A designer tries to understand the disparate images of Dubai's financial troubles and its skyscrapers.
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"Dubai Shares See Biggest Fall This Year" read the headline in the business section of the BBC World Service Web site near the end of 2009. As soon as we saw it, my architect friends and I began discussing crisis and chaos in the middle east's wealthy city state. The architects directed most of their ire at bankers.
Last year was a year of financial crisis, a year in which a very bad light was shed on the entire financial sector, and on bankers in particular. They were held responsible for the financial crisis, which is of course having detrimental effects on all other sectors, including architecture and design. Why did we designers now have to suffer? After all, hadn't we just been minding our own business?
No doubt, bankers are very responsible for the global economic crunch, but I think the crisis is more than just a financial one. It is an unemployment crisis, a confidence crisis, a social crisis, and a creative crisis. It impacts all sectors and it was allowed to happen by all sectors, whether they acted directly or passively.
Finger-pointing can be done with little thought, interest, or self-reflection, but as recent economic reports and political actions indicate, finger-pointing alone achieves very little in the way of actual change. Bank bailouts and end-of-year bonuses highlight our persistent reliance on the financial sector, yet it seems incongruent for architects staring at newspaper images of desert skyscrapers to blame the bankers alone, as if those towers had been built by CEOs out of stacks of dollar bills.
Dubai's skyline is filled with iconic structures designed by Western firms, the very firms now suffering the effects of financial instability on a scale comparable to Dubai's loan defaults-loans provided, in part, by the West's financial sector.
In the design field, we regularly despair about a lack of quality products, a lack of local manufacturing, a lack of value given to design, and a lack of concern about the detrimental effects of mass production and consumption. But then we find ourselves working within an industry that continues to issue instructions for ever-more products to be produced at ever-lower costs, in distant factories, for ever-lower need. And we do so without asking very many questions.
It is often suggested that the impact of design is now at its greatest because of the technological advancements of the industrial and digital revolutions. Never before have the tools we design reached so many and been used as intensely. With this potential for opportunity comes the need for responsibility. While we can imagine our products making a positive widespread impact, we can just as easily imagine how our choices about why and how they are created making as many negative ripples.
In the design world, projects and products are often talked about as "responsible" when no effort at all has been made to think beyond the product itself during its design. What we really need in the quest for responsibility is not a gung-ho application of the term onto our current way of working, but a humble rethink about how design should fit in to the changing economic and social models so that we can curb our crisis.
To that end, there is a newfound enthusiasm among designers who want to get informed and make a difference in ways that many thought only men in suits in tall bank buildings could. The New Economics Foundation is an independent organization aiming to inspire and demonstrate real economic well-being. Their intention is to consider and visualize economic, environmental, and social issues while working with different areas of society to create more understanding and strategies for change. It is this understanding that we should perhaps be seeking as designers, confused and panicked by the current situation.
As with any personal growth, striving for responsibility in the workplace requires effort, dedication, and education. Responsible designers must pay attention to the world around them, even the boring bits. If there is any chance for the right choices to be made, the right questions must be asked. We won't be able to correct our decisions overnight, but we must at least be informed. As the current crisis has demonstrated, it is not in the interests of the financial sector to do this for us. As we feel the impact of our own decisions, it is up to us to get informed, and design responsibly.
So, after a year of chaos and blame maybe it's time to move out of our project-to-project studio thinking and make a New Year's resolution to understand responsibility, so we can design responsibly and really mind our own business.
A version of this post originally appeared on the frog spawn blog on design mind.