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Joel Towers: Nobody wants to buy things that make the future impossible
16. April 2019
Designers of the future must rethink the products and systems that destroy our planet, says Executive Dean of Parsons School of Design, Joel Towers.
Joel Towers

This article was originally brought in Shaping The Next: The magazine we recently published on the occasion of our 40th birthday. If you don't get your hands on a copy at one of our DesignAM events (stay tuned through our newsletter), you can find the magazine as a digital publication below. 

If you were to name three ways in which the concept of design has changed over the past decade, what would they be?
The concept of design has emerged as being as much about strategy and systems as about physical objects. Meaning that we’re now using design methods and approaches to solve system-level problems and drive innovation.

Secondly, the concept of design has been democratised as a result of changes in media and communication, including social media and mass communication. The notion of usercentered design has changed, now that the user has the option to provide feedback.

Finally, the biggest change – and this is of course also one of the most complex issues facing society overall – is climate change and environmental issues. The boundaries of the natural system are defining the characteristic of the work designers will do in the future. We have been used to having the capacity to use creativity and innovation to transform the environment around us. But now, we’ve gotten to a point with industrialization and tech, where we must take into account the impact of being human.

How can design help solve the issue of climate change?
At first design was about avoiding the impact, now it’s about redesigning the systems. We’re destroying the planet through the current design of our systems for energy, for cities, for houses. We’re externalizing the waste stream, so turning towards a more circular model is crucial.

We haven’t been taking the restraints of the environment into account, but people are beginning to demand this work. Nobody wants to buy things that make the future impossible.

What does this mean for the future generation of designers?
They will have a knowledge gap. We need the training and education of designers that can equip them with the right tool sets to meet these challenges. At the same time, the regulatory systems are still very immature in accounting for the system change, and there is still an economic disincentive to move away from the existing systems. We can’t address this nationally by ourselves, because the impact of systems of design is global. In much of the world, the ethics of a product now takes into account human wellbeing. The impact of systems not been seen as an ethical challenge yet. In that sense, the evolution of natural rights is still in its very early stages.

What can designers as changemakers do right now?
Designers are really fantastic at taking on constraint. I think all designers have an obligation to evaluate their work, both the things they make, and the systems they design. By standards that account for the way that they produce it. They need to educate themselves about natural resource depletion and risk – and hold themselves to that standard.

In the students, I see a very real interest in doing this – mixed with a healthy dose of skepticism and a kind of impatience. They know very well that they are the first generation that need to comprehensively deal with the impact of climate change. Obviously, we’ve known about climate change for a while, but this is the vanguard of first generation that will truly feel the impact while also being the last generation to take action in time.

Why is it so important to include international knowledge exchange and inspiration in design education?
Because we are facing global challenge. The basic framework of innovation requires mixing perspectives, cultures and solution approaches. That comes from the paradigm in which you grow up. We need to create a context – a microcosm - for solutions that can come from anywhere and everywhere. In the case of Denmark, Danish design influences our disciplinary perspective. Denmark’s commitment in product design and fashion design, where you are addressing zero-waste, reusability, local production, material selection. For example the green fashion summit this year.

And what was your motivation for establishing a long-term collaboration with Denmark?
Denmark is a leader in every one of these areas. You have a long tradition of design excellence, but equally important is that the national design commitment has increasingly been integrated with the environmental mission. There are still challenges and areas of improvement, but on the whole, Denmark represents an approach of examples and possibility which is very motivating. We can have the hope that things can move in a direction with resource awareness, balance etc., but it’s also important to have those examples.

Joel Towers

Joel Towers is the Executive Dean of Parsons School of Design, widely known as one of the best design schools in the world. Parsons has a close collaboration with Denmark, including exchange programs with Copenhagen Business School, events such as ”Danish Design Review” jointly presenting rising stars of Danish and US Design and annual lectures in collaboration with the Danish Consulate General in the Trusteeship Council Chamber in the UN Headquarters in New York, designed by Finn Juhl.

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Shaping the Next
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