A way of creating value

Thoughts on the relationship between design and industry, where the balance between ethics and market represents one of biggest current and future challenges, from Europe to the rest of the world.

This article was originally published, feature-lenght, in Domus 975 / December 2013


I am convinced that great transformations are no longer the result of the actions of a company, an institute or an organisation. They are produced instead by a convergence of vision among the constituent parts in a system, which works to ensure that these converging visions are transformed into concrete designs and have a positive impact on the businesses and profits of everyone taking part.

For this reason, I take a positive view of the time I spent from the beginning of the 1990s to the end of 2011 as head of the Philips Design Center, and then at Electrolux. Projects like Vision of the Future, Television at the Crossroads, Workshop, New Nomads, La Casa Prossima Futura, City People Light, Next Simplicity, Philanthropy by Design and many others developed by Philips Design, involving firms like Olivetti, Nike, Levi’s, Zegna, Cappellini and Renault, in addition to NGOs and the urban planning of many global metropolises, have created a framework for catalysis and have set and tackled design and research questions then and now, not only within our organisation, but within ecosystems made up of possible actors of possible systemic transformations.

These projects have in fact demonstrated how working on visions of the future – which itself poses questions for technology, the behaviour of individuals and society, cultural models and political action – has been able to transform itself in concrete terms into a representation of a possible reality and so provide a representation of the possible effects and advantages of the convergences I mentioned above.

Not all these visions have been followed up: what counts is an understanding of what constitutes quality of life in the collective imagination, and what technology can produce as a response to this desire. Technology can do a lot, but not everything it can do brings benefits. In the need to take care of our environment and the resources that we have there is a new responsibility. Design plays a significant role here. It can be an important tool for satisfying the needs and desires that we have related to our living environment and quality of life. When design was carried out by architects, since there was no dedicated training available, there was an almost natural integration of architectural and design thought, as at macro and micro levels in a large design collaboration.

Technology can do a lot, but not everything it can do brings benefits

The industries of product manufacturing, architecture and craftsmanship today operate in separate sectors, in different channels. This makes it hard for them to meet, in contrast to what used to happen in the past, when there were integrated connections between professionals in different disciplines, generating natural synergy. This separation has meant that change has taken incremental form within distinct sectors, rather than being radical and across-the board within the sectors and their ecosystems. In the past it was often said how the role of some architects and designers was close to that of philosophers: they both dealt with the question of how to live and were placed, and had a place, in the critical, reflective questions against which industry, the markets, the financial systems and politics developed over the last century. They reflected on whether the directions taken were right or not: they were philosophers with design ability, i.e. the ability to translate a thought into a proposal for living that was tangible, workable and possible. This is perhaps what has been lost, even if much has been gained in terms of the development of specialised roles.

I believe that this is also the role of politics, which should work towards achieving a vision of economic development and resolving the challenges that are being created.

Europe can play an extremely important role in the innovation of systems of product and service production if it is able once again to take up a position of cultural and intellectual leadership. Such a position could lead to a New Renaissance, one able to set in motion a process of revision of the last century from the point of view of industrialisation, consumption, finance and politics and which takes stock of where all this has brought us. Think of the food industry and the dramatic situation we are experiencing today, with problems resulting from the quality of food, which impact on our health, and with models of behaviour that have led to chronic illnesses such as obesity, and from the emphasis on quantity over quality. This is the time to stop and think about how to redirect the development of technology and its application, in addition to recognising it as a tool to use to achieve a sustainable quality of life. Our living environment has a fundamental role in this respect.

Europe can play an extremely important role in the innovation of systems of product and service production

Architecture must be rethought as guiding the integration of the new technologies that have emerged and the process that has led to their rationalisation, with an increase in benefits. Think of how the Victorian house had a fireplace or a stove in every room, while today central heating – invisible heat – is integrated into the architectural structure. The same principle could apply to refrigeration and airconditioning. Today we could imagine preserving food in a different and ubiquitous way, spreading central refrigeration throughout each room in the house, depending on the requirements of the activities that take place in them.

The same goes for anything to do with connectivity, the capacity to take the energy generated by different products and use it to positive synergistic effect. Connectivity offers the opportunity to use energy in a more appropriate, more efficient way, but it is only one of the factors that could kick-start a process of transformation, one that could have a radical impact on sustainability in the near future. This situation is comparable to the one in which the car industry found itself when it started to think of using a different propulsive energy – electricity. There is a need for a systemic change in which industry should not be the only one to pay the price of its own transformation: there should be a system to help industry in this process. This is why I am also talking about politics, because this is about putting in place, all together, a process of civilisation and sustainability. There are also initiatives that are posing the problem of training a creative leadership in sustainability – the possibility of having a philosophical and political vision of a process of transformation that brings profitable growth with it.

It is important to leave behind the negative logic that leads to adopting the most convenient or the least risky solution, one developed in the short term; this is a logic generated by a system that governs the world of economics and finance, and which has essentially fettered all the companies listed on the stock market because it rewards results quarter by quarter. The adoption of this logic means failing to reward thinking about systemic transformation.

Europe could play an active role in endorsing as an economic value the work of industry in the medium and long term, and in reassessing the standards of judgement by which a company today is rewarded or put in an extremely negative position in the market – standards that create mistaken perceptions and feed a system of mistaken values. We all know how much the economic crisis owes to common perceptions and their influence on our behaviours and decisions. It is up to us therefore to design better futures and to decide and act on these.   

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