Optimism - Royal Designers Summer Session 2023, Dartington Hall, Devon

Rupert Evans-Harding shares a personal response to the 2023 Summer Session, which focussed on “the endless inventiveness of the human spirit to bring about change for the better.”
20 11 23

Early on in the weekend, I posed a question to our group: “Who here feels optimistic?” A few hands hovered tentatively but most remained firmly in laps. I had an inkling as to the response. Asking the question was, perhaps, my way of avoiding it, despite having instinctively agreed with the Royal Designers for Industry’s assertion that designers are “generally optimists [who spend] their lives responding to problems,” as was written in the event description. If optimism — the theme chosen for this year’s RDI Summer Session — was a challenging concept it was hardly surprising; a lot has changed in the world during the decade since the RDI’s last Session.

I was there as one of eight “wildcards,” invited to convene at Dartington Hall along with 20 early-career designers, scientists and engineers, and 12 RDIs. Many of us had met for the first time that morning, cradling coffees as we waited for our coach at Charing Cross station. The air still held some of the night’s chill as we sleepily assembled. But as the coach crept out of London, it wasn’t long before we were collectively warmed by a mutual sense of anticipation. Besides the industry that connected us and the prospect of the many hours we’d be spending together (starting with five on the road), we all shared something else. In the runup to the weekend we were asked to select an object that embodied optimism. Everyone on board was carrying a tangible illustration of their attitude to the theme that would also, presumably, reveal something of themselves.

Activities designed to be icebreakers are not uncommon in these kinds of situations, but the one devised by the organisers — in which our objects were to play a part — was one of the best I’ve participated in. I’d chosen a pilling comb designed by Batch.Works, which I secured to a string stretched across the room along with everyone else’s selections. The comb — a tool for extending the life of a garment — was 3D printed using post-consumer polylactic acid. This is the kind of place where I find optimism: at the meeting of traditional values of care and repair and future-facing modes of circular production.

Image: Nevi Balezdrova

Stepping back, I surveyed the line. Other objects that stood out to me included a poignantly stopped watch, a small wooden home to conserve shrews and a tub of Oatly creme fraiche, chosen for its surprising capacity for cooling buildings when smeared on the outside of windows, resembling fritted glass — an extraordinary example of a low tech, low budget response to the new regularity of life-threatening heatwaves in northern Europe. As the exercise progressed, connections were made between the objects and, inevitably, ourselves.

Here was a group of people who wouldn’t normally spend time together. In theory we might pass each other in the corridors (metaphorical or otherwise) of professional life, but generational divides and the conventions of career progression sadly keep interaction to a minimum. Those inducted into the RDI faculty have demonstrated “sustained design excellence” so inevitably they tend to be older with established careers. To the early-career participants they would more likely be names dropped in university lectures than someone you might engage in non-hierarchical conversation about the future of design.

Image: Lisa Ashari

Dartington Hall was an epic setting — both daunting and magnificent — and the building and its grounds were having a noticeable effect on our collective mindset. Here, it felt possible to let go of the trappings we’d arrived with — those mindsets we adopt as we prepare to navigate a “professional” situation. Indeed, there was very little of the kind of structure we might’ve expected. The cohort was divided into smaller groups — each a mixture of RDI, early career practitioner and “wildcard” — but beyond that there were no deadlines, commercial pressures, or even expectations that we produce something.

However, as the weekend progressed, our group became aware that others appeared to be working towards something. Naturally, even with our mutual commitment to a spirit of collaboration and egalitarianism, our ingrained professional competitiveness — and perhaps instinct to make — wouldn’t lie dormant.

“Do we feel compelled to make something?” I asked my group. No, we all agreed — what seemed truly valuable to us in that moment was the quality of the conversation we were having. The discussion was rich, enlightening and, well, productive. We were finding optimism together. Come Sunday, other groups were making presentations, including a statement of intent, a quickly assembled short film and a particularly moving performance involving a candle slowly starving of oxygen under a bell jar until a member of the audience couldn’t hold back the urge to rescue. My group had established a sort of agreement — a commitment to reconvening at least once a year to continue our conversation and hold the optimism that was emerging.

Why was this so important to us? How was it that we’d started to feel empowered in hoping for something better for the future? Ultimately I think, it was because those conversations, and the cohort of people involved in them were, above all, intergenerational.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this word since that weekend. I occupied a sort of middleground, somewhere in the vague realm between the early career participants and the established RDIs. From there I witnessed a gulf being bridged — one that I suspect is usually considered untraversable or simply ignored. At one end of the spectrum were those who’d enjoyed successful careers and the associated renown and reward. Some had come of age in the post-war era, living through decades of social progress and advances in civil rights. At the other end were those who graduated into recession saddled with seemingly insurmountable student debt and a future of populism, polarisation, post-truth, widening inequality, uncertainties around AI technologies and wholesale ecological collapse.

Optimism, I’ve come to understand, is as generational as anything else. For a designer working 50 years ago, plastic was cheap, durable and endlessly available – a means to bring affordable, mass-produced goods to people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to them. For today’s designers, it is synonymous with waste, pollution and a world hooked on petrochemicals. And here’s the anxiety-inducing quandary for young designers: can they afford to take time to speculatively design positive futures when their substantial student loan repayments that month, coupled with yet another rent hike, force financial concerns above all else?

Perhaps the gulf highlights opportunity. The optimism and experience of older generations is invaluable. It comes from witnessing progress. The attitude and outlook of younger generations is essential. It drives and accelerates change.

Suppose an opportunity were created for some kind of flip in the generational relationship dynamic? What if an organisation could flip its hierarchy to allow the values and perspectives of its newest recruits to guide the application of optimism and practical experience of its elders to build solutions?

Maybe these are the kinds of ideas the RDI Summer Session is meant to result in. Or perhaps, it can be considered a success if it leaves us with something more immediately manageable, such as the commitment we made to keep our conversation going into the future. Surely what everyone in our industry needs is an intergenerational workgroup that believes in the power of optimism. If you agree, look out for the open call in spring 2024.

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