Design that draws a new world

Before we knew, another one hundred year has started 

You may remember the controversy, which took place between the right and the left sides in 2019 when the Republic of Korea commemorates its 100th anniversary, on the question whether the year 2019 is the 100th anniversary or not. However, when the first year of another centenary began in 2020, there was no proposal of ideology or vision for the next 100 years despite the controversy in the previous year. I thought that it just goes that way. Then, COVID-19 pandemic has swept the world, creating radical changes as if the pandemic cleans up the world. It is like a wake-up call for the people dozing off to allow them to pull themselves together as new time is looming. Year 2020 was also the 50th anniversary of Korea Institute of Design Promotion where I was affiliated. Thus, I was obsessed with the idea that I need to look back design policies implemented by the government for the last 50 years and create the blueprint for the next 50 years in a different level. At that critical juncture, I witnessed experiments of innovation taking place in many corners of the society since the beginning of the pandemic. Even though there was no declaration of blueprint for the next 100 years, COVID-19 clearly marks an end of an era, reminding us of the need for a new world. So far, it has never been this clear that we are going through a turning point of full changes.

At a turning point, everyone looks at directional sign to determine where to go. Also, it is important to understand where I am now. This might the reason why there are various attempts to redefine identity and seek out the direction to pursue in many areas. Last year’s theme of Seoul Design International Forum hosted by Seoul Metropolitan Government was “Re-Connect: Design as a Value Creator.” It is like a question for design, asking what kind of value it should create in the future as a connector for the disconnected world. The theme itself is the question about the value and role of design. 

What is the current status of design? 

I was wondering what the emerging topics in the area of design-related research are. As of April 2022, the number of papers that include the term “design” in their title among the papers published in the journal registered to KCI (Korea Citation Index) was 9,089 from 2010 to 2019 and 2,277 from 2020 to date. When I compared the keywords in those papers, experience, thinking and learning have been even more emphasized since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the restructuring process during the COVID-19 pandemic, in relation with design, keywords, such as experience, thinking and learning, tended to attract attention. Isn’t this a reflection of 1) the fact that people got interested in invisible “experience” rather than visible objects for the subject of design in the non-face-to-face age, 2) the fact that people pay attention to the role of design not just as a way of implementation, but also as a “way of thinking,” and 3) the reality that people pay attention to the role of design as a tool of education or to the need for learning design itself? Out of sudden, I realized that we could find the clue for this question from the presentation of Professor Yoori Koo of Hongik University during the first preliminary Seoul Design International Forum held on 31st March. 

What does design thinking do? 

The presentation of Professor Yoori Koo begins with a question, “how can design thinking as a human-centered problem-solving method play a powerful role in the public social domain?” Professor Yoori Koo participated in the research and development of basic plan for social problem-solving design led by the Seoul Metropolitan Government. In particular, she also has years of experience as an advisor and evaluator in the National Design Team, witnessing how design permeates in the barren domain of public policy where design has not been used. Since she endured years in the area that design cannot stand, it is understandable that she took this question as a topic. It makes me nod my head. The National Design Team is a project of Ministry of the Interior and Safety and Korea Institute of Design Promotion to design policies with the method of service design. Since 2014, over 15,000 people participated in this team to conduct more than 1,500 projects. All across the world, it is unprecedented to see that citizens plan policies using service design in this large scale for this long period. Would this be possible if top leaders of Ministry of the Interior and Safety does not understand the role and possibility of design? Public officials of local governments and local citizens thought that design is no more than painting pictures on the walls in the village. Now they plan public policies with design method. In other words, design is used as a means to plan policies. This is an example of using design for policy planning. In this example, design has emerged in the public sector as a role that has rarely tried. Even for me who experienced the process, it is amazing how this is made possible. 

Professor Yoori Koo introduced design thinking as a problem-solving method that goes through empathizing with users, re-defining complex problems in a new perspective, and visualizing and experimenting ideas and solutions in a variety of ways, with various participants. With this, she also emphasized the possible role of design to change the world in a better direction. Design creates new relations, agrees on vision that everyone prefer, and leads to the direction to realize the vision. Also, it compares innovation from traditional perspective with new concept of innovation. This new concept of innovation uses a participatory method to create policies together with various participants, instead of a few skillful experts. She said that design is useful as a means of new innovation because design is a medium that facilitates conversation among people, especially those who have different interest. Designers suggest future scenario through collaborative design method, rather than presenting direct solutions for problems, enabling people to look at the society in a new perspective. Besides, she pointed out that we need to pay new attention to the role of design as a means of innovation because design plays the role of considering phenomena in a new perspective by thinking outside the box to present topics for the future and the role of visualizing solutions through prototyping and testing. I fully agree with this argument. If we are to make changes, the target should be clear. Through visualization, we can finally share the subject of conversation.  In the presentation she introduced noticeable examples that present future prospect through the expanded role of design in the public sector. 

People who are drawing the future with design 

Policy Lab in the UK uses human-centric method from policy drafting process to identify the needs of citizens. In the study, “the Future of Aging Population,” to imagine the impact of aging phenomenon, it imagined the future and shared opinion together among citizens and designers, while looking at visualized scenario that can be realized in the future. The Policy Lab of the EU carried out a project through which various stakeholders imagine the future to understand the impact of blockchain to our daily life and what kind of service would be available by creating diverse prototypes. The method that has been used only for product design is now utilized for public policy development. The EU Policy Lab also implemented a project called “the Future of Government.” This project used a method through which various citizens participated in the project to give their ideas on the role of future government, they created scenarios for future vision through games, and designers visualized the scenario. Another project conducted in Korea last year by National Rehabilitation Center was also introduced. It was to create visualized scenario to understand how technology can improve the future of the elderly and the people with disabilities. These examples demonstrate the possibility that design can explore various new possibilities even for the problems and issues we are faced with, such as climate change, environmental disaster, energy transition, expansion of virtual reality, misuse of artificial intelligence, and desocialization, trigger discussion, challenge to the limitation of past policies, and re-design policies with human-centric solutions. The presentation also emphasized that in all cases, designers make huge efforts to lead policy planning process and to come up with ways to enable participants with various interest to communicate and cooperate, while experimenting this. 

Even though competition brought us here...

Korea became the first country that made a transformation from aid recipient to aid donor, a country with 10th largest GDP in the world in 2020, and an Asian country with 3rd largest GDP following China and Japan. Korea is an unprecedented example in the world which has achieved success from nothing. For about 100 years to make this success, the logic of efficiency and productivity, growth and competition, has dominated overwhelmingly. The imbalanced growth strategies led by the government in perfect unison under the pretext of modernization, for instance 5-year Economic Development Plans that were implemented from 1962 to 1997, stand at the starting point. Imbalanced growth strategy concentrate all competence of a nation by focusing on the domain we desire to excel. The strategy focuses on the growth of selected areas, such as growth of large conglomerates, growth of specific regions, like Seoul and Gyeongsang-do, growth of manufacturing sector, such as heavy chemical industry, and export-oriented economy. Against this backdrop of Korea’s growth, the old generation basically has the value of so-called infinite competition in their system to grow only those that have the chance to win the competition, instead of pursuing balanced growth. Our choices, including the imbalanced growth strategy, made Korea a special country that has both the greatest side in the world and the most shameful side. According to World Inequality Report 2022 published by World Inequality Lab at the end of last year, top 10% in Korea own 58.5% wealth, while bottom 50% own merely 5.6% wealth, indicating that Korea is the most inequal country amongst advanced countries. Against this backdrop, severe inequality and consequent national conflict became the most serious problem in the Korean society. At this moment when we take a breather to set the future direction during this pandemic, “inequality” serves as the signpost we are looking at. 

Let’s draw the future we want in a new way

Our brilliant achievement created dark shadow as well. If we are obsessed with success in competition, inequality and conflict will become permanent, hindering social change. Let us ask ourselves what we want most, whether our current status is the best to achieve this goal, and whether we are doing wrong.  To live in the humane country where everyone can enjoy the rights more equally, it is necessary to comprehensively review whether our public resources, government budget and human resources are optimally structured and restructure them entirely. People say that crisis is an opportunity. Usually, resource reallocation does not take place because vested group never give up what they have. However, in a desperate crisis, chance for innovation emerges as people solely focus on overcoming crisis, giving up their vested rights. The crisis brought by COVID-19 pandemic is a rare opportunity to remove the framework that has been considered unalterable, and to design a whole new playing field. 

If you have been thinking that Korea is very inhumane country, let us come up with ways to thoroughly redesign the country in a human-centric fashion as we begin another centenary of the country. Now is high time to agree on the future status we desire and design the new society with human-centric design method. If we re-design public education program, administration service and industrial complex, what should it look like? There are so many themes for which designers can participate, and re-design living conditions in a human-centric manner. If design plays such role, design will experience the greatest expansion of subject ever from products to national system. Moreover, Korea will become a giant lab in which various products of the past established throughout history, such as concepts, systems, institution, organizational culture, ways of communication and service, will be replaced with creative design. 

Disconnected relation is an opportunity 

When we put too much emphasis on the role and possibility of design, other sectors always asks, “what in the world is design to do such thing?” and “is design one and only human-centric way?” and they point out that ultimately all other sectors are also for human-being. It would be worthwhile to think about the global trend that the role of design is regarded as designing user “experience.” “User-centric design,” and “human-centric design” are old idiomatic expression of design. 

Even in the domain of design, there are self-critical perception toward the role of design. In the panel discussion of the forum, Professor Lee Kunpyo expressed his concern that even if designers and policy makers try new things together, citizens, its end users, may not embrace them because their perception is not on par with designers and policy makers. Also, there was a comment that too many roles are given to design. This can be seen as an expression of frustration about the reality that there are excessive expectation about design effect, while relatively little authority is given. As the interest about design leads to the spread of extreme perceptions, like “everything is design” or “everyone is designer,” many public projects and policies are initiated. This also makes designers anxious because immature trials will result in failure. 

Design has so many risk factors that the concerns surrounding design feel natural in the public sector. Nevertheless, when I look at overseas cases, I cannot give up the hope for design. If experience, thinking and learning are the keywords design researchers focus since the beginning of COVID-19 pandemic, I am certain that the researchers also have such hope in their mind.

In order to establish design in the public domain in a healthy way, enormous time and efforts are required to raise awareness of government and general public. To this end, good examples of design permeate every corner of our life, naturally widening the spectrum of understanding and consensus. Also, it is necessary to allow design to play its role structurally and explicitly in the process of promoting systems and regulations. But, above all and foremost, designers themselves need to realize that they should be the central player for creating new future. 

COVID-19 disconnected various relations. When the relations are connected again, it cannot be the same and it should not be the same as before. In this sense, disconnected relations can be an opportunity because in the recovery process, new order will appear. There will be opportunity to overcome imbalanced and unfair structure of industries, society and culture of the past. We need to take that as a chance to restructure the society in a human-centric manner. In the human-centered world, design should play a more important role. What will we prepare for that future? 

Speaker ㅣ Koo Yoori (Professor of Hongik University)

Writing  ㅣ Yoon Sungwon(Lead Researcher of Korea Institute of Design Promotioin) 

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