All Change: Design and Science in a time of Crisis

Collaborative Workshop, V&A London
28 03 22

Design writer and curator Max Fraser shares a personal summary of a workshop merging the seemingly distanced worlds of design and science

All Change: Design and Science in a time of Crisis

On 28th March 2022, designers and scientists left their studios and laboratories for an afternoon and headed to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London for “All Change: Design and Science in a time of Crisis”. The event was masterminded by Tom Lloyd, Master of the Faculty of Royal Designers for Industry (RDI) and Chris Wise, Commissioner of the 1851 Royal Commission who were keen to merge a curated list of individuals from the seemingly distanced worlds of design and science for an “intentional collision of cultures”. Fifty bright minds from college age upwards gathered for a series of provocations and conversations, with the aim of tickling imaginations and inviting collaborations.

Plunged into a group of strangers is daunting but a few familiar faces eased the group into the four hours that lay ahead. Apart from a few stereotypical sartorial clues, it wasn’t obvious who was a scientist and who was a designer. As the group converged, a few hurried introductions, polite smiles and side-glances preceded introductions from Lloyd and Wise.

The meeting was aimed at addressing the time we live in, one rattled by jeopardy and anxiety. As most of us pondered why they had been summoned to this stately venue and grappled with the likelihood that the person next to them was considerably smarter, Tom Lloyd kicked things off by reinforcing the need for collective thinking and collaboration by questioning, “how could we thrive in each other’s company?”, backed up by Chris Wise asking if we could “inspire exponentially.”

As the global population seemingly pivots from one crisis to another, perhaps innovation could thrive on this instability through a “new currency of shared focus, urgent timescales, the need for scale, repurposing resources, greater tolerance of failure and openness for collaboration”. Maybe, just maybe, this gathering could “rupture the assumptions on which everyday life proceeds and so create a doorway into a different kind of world, one in which people can improvise solutions inspired by generosity and empathy, goodwill and common endeavour, resilience and resourcefulness often lacking in normal times.”

Hosted in the magnificent Raphael Gallery, participants sat on a vast circular bench next to people they’d never met before, the layout devoid of a stage and wholly democratic. This levelling between participants liberated us of our individual professional labels and instead focused minds on our lofty yet worthwhile quest to somehow improve life for all on this planet.

Motivation under such circumstances can polarise between egotistical jostling and communal betterment yet there was an unsaid assumption that the latter should and would prevail, our minds set to imagine the world we should collectively sculpt beyond the horizon of our own lifetimes.

Could we, just could we, make a dent in this seemingly never-ending uphill challenge?

A quartet of provocations prepared by some of the guests set the scene, highlighting the importance of chance encounters, our ability to handle the unexpected, problem solve through collaboration, question what we’re adding to the world, challenge assumptions, understand our responsibilities, and acknowledge that one’s sense of reality is different from another’s (see more detailed summary below).

Afterwards, all participants were randomly assigned to one of six groups and asked to adventure into four V&A galleries with the stimulus: Imagination leaves a lot to reality.

Groups were neither assigned a leader nor challenged to reach an outcome, instead left to talk and respond to the institutional environment as an exercise in spontaneous group discussion, a lesson in the dynamic of forced collaboration. In my group we pondered the reality of those who had created the historic objects and sculptures that are now exhibits, wondering what the issues and power struggles were of their time. Would they be content with the way their legacy is perceived by us today? Such a question forced us to consider how future generations would look back on our era, one in which we avidly consumed and disposed of stuff while obsessively documenting such plundering of finite resources. In forty-five short minutes and without knowing anything about each other’s lives, our group of six had rapidly formed new relationships, eked out a spontaneous conversation and raised some existential questions that were most deserving of the subsequent tea break.

Three more provocations followed, pointing out that we’re living in a policy landscape that is out of date and calling for honest and graceful debate. Could we reinvent our value system away from growth and towards social and environmental service?

Design has failed us, came the final provocation, and a regenerative mindset is required, strengthened by human capacity for altruism, empathy and collaboration.

Indeed, empathy was a word used throughout the afternoon, brought to the fore in another gallery ‘safari’, this time with a different set of collaborators. We were given the brief to invent an unheard-of machine, using “our collective brains to come up with something that meets our collective needs.” For three-quarters of an hour, imaginations wandered, and ideas were shared, shot down or elevated at high speed. My group settled on an Empathy Machine, designed as a play on social media which allows users to see the consequences of their actions to encourage empathy, giving one the same endorphins as one gets from current social media apps but from doing good and feeling empathy for others. This idea came about from a feeling that the basic human emotion of empathy is missing from much of today’s rhetoric.

In the final 30 minutes, the group gathered again and were all invited, should they wish, to individually stand up and share a short idea or reflection from the half-day workshop. Descending into what felt like an uncomfortable 90 seconds of silence, someone from the group stood up and spoke, triggering a flurry of seemingly random final thoughts that were tinged with despair as much as with wisdom, hope and optimism for our collective future.

As these ideas and opinions were streamed across the room, one pondered the flow of those precious hours together: perhaps the event was altogether too comfortable and polite, itself a symptom of the grandeur subliminally imposed by the venue.

Maybe we would have benefitted from some intentional discomfort and debate instigated in a grittier space. Possibly we should have been intent on an outcome from the meeting, inconclusive as it was. Perhaps we should have agreed that future meetings be underpinned with a mindset of disruption and rebellion rather than cooperation and agreement.

The professions of design and science could come together again but conceivably the net could be cast much wider to involve those voices that were missing, such as lawmakers and breakers, politicians and activists, bankers and bakers.

Or should we hand the mic to the generation we purport to protect, those unhampered by professional standing or accepted wisdom, those unbound by specialism and social standing? Perhaps the greatest empathetic leap we can offer would be for us to allow children and teenagers to write the brief for the rest of us to enact, all in service to the future that will play out when we’re dead and gone.
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