Utrecht Manifest

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UM5 - 26 juni 2015

UM slotmanifestatie 26 juni 2015

Dromen of niet dromen, dat is de kwestie

Na tien jaar kwam er op 26 juni officieel een einde aan het programma van Utrecht Manifest, op de plek waar het ooit begon, de Pastoe fabriek in Utrecht. In de oude loods die nu dienst doet als conferentiezaal luisterde op deze warme zomerdag een publiek van rond tweehonderd – van veteranen van het sociaal geëngageerd ontwerpen tot bevlogen jonge wereldverbeteraars – naar antwoorden en vervolgvragen op het centrale thema van Utrecht Manifest: hoe draagt de ontwerper bij aan een betere wereld? Met de geur van vers gebouwde kasten als een subtiel parfum op de achtergrond, zoomde een rij sprekers het weefsel van vragen, antwoorden en de discussie daartussen af, dat het afgelopen decennium was gesponnen uit de tentoonstellingen, debatten en publicaties van vijf biënnales voor Social Design.
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UM5 - 06 juni 2014

Het ontwerp van het sociale - Een gesprek over social design tussen Henk Oosterling en Nynke Tromp

Waar het in het jonge vakgebied van social design vaak aan ontbreekt, is een scherpe visie op wat nu de unieke bijdrage van de ontwerper zou moeten zijn. Dat stellen filosoof-activist Henk Oosterling en sociaal ontwerper-onderzoeker Nynke Tromp vast in vurig tweegesprek over de verhouding van ontwerp en maatschappij.
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UM5 - 06 juni 2014

Designing the Social - A Discussion on Social Design between Henk Oosterling and Nynke Tromp

There is one thing that the philosopher and activist Henk Oosterling and the social designer cum researcher Nynke Tromp agree on without any reservation: the recently developed field of social design still lacks is a clear perception of just what the designer’s unique contribution should be.
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UM5 - 05 juni 2014

Facing Papanek

The program of the kick-off event of the 5th edition of Utrecht Manifest in December 2013 may have been a bit too dense, Rosa te Velde writes in her impression of the afternoon. On the other hand, the event made a welcome exception to the rule that social design may exclusively be discussed among designers.
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UM5 - 05 juni 2014

Proposition for a ‘Skeletor Methodology’: The Curious Case of Holmes’ ‘Smart’ Murder Castle

Boris Čučković observes a rupture between the discourse of the creative industries and the critical framing of socio-economic issues in the humanities and social sciences. In this contribution Čučković speculates on the possibility of bringing into view the unchallenged problem-solving premises of contemporary design practice through spooky cases of crime design ingenuity. Surprisingly it is Skeletor, the ultimate villain in Mattel's Masters of the Universe franchise, who acts as Čučković' guide on his speculative expedition through design history.
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Facing Papanek

The program of the kick-off event of the 5th edition of Utrecht Manifest in December 2013 may have been a bit too dense, Rosa te Velde writes in her impression of the afternoon. On the other hand, the event made a welcome exception to the rule that social design may exclusively be discussed among designers.

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By Rosa te Velde, December 2013

“There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them,” This is arguably one of the boldest and best-known statements from Victor Papanek’s bestselling Design for the Real World from 1971. Papanek was one the first thinkers to criticize the traditional role of the designer. According to his diagnosis, designers were too fixated on solving isolated problems on a material level for an exclusive, wealthy public. In Design for the Real World, he called for designers to design for those truly in need: for the elderly and disabled, but also for the poor in the Third World. Today, this book is generally hailed as a Bible for social design, and is every so often quoted to legitimize both social and sustainable design projects. But have we really understood Papanek? To what extent is his legacy congruent with contemporary concerns? Is the role of the designer to be a problem-solver? What is the ‘Real World’ nowadays? What can we expect from designers and what might be the limitations of design?

These were among the questions posed during ‘Facing Papanek’, the kick-off session of the 5th and final edition of Utrecht Manifest, a small-scale gathering held on December 12th at the showroom of the Pastoe factory, Utrecht. This edition of the biennial, curated by Timo de Rijk (Professor Design, Culture & Society at TU Delft), intended to inspire a new generation to critically reflect on the multidisciplinary field of social design, following the aims formulated by Utrecht Manifest in 2005.
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Nynke Tromp en Wouter Vanstiphout

Wouter Vanstiphout (Professor Design as Politics TU Delft and partner at Crimson Architectural Historians), serving as moderator, provocatively posed the question as to what the role of the designer is in the current ‘Real World’, in a time in which the government is quickly retreating from the public realm. As the welfare state is being dismantled citizens are expected to take more responsibility to actively take part in shaping the society in which they live. The King of the Netherlands even optimistically coined the phrase ‘participation society’ in his first address to the nation, describing the reorganization of the relationship between the state and its people. In this public discussion, Vanstiphout challenged whether the formula ‘less state, more society’ is truly a panacea to all social and economic ills. The question of whether civil society will simply fill the vacuum left behind by the state remains unclear. Still, there are indications that the participation society is here to stay. One merely has to think of the omnipresence of a buzz-word such as self-sufficiency, or look at all the flexible cooperative ventures and bottom-up initiatives that appear to be popping up all around us. Social design fits in perfectly with this paradigm shift, and it seems that the expectations for ‘what design can do’ are at an all-time high. Are we moving towards the point where we will – again – dream about designing society?

Six speakers with completely different backgrounds were invited to the kick-off session reflect on these issues. The first, graphic designer Hendrik-Jan Grievink (Next Nature) briefly introduced Victor Papanek’s ideas through a compelling visual essay, in which he reflected upon both well-known and less familiar concepts in the work of the famous American design educator, before connecting these ideas to contemporary design practices. Papanek favored safe, affordable, well-researched products, preferably produced in a limited scale, as he was very much against ‘the Kleenex culture’ in which products are overpriced, mass-produced, and designed only to last for a short time. While Papanek sincerely endeavored to improve the world, Grievink questioned the extent to which designers should indeed always aspire to be ‘good guys’. Perhaps the world could benefit from designers adopting a ‘bad guy’ attitude, raising questions instead of jumping to easy answers. Grievink believes Papanek’s approach to design lacked creativity and imagination, after all it is designers who are best positioned to envision impossible scenarios, and to set new standards.
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Guus Beumer en René Boer

A similar division between conceptualization and implementation seems to be at the core of the definition of social design as put forth by Guus Beumer, the session’s second speaker. Although Beumer (director of The New Institute, and curator of UM3) believes all design to be social to a certain extent, what is usually understood as social design is something else altogether. According to him, the ‘activist’ understanding of the term aims to activate people to solve problems in the Real World, whereas social design within the context of a museum often presents invented narratives in order to stimulate discourse on social design. Beumer introduced his views on social design in relation to the ‘Designing Health’ exhibition, which intended to trigger debate on possible scenarios for the health care industry. Beumer had a strong curatorial agenda; he envisioned Designing Health as ‘a tool to think’ and thus stimulate discourse on healthcare design.

The next speaker on the panel, Liesbeth van der Kruit, the Director of Corporate Social Responsibility for Achmea, the largest insurance company in the Netherlands, had the most direct experience with healthcare issues and operations in the so-called Real World. Van der Kruit asserted that by reducing risks on all levels, insurance companies have made the world a better place, yet she stressed that this doesn’t imply that such companies can simply replace the welfare-state. A member of the audience asked whether it would be possible to grant designers access to Achmea’s massive database in order to be able to create useful, customized, demand-driven products. From her evasive answer it became clear that Van der Kruit doesn’t foresee a clear role for designers in her field in the immediate future. This is unfortunate, since it seems that an insurance company could be an extremely interesting site for social design – a place where ideas could materialize and designs could serve dire social needs.

René Boer provided an equally ‘real’, but by no means corporate, take on the social design discussion. Boer, an independent urban scientist and core member of the Failed Architecture research blog, briefly introduced the projects of the We Are Here group. We Are Here is an activist organization of refugees without papers who campaign for their rights, and seek semi-permanent shelter in Amsterdam. Since December 2012 a series of buildings have been squatted as a means to house the group. Boer explained how the group’s visibility and success in raising attention is connected to the specific ‘hardware’ of every building they have occupied during this hectic period (sequentially, De Vluchtkerk; De Vluchtflat; Het Vluchtkantoor; and currently De Vluchtgarage). The fact that some buildings proved to be more effective than others is ultimately an issue of design, Boer provokingly suggested. In comparison with some of the other speakers, Boer seems more inclined to see the role of the designer as that of a ‘bad guy’, one who assists refugees to stay in the Netherlands, an increasingly contested act.
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Damon Taylor en Liesbeth van der Kruit

The sole speaker to refer to herself as a ‘social designer’ was Nynke Tromp (designer at Reframing Studio, and Assistant Professor at the department of Industrial Design, Delft University of Technology), who proposed ‘de Goedzak’ (a project by Waarmakers) as an interesting case study to highlight how the interests of society and the individual can sometimes be conflicting. According to Tromp it should be acknowledged that individuals are not always fully social, and De Goedzak is an example of how design can help us to overcome our social apathy. De Goedzak is a transparent bag in which people can leave objects that they wish to be rid of but which can still be useful to others. She asserted that such a design acknowledges that people are inherently lazy, and offers an easy solution to discard their stuff. Designers, in her mind, should try to create new types of behavior through the design of technological artefacts such as this. On the other hand, Tromp stresses, designers are not ‘social workers, facilitators, or project leaders’. Designers perceive a problem, create a solution, and leave the scene.

The final speaker, design theorist and cultural historian Damon Taylor (University of Brighton), spoke about his concerns about the expectations people and politicians have for designers to save the world through the design of behavior. The notion of ‘designing society’, Taylor argues, is reminiscent of totalitarian practices with an omnipresent agency that manipulates and controls the behavior of its docile subjects. In line with this concern, Taylor notices that most designers have moved away from designing artefacts to design services. In agreement with Grievink, he suggests that the only thing that designers can hope to achieve with these services is to give people a glimpse into alternatives. The Freecycle Network, for instance, is a website where people can exchange their stuff – a good example of a project that offers a modest but valuable perspective into what society could be like. Taylor stresses that Freecycle will never reduce the amount of things we have in the world, but it does restructure the relation between people and things. Ultimately, Taylor hopes that ‘a little more love’ will find its way back into the system.

It was a relief to hear about social design – a topic often discussed exclusively among designers – from the perspective of different professionals, each of which approached the issues at stake from very distinctive angles. Generally speaking, the vital question at the core of the social design is how different actors can be connected, and where among them can be found common ground. Together, the speakers presented a diverse overview of the many dimensions that comprise what can be critically understood as social design, ranging from theory to practice, and seen from several perspectives: of an activist, a curator, and an entrepreneur. Yet the afternoon proved to be slightly too ambitious: more interaction among the speakers and with the audience would have been welcomed, but was made impossible by the tightly booked schedule. All the same, while most discussions on social design tend to be typically unrealistic and one-sided, this kick-off for Utrecht Manifest 2014 was both surprisingly insightful and critical.

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