development built to Passivhaus standards, is a hopeful sign of the architectural establishment’s reorientation of what constitutes excellence. And every time I encounter a well crafted piece of public art installed within one of Singapore’s clean and efficient rail stations my heart lifts with hope that we might one day finally ditch the idea that the driver of a private car is king of the city.

How can designers approach our political and economic systems—crying out for transformation—as sites for intervention? The New York City-based non-profit organization Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) has been doing this brilliantly since 1997, matching design and art professionals with policy makers and community advocates to demystify complex urban planning and policy issues so that more people “can better participate in shaping them.” Many more non-profit organisations around the world now employ design as a tool of civic empowerment and policy improvement, but we need many more!

Luxury is one of those terms, like premium, innovative, exclusive that is used in marketing to create a general sense of aspiration without any hard standard of assessment (although the same might be said for sustainability, responsibility, natural). How can we transform our general conceptions of luxury, moving away from one-off branded objects or environments crafted for exclusive possession towards savouring the comforts of shared experiences and co-creating abundant, regenerative systems? One of my favourite books of the last decade, The Abundance of Less describes the inspiring communities and right livelihoods built by artists and craftspeople in contemporary rural Japan. Its original title? A Different Kind of Luxury. In this vein, how can designers help us discover beauty and adventure where we are rather than chasing it over the horizon? How can design—like some of the best works of art—help us take a longer view, to counter shifting baseline syndrome and now-centricity?

Now is the time to stretch our ambitions whilst grounding ourselves in specificities. There have been more than enough industry events, exhibitions and articles about the daunting scale of the challenges that we face, and enough defensive chat about the constraints of what creative professionals can achieve. I would rather spend my time with colleagues gently but steadily holding each other’s attention, fuelling each other’s fires, exploring questions like these, and drawing the practical connections between the things that we love and the future we need.

Main image: One World poster. Photo by Markus Spiske, Unsplash

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