Special Interview: David Berman

1. The theme of this year's Seoul Design International Forum is “Re-connect: Design as a value creator”. What do you think the city government should do to improve the value in the cities and in the lives of their citizens through design? And for that, how should the city’s design organization be structured? I believe that organizational structure is one of the most important parts of maximizing the value creation of any organization. When organizing the city government’s workforce, how can the design organization be structured to maximize the value of design? Also, what factors should be considered?

Let me answer with a story. In the summer of 2008, I had the honour of meeting Mayor Oh Se-hoon at Seoul City Hall as part of the Seoul International Design Forum for which I had travelled from Canada for. On the way to the event, my first time in the city,  I was struck by how integrated the design disciplines were. I recall saying to a colleague “When we were in China, we were saying they are catching up with us. In Korea, they have already blown by us.” Why? In Canada, the design disciplines were siloed: here in Seoul, they were delightfully integrated, both horizontally and vertically: from alphabet to surface to building to infrastructure. To discuss one without the others simply didn't compute, and I wondered “How is this done”? 

The answer came when I was introduced to the person to the Mayor’s left: their business card read “Chief Design Officer”. At that point in my career as a speaker, I had travelled to over 40 countries, and this was the first time I had heard of a City having a CDO. This explained how Seoul was doing such an impressive job of integrating the design disciplines.

Ever since, in many travels, I have shown that card as evidence of a keystone to excellent design governance ... to any government clients who would listen. Here in Canada, we have our design strengths that are admired by others, such as our leadership in inclusive design, our national flag, and many other proud habits. However, every time someone in our government asks me how we can maximize the value of design I tell them it all starts with what Seoul has done: every major plan should be vetted by a CDO in the C-Suite, sprinkling design thinking into every project charter.

2. If there is an important case as an example of efforts made by city governments or public institutions to create social value, please introduce it. It may be difficult to answer because there are so many examples, but I would appreciate it if you could introduce an example of efforts to improve social value carried out in other cities or institutions that you would like to introduceto Seoul.

When we design for the extremes, everyone benefits. You may not need the cuts in the sidewalks that allow wheelchairs to cross intersections easily but you sure enjoy them when you’re towing a suitcase or stroller.

People are often concerned that if they follow the accessibility principles, whether for the built environment or digital accessibility, there will be a trade-off of good user experience for their mainstream residents or visitors. And indeed if you don’t understand why international standards and techniques exist, there is that possibility. However, if you take the time to understand the thinking behind the guidelines, you can implement without tradeoffs… and most often with benefits for all: so that everyone is not just accommodated but delighted when navigating and interacting in the way that works best for them.

Accessible infrastructure gives cities a competitive edge. Very few foresaw that curb cuts would lead to wheeled suitcases and better bicycles. Or that automatic doors delight parents with strollers ... or anyone with armfuls of groceries. Or that announced stops on transit systems help everyone who can hear. Municipalities that embrace universal design principles spend far less time and money by building in accessibility from the start, compared to those that struggle with retrofits. That measure of future-proofing alone could be your business case to follow accessibility guidelines and innovation. But there’s more… Municipalities that embrace accessibility attract a broader range of workers, as well as a broader range of aging tourists with substantial disposable income. And a city with inclusive navigation and information systems gains savings on call centers when more citizens can self-serve online. A typical call to a call center costs perhaps $25 to fulfill. A self-served help incident on a website instead costs perhaps five cents. Every time a visitor can self-serve, municipal governments with a “digital first” ethic gain their accessibility dividend.

Accessibility regulations and standards are here now: If no other argument moves you, the risk of being at the wrong end of liability lawsuits increases as inclusive design becomes the law in more and more jurisdictions and situations. So why wait to be pushed into it by the threat of legal action? Get ahead of the curve, and start impressing everyone while driving down costs… you may even sleep better at night. Because it’s just another opportunity to not just do good design, but to do good.

3. With the COVID-19 pandemic, we are living through a challenging time. How can design strive for social innovation or improvement of public life in the post-COVID era? Or, we would be grateful if you could tell us how the role of design in the past and the role of design in the future will be different in response to climate change and various social and technological changes.

The pandemic has been, and continues to be, a disaster for so many. However, there are silver linings. The most profound has been the impact on how we work, how we learn, how we teach. So many of our clients, forced to work remotely, have said “Now I get it!” regarding our arguments for inclusive meetings. So many schools we work for now suddenly see the value of inclusive hybrid education. And so many government clients now absolutely see the universal benefit of accessible documents that include accessible digital signatures. The creative disruption of the pandemic is forcing us to find ways to include everyone. We truly now live in a world where, whether you like it or not, everyone is a designer. And I hope that, by the time the pandemic is over, we will have realized that the future of civilization truly is our common design project. 

However, the supreme silver lining of the pandemic would be that this pain and horror will have forced humanity to create solutions together in cities across the planet in unprecedented solidarity: equipping ourselves with the confidence that we can indeed design-think successful solutions for the truly unprecedented challenge of our time: climate change.

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