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By Gabrielle Kennedy

The point of social design is that one project or intervention won’t change the world.  Individuals, small companies, big companies, governments, nations – it all happens bit by bit.  Even a single, seemingly insignificant gesture can build momentum and instigate change.  

Some of the most effective social design interventions have occurred in times of hardship or scarcity when people are forced to collaborate and cooperate.

Many of these are discussed in a new book “Looks Good, Feels Good, Is Good: How Social Design Changes our World”. To mark the release of the book, some of the contributors and major design thinkers were invited to the Design Academy Eindhoven on the last day of Dutch Design Week to discuss the issue.

At this moment of flux – when design and its future role are under scrutiny, we need voices like Daan Rossegarde’s.  “You make the things, but the things also make you,” he reminds the audience on how to stay engaged and in the right mind-set to move the discipline forward.

“Good design never stops,” he continues.  “You must remain a voluntary prisoner of your own imagination.  We have the power to visualize and materialize and from that vantage point the whole world can be explored … and of course we are all curious to see what sort of role we can take from here.”

Alice Rawsthorn, design writer for the International New York Times, began her presentation with a quote from her favourite critic, Richard Buckminster Fuller. 

“We can have plenty of energy if we want it. There is no energy shortage. There is just a shortage of awareness of what is now possible.  The crisis is a crisis of ignorance.”

But as Rawsthorn points out, every crisis is one of ignorance. 

Optimistic people will always believe that a solution to every problem can be found. “And design can play a part in that,” Rawsthorn says.  “It is not a panacea, but it can make a useful contribution.”

The global energy crisis will never be a dull or done issue. It effects everything from health to politics, but how it is discussed will impact how it will be solved. “Solutions have to be designed with ingenuity, grace and intelligence,” Rawsthorn says going on to talk passionately about the United Nations Climate Change conference to be held late next year in Paris.

According to Rawsthorn this will be the first summit to reach a universal and binding global agreement on the reduction of green house gasses.  European member states have agreed to produce at least 27% of their energy from renewable sources by 2030.  Of course the environmental lobby says it isn’t enough and the conservative lobby says it is ridiculous and unattainable.

But in the meantime power cuts persist, protests rage, and fears over energy security grows.  “One in four people do not have access to electricity,” Rawsthorn reminds us.  “The effects are profound and will influence many aspects of our lives.”

Design of course can play a role in sourcing clean energy for all.  When a Ugandan man saw a girl during school hours walking down a road carrying twigs on her head he stopped to talk to her.  He was shocked to see that the girl was his own sister.  But the reality is that in some parts of Africa many young people have to walk a long way to collect enough wood for their families to survive. 

The man designed a solution - Eco-Fuel Africa - to allow his people access to clean, safe cooking fuel.  The programme starts with the collection of agricultural waste which is converted into charcoal briquettes.  The briquettes are distributed through kiosks, which are mostly manned by women who earn 150 euros per month. 

The young can stay in school, the poor can improve their harvest by using the collected material as a fertilizer, deforestation and carbon emissions are reduced and the economy is given a boost.   

“Eco-Fuel Africa is an intelligent, ingenious project that meets the needs of people,” Rawsthorn says.  “It reads like a role model of innovative design and addresses urgent needs in the developing world.  It is a great idea that is thoughtfully developed and implemented.”

Daan Roosegarde thinks one of the most important things to remember as design evolves into a more socially engaged discipline is to always align projects closely with clients.

“Five years ago no way would Heijmans Infrastructure have talked to me,” he says.  “Companies like that would have bought an art work for the lobby, put up a ‘do not touch’ sign, and that would be about it. But now they know they need a new vision to survive.  There needs to be an openness to new ideas.  This comes out of a desperation, but also a love for the future.  I don’t really care what the reason is as long as we as designers realize now that this is our playground and in the playground we can realize change.”

But change won’t come about by people hiding away in a lab.  Roosegarde, for example, takes a piece of Heijmans road and starts his tests.  It fails, it malfunctions, he redesigns, retests and keeps going until it works.


This month, after months and months of testing Roosegaarde unveiled his first prototype 30 minutes from Eindhoven.  An energy neutral highway.

“The thing about being sustainable - which is such an overused words – is it is not about doing less, but doing more,” Roosegarde says.  “It is about merging the world of imagination and innovation.

“One of the tricks is to engage people.  Drag all this out of the realm of dialogue and into action and experience.  I don’t want to be in a museum.”

The final conversation of the social design symposium was between two heads of the country’s finest design education facilities -  Thomas Widdershoven (Design Academy Eindhoven) and Jurgen Bey (Sandberg Institute).

Widdershoven responded eloquently to the onslaught of criticism design schools have faced by critics like Timo de Rijk and Lucas Verwij.

“Nonsense is not a dirty word,” he reminded the audience.  “If that is what they want to call us then I’ll take it.  It gives us freedom – the freedom to be irresponsible, but also the freedom to be creative, to explore and to experiment.  There is no logical path to innovation.”

Jurgen Bey – more a thinker than a talker – agreed.

“Looks Good, Feels Good, Is Good: How Social Design Changes our World”.
Concept and organisation: Anne van der Zwaag 
Publisher: Lecturis
Partner: DOEN Foundation
Art direction and design: Dietwee
Retail price: € 29,95
ISBN 978-94-6226-068-9 (NL)   
ISBN 978-94-6226-068-6 (EN)

Published: 06-Nov-2014 13:21
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    Alice Rawsthorn at Social Design Conference

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    Looks Good Feels Good Is Good

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    Eco-Fuel Africa

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    Thomas Widdershoven talks at Social Design Conference

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    Daan Roosegaarde at Social Design Conference