Giving Design Back to Society

Craftspersons/ Artisanal, Design, Designers, Sustainability, Sustainable Devt.

Giving Design Back to Society: Towards a Post-mining Economy

Ranjan, M P

Sounds pompous and unrealistic, but look at it this way. A few years ago the Supreme Court of India banned all harvesting of timber from the forests of the Eastern Himalayas and instantly 400 odd local timber and plywood based factories in Assam and the Northeast of India had to down shutters. Germany and many Western nations introduced stringent laws banning the import of textiles with Azo dyes and the Indian handloom industry was in a tizzy and had to seek Government help to re-train hundreds of thousands of weavers and dyers involved in the age old craft in India, big change in a hurry. More recently the state Government of Delhi had to ban all public transport busses, taxis and scooters using petrol and diesel due to environmental action by local NGO’s and soon with Court intervention and community action, CNG or Compressed natural Gas was introduced as an alternate fuel for all public transport, the switch was not painless, but it was done with positive effect.

I sense these and other transformations as fore-runners for a massive transformation when material interests will give way to social interests and technology and science will respond to community needs and in this process bring design in as a central capability that is used at many levels, far beyond the aesthetic and performance levels that we are used to today. My own work in bamboo was influenced by both environmental as well as social concerns. The need to find alternatives for cultivated resources to sustain a huge need for material artefacts and an alternate industry as well as the social need to solve the immense problems of poverty in rural India and other parts of the world. Working with and using bamboo one realises how amazing is the the concept of fertile soil to make materials that are both strong and abundant. Another realisation is that while Bucky Fuller talked about ‘Space Ship Earth” , the Earth as a finite resource for all of us, we realise that the soil layer on the Space Ship is a mere 10 to 20 feet deep. Imagine the Earth, an 8000 mile diameter planet with a 10 feet thick layer of fertile soil created by many layers of decayed plants and bacterial matter we come to an image of the “Space Bubble Earth”, a fragile and vulnerable eco-system, that can be easily undone just as a soap bubble can in its brief flight in the air. This places the soil as one of the most significant resources that would need to be conserved along with air and water and these will need to form the core knowledge of the future designers.

The history of design for me did not begin with the industrial revolution but it is perhaps the oldest ability of humans and it pre-dates both science and art, in my definition. Design is human intentions and actions that create new value. With this definition we can link the earliest human use of design, perhaps, to the very first use of fire to keep other animals away, for security, as Richard Dawkins tells us in his “Ergasts tale”, used some two million years ago. The science of fire was still far away in the future, but humans used fire long before they knew how to make fire or even understand its dynamics. Tool making, settled agriculture, mobility and technology followed in ever increasing rapid evolution of thought and action. In rural India the crafts traditions are a reminder of these integrated times when design was inseparable from many forms of human expression. Human history and design history are intertwined inextricably till we discovered formal education and then the whole story crumbles into specialisation and analysis over generalist and synthesis, design is sacrificed at the alter of science.

Formal education today, at least in India as we see it is devoid of any emphasis on the abilities of converting materials with skills and dexterous abilities that were common place in all our villages across India. While these still exist in numerous places where “development and modern education” are still to arrive, we tend to look down at these places and people as uneducated and illiterate. In this we fail to see their deep understanding of the local materials and the ability of their culture to develop a deep grasp of traditional wisdom of the ages that had been passed on through the generations. I was fortunate to experience this knowledge during our year long field study of the bamboo culture of Northeast India conducted in the late seventies towards my book on bamboo crafts and traditions of the region. Teaching design to undergraduate students from some of our best schools in India helped me realise how restrictive is our education in transmitting abilities of making things, cooking and in acquiring knowledge about the local wisdom. Something that every village child seemed to have without going to school. We have distanced ourselves from the integrated use of design as an everyday activity and made it a specialised task for a class of people called designers.

We are increasingly seeing the collapse of the single discipline task groups and we are learning to work with people in co-creating solutions, a sort of return to the roots of making design an everyday task once again. The key seems to lie in education, and we need to redesign education to bring the design agenda closer to society. Give design back to society and it will be an ability sought after in the soon to be realised post-mining economy with numerous regulations that will make the everyday task complex and challanging. From material to dematerial is a direction that design will increasingly focus on as business models and regulatory principles will determine what we may be permitted to do rather than what we can do with technology at hand. Design is about what you can and would do with technology and materials as well as about the spirit that drives such use. People matter and designing with people and for people is the way forward which we will need to once again integrate into our everyday lives. We need to rediscover our tools and abilities to use these skillfully. The sensory and motor homunculus shows us that the hands and our craft abilities use huge brain resources and this should inform the education processes of the future and bring skills back into our schooling and sensitivity back into our society at all levels.

Outline of Panel discussion remarks to support the visual presentation at the IDSA 2006 Conference in Austin, Texas, USA. The session was moderated by Uday Dandavate, Principal Sonic Rim, USA.




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