An online resource for designing a better world.

Unsteady Ground – Impact Designers On The New Age Of Uncertainty

March 9, 2016

For the opening feature in our Designing For Flux series, we brought together leading thinkers and practitioners in impact design to explore the question of uncertainty and instability. What can we no longer take for granted in design and in its interaction with the world we seek to impact? What are the disruptions ahead, what assumptions are no longer safe, and what surprising opportunities might arise from the new disorder of things?

Ezio Manzini


The world that people in the west are used to seeing as solid is eroding and everything seems to be shifting very fast. Migrants are the most tragic, visible and tangible dimension of a larger, on-going change: in highly-connected, modern societies, family, neighborhood, and community are progressively disappearing, replaced by loose networks of highly-mobile individuals, all of whom are “displaced” in some way. The migrant crisis is part of this deeper crisis, and it may be that the one can show us how to address the other.

First, we must change the way we think about migrants. With their diversity and mobility they are not a threat to our societies, but rather can help us to make a much-needed cultural shift. We must move away from the traditional model of solid and often homogenous social institutions and toward open and dynamic — and therefore fluid and changeable — forms and structures. The question then becomes: how can people who consider each other strangers live well together? How do we achieve connection within diversity? The answer is collaboration.

Even in contemporary society, with all its contradictions and complexity, collaboration is possible. Already we see collaborative social innovation in action between migrants and citizens — whether it’s organizing soccer games, playing music together, or starting up enterprises. Diverse people are able to achieve value and harmony as one. The task of design must be to create ecosystems where these forms of collaboration can grow and thirive, generating models that go well beyond the issue of migrants to improve social cohesion as a whole.

Ezio Manzini is Chair Professor of Design for Social Innovation at the University of the Arts London and the founder of DESIS: an international network of design schools active in social innovation and sustainability.


Michael Murphy


The mistaken idea architects should confront is that architecture is permanent; we need to build for the medium-term. We’ve called ‘short-termism’ the tendency to build for disaster relief or immediate need, without planning or thought for context and for the human impact of a structure. But the opposite — long-termism — saturates buildings with delusions of grandeur and deceives architects about permanence and monumentality.

Permanent ambitions are unrealistic and unnecessary when the life span of many buildings is just 30 years. We should build to that life span: call that the ‘medium-term,’ the horizon of time — one or two generations long — towards which buildings and design serve a need before being taken down or rebuilt. Today, this timeline often inspires bare-minimum, banal and inappropriate structures. What if in designing towards the medium-term, we created architecture that inspired us to live a fuller life? A profession devoted to that goal could accelerate change in our lifetimes.

Michael Murphy is the founder and executive director of MASS Design Group, a nonprofit architecture firm that aims to leverage buildings, and the design and construction process, to become engines for better health, economic growth and long-term sustainability.

Cheryl Heller


The current refugee crisis and the mass migrations that climate change is likely to trigger will disrupt not only the lives but the identities of hundreds of millions of people –– torn from place, uncertain (at best) of their context in the world. Where we come from is, to an enormous extent, who we are. Culture determines the food we eat, what we learn, who we marry and how we live. The place where we live determines our culture, and so our identity.

A few years ago I traveled to Nairobi, Mexico City and Detroit within a few months of each other. Nairobi has been called the “Silicon Valley of Africa” — the young people there were on fire with confidence. The Mexican artisans I worked with had far more humble expectations for themselves, and those in Detroit had righteous indignation about the raw deal their city had been dealt by our country. It’s easy to see, in these cases, how identity determines outcome.

To be successful in helping communities survive in an age of disruption, we will need to conceive of and address identities in transition, with a fluid rather than fixed sense of what is possible. The way to affect lasting social change is by influencing a community’s idea of itself: how creative it is, or how collaborative, how empathetic, who its friends are, how resilient, or just how lucky. The creative disruption will be to help engender balance –– design as gyroscope, a way to keep things right side up.

Cheryl Heller is the Founding Chair of the first MFA program in Design for Social Innovation at SVA and the founder of the design innovation lab CommonWise.

John Thackara


“All that is solid melts into air” — Karl Marx alerted us to the destructive nature of the capitalist economy back in 1848. Since then, stupendous flows of debt and energy delayed a replacement and drove the social and ecological disruptions we experience today.

In the next economy, that is finally emerging, value lies in the vitality of social and ecological systems in their unique place, and how they interact. The frantic search for scale is no longer important, and two better questions emerge: How best shall we nurture the health of the social and ecological systems of which each of us is a part? And, second, what values do we use to filter the range of possible actions we might take on a day to day basis?

Answers to both questions are to be found on the road to a single destination: An economy in which care, not money, is the ultimate measure of value. The good news is twofold: A care-based economy already exists; it does not have to be created from scratch. Even better, when care is what’s counted — unlike turning life into money, as we do now — then growth and change are once again positives to work for.

John Thackara was the curator of Doors of Perception 7 on “Flow; The Design Challenge of Pervasive Computing

Rob Goodier


One assumption we should toss aside is that our work in disaster and conflict zones is temporary. According to the U.S. State Department, refugees are likely to live in a camp for an average of 17 years. An entire generation is growing up in camps that were designed as a layover on the way to something more lasting. The camps in Dadaab, Kenya, began sheltering Somali refugees in 1992. And tens of thousands of Haitians who survived the earthquakes in 2010 still wait for permanent housing.

We should start seeing the temporary as permanent, and recognize places like refugee camps as the real urban spaces that they are. That shift in perception means housing with clean water and sanitation. But it also means room for businesses, education, spiritual growth and fun. By building cities, not camps, designers could model techniques in green building and wise planning. We could see things like city-wide rainwater harvesting and decentralized power grids in refugee cities.

Other kinds of emergency response could benefit from this approach. When the next Ebola outbreak strikes, the international community should work with the locals to build and staff new clinics. When the foreigners leave, they should put the new facilities in the care of local healthcare organizations. Climate change, population pressures and finite resources will continue to produce disasters, wars and chaos. In response, we should view each crisis as an opportunity to make something better, and to show the world how good design can not only respond to the next catastrophe but help prevent it.

Rob Goodier is managing editor at Engineering for Change.

Scott Boylston


In her book A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit explores how societies historically respond to catastrophe. She challenges the myth of a rapid descent into chaos when disaster strikes with real world accounts of collective effort and selflessness. She observes, “… in disaster we need an open society based on trust in which people are free to exercise their capacities for improvisation, altruism, and solidarity. In fact we need it all the time, only most urgently in disaster.”

It’s this thought—that how societies respond to disaster is determined by how healthy they are when it strikes—that should guide public interest designers when thinking about their role in the 21st century. A ‘perfect storm’ of overpopulation, resource scarcity, and climate change is expected to create what James Kunstler calls a ‘long emergency,’ where the disruption to everyday lives is so pervasive that it erodes our ability to care about others.

In the face of increasing global instability, design must demonstrate the value of collective success through human-scaled endeavors. A practice of design for empowerment must be nurtured, both at an individual level and a level of interdependence. We need not just individual efficacy but individual empathy; and not just communal efficacy, but communal empathy. For too long we’ve emphasized the well-being of individual parts over the resilience of the whole — in the face of radical uncertainty and flux, that relationship should embody a nimble sensitivity to context.

Scott Boylston is graduate coordinator and co-author of the Design for Sustainability program at SCAD, and president and co-founder of Emergent Structures, a non-profit organization committed to revitalizing a material re-use culture by collaboratively re-purposing building material waste streams.

Andrew Balster


In this age of uncertainty and shifting ecologies, the focus of the rhetoric in design and architecture is transitioning from “sustainability” to “resilience”. Sustainability, at its core, is the idea of a perpetual balance — an integration of a “thing” or “system” into an environment that exists indefinitely. By contrast, resilience has a defensive connotation: to be strong and recover quickly from difficult conditions and destructive events.

The implications of that change are profound. For instance, a building is a thing that embodies the dominant ideology and economic imperatives that brought us to this unstable — and unsustainable — state; it exists in opposition to our natural environment rather than as a product of it. Perhaps then, we should stop making buildings. What if we acknowledge the limits of our current tools and approaches to design? Can we conceive of architecture without buildings? Can we search for new methods and approaches that empower all of society, generate systemic change, and integrate with our natural systems? Design itself won’t be resilient, or sustainable, if we don’t.

Andrew Balster is Executive Director of Archeworks, a Chicago-based multidisciplinary design school and catalyst for transformational design in the public interest.

Chris Kasabach


The design field is based on the belief that well-conceived products, services and tools will solve pressing problems. But even the most human-centered experiences can not, on their own, bring about large-scale social change. In fact, new products, services or tools may slow change if they soothe symptoms but mask the larger ailment.

The next disruption in social design is the creation of a new literacy that is less visible, less physical, even perhaps out of sight. Designers will learn how to collaborate on legal interventions, new investment and financing models, public-private partnerships, and creative regional policies, rounding out their ability to create more impactful solutions.

Chris Kasabach is a non-profit leader, educator, entrepreneur and designer. He is Executive Director of the Watson Foundation and on the Board of Directors of Winterhouse Institute.

Leave a Reply

Continue With More Articles in This Feature

Designing For Flux – Introduction To The Series

March 9, 2016
Glancing at the headlines, or the harrowing images on our screens, one might be forgiven for thinking it’s all coming to an end. War, terror, rising tides, desperate refugees clawing at barriers or clambering for... Read More

From Chaos to Dignity – The New Face of Shelter Design

March 23, 2016
Shelter is a basic human need, one that many of us barely notice because ours is seldom under threat. But for an increasing number of people, it’s becoming a scarce resource. An unstable climate is... Read More

Wa$ted Market Seeks A New Architecture Amid The Rubble

April 6, 2016
By David Dewane   “What happens when one county in America took the radical step of demanding all buildings be built with other buildings?” When accepting the Pritzker Prize in 2000, Rem Koolhaas called on... Read More

The (Im)Permanence of Paper: An Interview with Shigeru Ban

April 13, 2016
Architect Shigeru Ban has gained worldwide-renown for his extraordinary structures made with paper and cardboard. His “three-dimensional” poetry has provided crucial shelter to victims of disaster across the world, at sites as far-flung as Nepal,... Read More

Every Step of the Journey: Richard van der Laken and the What Design Can Do Refugee Challenge

April 20, 2016
Dutch graphic designer Richard van der Laken co-founded What Design Can Do to push beyond the conventional bounds of the industry. Earlier this year, he and his colleagues laid down the social impact gauntlet with... Read More

Can We Co-Design In A Crisis?

April 27, 2016
By Matt McCallum and Lauren Weinstein At 12:51 p.m. on February 21, 2011 in Christchurch, New Zealand, the ground began to roll. Putting one foot in front of the other on the concrete roads and... Read More