Call In the Designers

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Call In the Designers Call In the Designers
Issue 015

Call In the Designers

by Geoff Wardle

May 1, 2009

In any field, designers have to synthesize competing interests to come to an elegant solution. Imagine what they could do to transportation.

Centuries of artificially cheap energy have established an expectation of ubiquitous personal mobility and freight transportation in the developed economies of the world. This expectation has caused four problematic consequences: serious ecological degradation, urban congestion, human health issues, and rapid depletion of finite energy sources.As developing economies aspire to the same levels of materialism and mobility as the rest of us, our global community faces an untenable future. We are all faced with an enormous and complex problem that needs radical solutions. While this is a daunting task, there are tremendous opportunities to break some historically bad habits and create innovative, smarter ways to mobilize ourselves and to deliver the food and goods we need to live. Accelerated by some inevitable truths about energy that we will have to face in the not-too-distant future, such changes are possible.However, it is not just science, technology, or astute business and political philosophies that will provide the answers. In order to make real changes that bring truly sustainable transportation and personal mobility, the populations of the world have to be inspired and excited about embracing these changes. Human beings are inclined to change when they see that it will improve on what they already experience. This is where the role of the designer comes into play.Creating sustainable transportation, particularly in urban environments, will be a truly multidisciplinary effort. Engineers, sociologists, urban planners, scientists, architects, designers, policy makers, manufacturers, economists, and regulators all have to work together to create solutions. But it is my belief that designers can contribute far more to these innovative transportation solutions than just compelling design. I believe that while this will still be an important role for designers to play, an even more important one will be to facilitate all these diverse specialists and experts-to be what we call "systems balancers."What's a system balancer? If you look at the role of an industrial or car designer in a large company today, they have a conflict of interest. On the one hand, they need to design products that their enterprise can sell profitably. On the other hand, they are also on the side of the customer, making sure that they design a product of value that excites them, but also meets all their needs and expectations. More often than not, they fulfill these conflicting roles with aplomb by working with all the other disciplines that design and develop complex industrial products. They frequently have to make judgment calls on issues that are not always popular with their specialist colleagues. Designers have to ensure that the end user benefits from a well-balanced product. This is what I mean by designers acting as systems balancers.In the far larger and more complex challenge of creating sustainable urban mobility systems, designers will need to develop these skills to a much higher level to become big-picture thinkers as well as solutions experts. By so doing, transportation designers of the future can develop the wisdom, clarity of vision, and leadership to influence high-level transportation policy makers. This would ensure that transportation and mobility of the future would be as compelling as they are ecologically responsible and economically sustainable.This is why Art Center College of Design, with its legacy of being a leader in transportation design education, felt a profound responsibility to create a series of summits on the topic of sustainable mobility. After the third summit, in February, we were very encouraged by the response from the diverse experts who attended all of the summits. It seems as though these beliefs are resonating all around. I look forward to accelerating the momentum for our remaining planned Sustainable Mobility Summits, after which we have promised to establish a set of guiding principles for creating future sustainable mobility.
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