Waiting for municipal elections in the World Design Capital

Given that it’s now September, and Helsinki is already heading towards the end of its year as Design Capital of the Year, I thought I’d make a few notes on the topic. (My last post clearly didn’t get it out of my system).

I also thought it worth musing on what, if anything, the effervescence around design that’s so palpable here in Helsinki, might offer the municipal elections coming up in Finland in October. Now that there is such a design-fuelled, user-centric buzz in town, a grassrootsy excitement that the gray-suited bureaucrats have given the public a chance to pitch in with managing things through design and participation, will anyone bother to vote?

I have been wanting to write for some time about the considerable problems I see in the idea of design solving problems, but I hadn’t thought about it as a straightforward mechanism for displacing politics until now. On one level it surely is, namely in making the brand – at the core of any design endeavour today – more important than anything else. For instance, the Finnish country brand seems to put matters in the hands of designers and ad agencies when a country’s economic future might be worth entrusting to a rather wider set of experts.

In Helsinki there seems to now be a belief that design thinking will solve any problem under the sun. Elsewhere, the idea has received considerable and well-deserved critique. For instance this text by Simon Blyth and Lucy Kimbell (pdf here).

Here however, despite plenty of frustration and annoyance with the WDC process, relatively little critique has been aired. Then finally I found, in Finnish, two texts in a more critical vein. In ‘Venyvä muoto’, published in Kirkko & Kaupunki, Saila Keskiaho interviews Kaarin Taipale (architect and politician) and Jukka Savolainen (director of the Design Museum).

“The design year is expanding the notion of design. Is this a good or a bad thing?” (Designvuosi laajentaa designin käsitettä. Onko se hyvä vai huono asia?)

More tongue-in-cheek is the somewhat older post by Lilja Tamminen, who asks, is design a tool, can you eat it?

These are important texts. In Helsinki, critique and particularly self-critique is a relative rarity.

It pales into insignificance compared to the endless design enthusiasm and up-beat creative-city-hype that policy makers intone. One resident overseas design expert who shall remain nameless told me he found the urban policy based on design “naïve”, and many others long for critical public debate. The latest issue of the Finnish Architectural Review did include a series of critical commentaries on the design phenomenon. That last post of mine was reproduced from that text.

Here I’ll muse on some of the things I thought about but that didn’t make it into print.

One of my disappointments with the WDC is that the programme and its creators are so uninterested in history. The premise throughout appears to be that we live in anticipation of endless problems and unprecedented complexity but also that design and design above all, is the answer. Design, we are told, is utterly novel, totally fixed on the future, only better design will save us.

Apparently there is a radical rupture between design (tomorrow’s answers) and engineering or professional expertise (yesterday’s answers). But this makes it seem as if the design effervescence of the 1970s and before had never happened. In fact, in 1968 some of the most enduringly famous names in eco-conscious design were invited to Helsinki to discuss the very same problems that are being talked about today. Only now we are treated to the issues in the way that has become so typical of our unthinkingly neoliberal and impatient era – absolutely without history.

To talk about design and yet to skim over history or temporal change is, it seems to me, to ignore the most basic virtue of design, which is that it produces change, it transforms. The point is made with characteristic fluency by Bruno Latour here (and reproduced in Architecture d’Aujourd’hui. No. 381. 2011: 109-119). Design, he writes, “is never a process that begins from scratch; to design is always to redesign”.

Design brings – should bring – history right to the heart of politics. And when we understand design as change making and combine this with our knowledge of environmental change, it might offer a promising foundation for a new philosophy. If old ways of thinking are stuck in ossified dualistic principles of classification, design promises to operate across different domains of knowledge and across multiple scales. It’s just what our complicated, technologically saturated and over-exhausted world needs.

The history point is just one of five characteristics of design that Latour makes in that article. The others are that design appears a more humble verb than “to construct” or “to build”. Secondly it pays attention to detail and requires skill and care at all stages. Thirdly, talk of design makes it obvious that matter and meaning are absorbed within each other. Latour’s fourth point is the history point, his fifth claim is that the concept of design necessarily involves an ethical dimension.

I happen to agree with much of what Latour writes, and I believe that though he professes to know little about design (though probably not as little as I do) he has captured many of the reasons why design thinking remains so popular.

But what bothers me as much about Latour’s list as about Helsinki’s hype is this: where does it leave politics? As a phenomenon, design is politics at its most powerful. Design turns ideas and ideals, desires and perspectives into material reality. And with the power of today’s computer-aided-design tools to aid them, and the speed, design has the power to turn very narrow ideals into very consequential realities indeed. An entire new city of tens of thousands of dwellings can be designed, built and abandoned, in a remarkably short period of time, as this piece of BBC journalism notes.

Helsinki is undergoing its biggest construction boom since the early 20th century, looking to add value to former harbour areas vacated in 2008. It’s unlikely that the resulting buildings will remain empty for long. The city has a real housing shortage. The city also organises all kinds of consultations and public events to promote its plans. Yet even so, the planning process reproduces that familiar story from around the world, where apparently behind closed doors, technocrats, bureaucrats and politicians hammer out plans over years and years, which then suddenly and often frighteningly pop out into people’s consciousness when it’s too late to have any influence on the outcome.

Though the WDC-Helsinki publications constantly refer to these major regeneration plans, and the city planners refer to design and the WDC programme, it’s not clear that there is actually any link between the virtues of design and the reality of Helsinki’s building projects. From a citizens’ point of view, most of the schemes look like pretty standard speculative housing developments with some subsidized housing thrown into the mix.

In other words, the politics of major housing development and the major infrastructure to go with it, is not really politics. Or at least it’s barely part of political debate. Most agree that the regeneration is a good thing and, bouncing along with Helsinki’s continued success in international league-tables of nice cities, everybody but a few people who can be dismissed as NIMBY, seems happy. No need for politics then, consensus reigns.

And so I think the design talk is actually rather similar to Finland’s old national projects. It doesn’t seem to be a radical departure from the way things used to be done: by smothering differences and disagreements under imposed consensus.

And the consensus is that we (who?) want the future to be sustainable, green, pretty, fun, creative, Everyday Discoveries - International Design House Exhibitioninnovative, sociable, community-based, user-centric, etc. etc. The idea of designing for sustainability is simply such a huge imperative that everything else is put aside. (Sometimes “everything else” pops up in resentful and hateful populism, but it’s only a hunch that makes the connection between that and the fun-filled world where the good future is being designed.)

I hope that neither policy making nor politics have quite disappeared. But the design hype has made it harder to think and talk seriously about what is going on in the world.

As if that weren’t scary enough, there is the scary prospect that actually innovation and design stopped progressing in any interesting, let alone socially beneficial, ways at around the time that the capitalist economy as a whole started to falter. This is the suggestion argued by the prolific anthropologist David Graeber, powerfully and amusingly, in a recent online article.

On the whole design in Helsinki politics is probably not that revolutionary. If anything, it’s a short-hand and nice-sounding way of absorbing as much human capacity as possible into capitalist markets. If there is a social shift, it’s nothing to do with challenging the ills of current social arrangements, it’s about educated individuals selling their identity, their time and perhaps their soul, to the profit machine – or, as in much of the WDC programme, giving it away for free.

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