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Can an understanding of design help people to adapt to the Digital Era?

Can an understanding of design help people to adapt to the Digital Era?

Image sourced from Shutterstock. Post published 23 February 2018.

Much of our physical infrastructure dates from the Industrial Era. It is familiar in a myriad of forms, even though any of us have little idea how it actually works. We trust it, however, because it does work the vast majority of the time. As such, we don’t have to think about how it works…and that means we often just accept things the way we find them.

However, we also live in a world of rapid technological change, which is gradually upending much of what we take for granted. But we are so dependent upon Industrial Era processes and thinking that we are often at a loss to adapt to new products and services. And many education systems worldwide don’t assist us to do this – instead, the focus is upon rote learning and passing exams.   

At present, we trade our labour for off-the-shelf solutions, and in doing so, many people never learn much about problem solving from first principles. If you don’t believe me, have a look around the room you are reading this blog post in. What are you sitting on? What are you clothed in? Where is the power coming from to read this blog post? Indeed, what device are you reading it upon?

I’m not suggesting any of this is “bad” per se….and I certainly don’t think that mass produced goods and services will (or should) disappear. I AM suggesting that we take their presence for granted, however. If we stopped every now and then when buying something and asked ourselves “How would I fix this problem if this paid solution didn’t exist?” then I think we might surprise ourselves with what we are capable of. And what would happen if everyone did this more often?

Many of our current solutions are not necessarily the best ones available. In many cases, I think they are the solutions best suited to the fading Industrial Era, and they reflect the constraints and attitudes of that era. But this often locks us into path dependence – i.e. the idea that whatever comes next has to be a refinement of whatever already exists. Thankfully, many digital era tools seem to be able to get past this inertia, often in radically different ways.

There’s an economic side to this, too, however. Inequality is rising in many nations, and also across many cities and regions. Part of what is driving this is that people who are best at creating solutions have a high (and increasing) market value. For those of us who are simply using and maintaining yesterday’s solutions, however, our market value is falling.

For the problem-solving elite, being open to new experiences and questioning things creates a virtuous circle. They strengthen their skills, broadening and deepening their knowledge, and they learn how to apply these skills across a range of industries.

Sadly, the circle can work in reverse for people who are really struggling to adapt to change. Increasingly, digital technologies use much easily replicated and coded knowledge, meaning that standardized, passive knowledge has a shortening shelf life. Not only is the Industrial Era world unlikely to return, but turning away from change will compound the disadvantage faced by people. Of course, these are two ends of the spectrum, and most people lie somewhere in between; we engage happily with some topics and avoid others.

I also think a topic which is missing in the conversation around productivity and innovation is the importance of design. Many people worldwide leave design behind when they stop drawing pictures, or playing with Lego, as children. In doing so, they weaken a skill set that will help them in the digital era. Even worse, they lose a portion of the sense that they have agency over their lives. They come to accept that the world they find themselves in is fixed, and that they have no power to modify or adapt it to their needs.

That architecture has an impact upon people’s moods is well known - best described by Winston Churchill’s quote that 'we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.' (
I would argue that the design of day-to-day products has a similar impact. If people grow up in mass-produced housing, and everything they use on a day-to-day basis is merely functional, then how would they develop an ability to think beyond these concepts? It is, of course, possible, but would require some time and effort.

To combat this, I think that it might help for people to start talking about design. It’s not about what (or how much) you know, but rather what role you think design plays in our lives. What exists in your life that you think is a really brilliant design? What would you redesign to work better? Such conversations might help people to start questioning their surroundings in all sorts of ways, opening the door to new possibilities. In turn, it may help many people to rediscover a sense of agency over some of the things in their lives.

One person who has been talking about the importance of design for years is Camilo Potocnjak-Oxman. He has been heavily involved in the space, drawing together design, engineering, and entrepreneurialism. You can learn more about his views and achievements in this fascinating interview from the True Leaders Game Changers podcast (Education):

Likewise, Australian comedian and modernist nerd Tim Ross has an exhibition called Design Nation running in Sydney during 2018, details here: I really hope that this exhibition (and others like it) has a chance to travel beyond the capital cities. This is important, because if we want everybody to adapt to the digital era, we need to ensure that design is for everyone. It can’t stay the way it is – where the perception is that only those living in big cities can design things, and the rest of us are just passive consumers.

What do you think? How would you get the public at large worldwide thinking about the value of design on a regular basis? I’d love to read your comments below.


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