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Is Metadesign the Solution?

Karen Blincoe, November 2005

‘Metadesign must allow a social mode of existence that is flexible and based on mutual processes of affecting and being affected, rather than on a juridical model. According to Thacker, metadesign represents a critical and creative investigation into the possibilities of transformation of human beings and culture’.
Elisa Giaccardi (external link), 2005.
(see Elisa's paper Sowing the Seeds for Co-Creation)

Eco-design has yet to solve the problem

It reasonable to assert that, on its own, eco-design has neither achieved the change needed to reduce the human footprint on the earth, nor has it enhanced our quality of life. At the Sustainable Innovation 05 Conference (external link) at The Centre for Sustainable Design, Surrey (external link) most speakers reflected on the last ten years of eco- and sustainable design. In Japan, the government listened ten years ago when eco-design was introduced and together with industry integrated eco-design principles in product development - today it has become a prerequisite for product development in Japan helped by technology. Japan is exceptional. Most resource consumption has increased and CO2 emissions have increased. These have resulted in a greater environmental burden due to massproduction and mass consumption and our increased economic activity. (Fumikazu Masuda, 2005). The same message was given by the EEA (European Environmental Agency, 2004) (external link) in Copenhagen last year in the European context. Austria is the country which most successfully has implemented environmental legislation in the EU and Austrian companies are adhering to the rules, with the result that eco-efficiency principles are being implemented and resource use reduced. However, again due to increased consumption the overall result is an increase in resource use and increase in CO2 emissions. Although attempts are being made to work towards sustainable development in the European countries the end results still point in the opposite direction.

Could metadesign provide the solution?

Could metadesign as defined above by Elisa Giaccardi then be the solution to the ills of massproduction and massconsumption, the antidote to the virus to which we are all susceptible and suffer from and for which there seems no cure? As with all applied new thinking or research there are two sides to the coin. Indeed, IDEO (external link), the American worldwide super design group, already employs metadesign-like methodologies and processes in their work. The company allows the client, the consumer and related personalities and professionals in on the act. They are putting the user at the centre of their focus as well as seing the user in the wider context of society in general. IDEO (external link) works with processes that are ‘flexible and based on mutual processes of affecting and being affected’ as well as being engaged in representing ‘a critical and creative investigation into the possibilities of transformation of human beings and culture’. It is what they are famous for - and how they earn their money. They worked with Warnaco’s Wyatt to develop Shop-a-longs (external link) using this expertise, because Wyatt’s consumers ‘were not having a good experience shopping for our products and we needed to make the department stores more inviting’ (Business Week, May 2004). IDEO has developed their methodologies since then and is the most renowned and innovative design company of the 21st century using what may be called metadesign methodologies, flexible, adjusting, organic, dynamic, interested in cultural trends in a combination with the latest technology, working with the individual, the groups, infrastructures, systems design, social and behavioral patterns. It is no surprise then, that the design company is successful and the role model for young designers. Their way of working is unique and is the envy of many young design studios. This is perhaps because IDEO sells processes, methodologies, innovation scenarios, services, infrastructures, ideas and concepts rather than products, and they focus on local cultures, traditions, patterns and habits (ICIS, October 2005).

Eco-design may have to grow

By the same token, according to Ezio Manzini (external link), (Politecnico Milano DIS-Indaco 2005), we will have to learn to innovate on a social level, social innovation, in order to create well-being and reduce the environmental impact. We must learn to co-operate, create communities where spaces and services are pooled, where local resources and skills are developed, creating selfmanaged services for the children, the elderly and the disabled and the sick. We must work towards the generation of new types of communities. Ezio maintains that only in communities and in groups will we be able to change the direction where we seem to be stuck at the moment. He talks about the move by companies from product-orientated linear production to service-orientated networked production. He calls it an ‘advanced industrialization’ and underlines communication and information technology as playing a fundamental role in this perspective as well as in radical social innovation.
These are also the underlying fundamental elements in the concepts of metadesign. Furthermore, the radical social innovation forms requires ‘the bringing into play of all capabilities that an individual or community possesses if it is to come about: from technological-scientific knowledge to practical skills: from philosophical reflection to artistic experience; from deductive logic to individual and social creativity……it is precisely creativity that generates promising forms of social innovation’ (Manzini, 2005). Even if Ezio Manzini’s ideas cannot be defined as metadesign, as Elisa Giaccardi or Thacker define the concept, his theories are close enough to be linked to metadesign and could provide a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel as a model for future sustainable ways of living.

..but it is hard to broaden an existing mindset

New definitions, new processes as well as new methodologies in design, like any new inventions, be it in science or technology etc. can be and are used to increase production and consumption which increases the environmental burden increases life quality for the few and more often than not reduces life quality for many people on the planet. They can also, however, be used as methods to shift societies towards more sustainable ways of living. No single practice, process, methodology, theory or indeed belief has as yet been invented or thought of which can cure the ills of consumerism or globalization. Environmentally conscious design and eco-design were attempts to solve the problems but have fallen short of expectations and have not achieved the intended results. Looking back and reflecting on the past, one can see the narrow contexts and the blinkered and atomistic view within which these concepts were created, focusing on the environment only, and understand why they failed. However, knowledge of the extent of the problem continues to increase. Sustainability has brought us closer by allowing us to see the interconnected aspects of our societies. We are getting closer to the real issues, the underlying problems, than we were before, closer to understanding the important role of local societies as well as of the individual and the group. Closer to understanding that the real issues are not economic but social/human based.

We must make an integrated response for anything to change

Could metadesign make a real difference? I believe that there has to be political, public as well as private will in our societies and countries to make real transformation come about, regardless of new ideas and methodologies, which as shown above can be used as tools for development in both directions.

Karen Blincoe
ICIS (external link), Oct, 2005

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