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Designing after Copenhagen

2009 will remain a landmark in the 21st century. Two significant facts seem to foreshadow the birth of a new world; two events that could give us the creeps were we not “designers,” professionals forced to play Sysiphus, to keep building and rebuilding our environment on a daily basis. All the paradigms ruling industrial development and wealth production were brutally questioned when financial capitalism began to stagger and its foundations to crumble. The business world is going to have to reconsider its ways of achieving success.
Moreover the stalemate in which the recent Copenhagen climate summit resulted cast light upon the failure of States when it comes to agreeing on development management. However this meeting raised global awareness on burning ecological issues, which could spark off a reshaping of the worldwide industrial map, even though a huge territorial imbalance seemed there to last as China, India or Brazil had become the “official” world suppliers. Does it make sense for Westerners to buy dirt-cheap solar panels made in China that must then be hauled by boats or worse, by plane, thus making a ridiculously high carbon footprint? At least the Copenhagen Summit made it obvious that politicians are nowhere near resolving this problem. And yet we are going to have to take action.

Industrial companies, reorganize!

Financial capitalism – in which development and wealth production solely to producing more wealth, in which financial issues only raised further financial issues – showed its drawbacks and began to falter. The consequences of this decline are difficult to assess and we cannot rejoice over it for now. Luckily banks and stock markets rose again and a total collapse was avoided in a close shave. Such a collapse would have entailed terrible consequences on a social level.
However the financial crisis shed light on a deeper, way more worrying industrial crisis. Indeed the whole industrial world is about to reconstruct itself entirely. A construction process that will undoubtedly offer designers a tremendous playground. Designers will take on key strategic positions within the companies of tomorrow.

For several decades now, the rise of China, India, Brazil and the upcoming emergence of Laos or Cambodia – where production costs are bound to keep decreasing – have shaken up the organization of the industrial world on a global scale. So much so that some major Western nations – such as England, for instance – have pro-actively started to part with entire sectors of their industries. GM’s near-bankruptcy in the United States quite blatantly shows that the industrial models of the early nineteenth century are totally outdated.
Globalization and market liberalization forced Western industries to rationalize cost and production processes to the utmost, thus limiting their abilities to innovate and to think up new products or services. The so-called fruitful “quality-driven policies” advocated in management in the eighties tolled the bell of many a company. Always and solely keeping improving what you already know how to make is but a dead-end logics, especially if the rules of competitiveness vary from country to country. In many cases, quality-driven policies have paved the way to disastrous management methods centered on procedures and cost management, which in turn gave life to a financial tropism that sowed the seeds of a type of “evil” capitalism much questioned today.

Industrial models must be thought anew. We must re-empower companies and give them back the will to create and innovate, to launch new projects. Innovating is a way to stand out as different and to produce value-added, to anticipate tomorrow and to make the right strategic decisions to keep ahead and to keep developing. The true challenge for many companies will lie in their ability to free themselves from industrial logics and sectors which have to this day constituted their economical, historical and cultural backgrounds. What is a truly innovative company? Maybe the one who is in a position to ask the following question “making use of what I know how to do, what can I do that I do not know? Which products, to be launched on which market and for what uses can I apply my know-how to?”
To face low-cost products, Western companies must make up new thinking patterns that will enable them to move on and change activities in no time. To face the crisis and ensure salvation “GM” probably should stop manufacturing spark-ignition engines. And what if Renault – who makes a cunning and clever use of communications – decided to turn to electricity supply? This may sound weird but 20 years ago who would have thought Bouygues would turn into a multinational telecommunication company? Designers will probably benefit from the need for companies to move on, to innovate, to take initiatives and to veer from the beaten industrial path. This trend will help them take up strategic and leading positions and thus to guide companies and their staff towards change and development.

Bringing ethics back into entrepreneurship?

The Copenhagen summit only led to a stalemate: politicians failed to enforce development management laws. However, a global political consciousness came to life during this international meeting and many rivalries between States were smoothed out.
But will this make capitalism into a virtuous system? Of course it won’t! As a “techno-scientific” system capitalism fundamentally lacks an ethical dimension. The supreme goal of companies is to be profitable, that of the marketer is to sell and meet consumer needs, that of the technician to increase and rationalize productivity… At every level it is but a matter of interest as opposed to duty. Morals have been totally left out by the economic model derived from capitalism.
Politicians failed to make things move forward in Copenhagen and there is nothing capitalism can do about it. Capitalism is powerless here. Therefore Humankind must take action and retrieve a virtuous, ethical way of producing and consuming… We must infuse new meaning and a true collective spirit into economics, we must admit that we can – and must – live differently. Only such a coming of awareness can help us “get politicians started” and force companies into developing new environment-friendly entrepreneurship patterns.

Designers should benefit from such a context. Likewise, the opportunities offered to companies by “sustainable development” and by green economy are about to trigger a new era as far as development is concerned.
To move ahead, companies must reshape economy – create, produce, sell, manage differently – and probably make social matters into key issues.
Designers have the duty to think up new products, new packaging, new spaces, new multimedia tools… Because they know how to anticipate upcoming scenarios designers have conquered strategic positions within companies. Since designers are dedicated to creation, innovation, the methods they abide by are neither fundamentally scientific nor fundamentally economic, wherein they remain free from the abusive determinist spirit of production-and/or market-induced logics that keep many companies to a standstill. Designers are craftsmen in the service of development within companies willing to go beyond their traditional cultural background.
Engineers are the key players in innovation and technological advancement, “marketers” in sales development and economic activities, designers conduct key research activities about the major human-and user-centered social and economic issues. Reflecting upon innovation implies keeping an expert eye on technology, economy and human sciences and thereby designers broaden the scope of value creation, thus bringing ethics back into it. Since Human beings seen as users are the core of the designer’s approach to creation, designers have the duty to promote a type of economic development that works in the service of Humankind. Their action is essential in reviving virtuous entrepreneurship models and in producing wealth with a view to fostering progress for all.

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