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October 5, 2016

The first London Design Biennale opened at Somerset House on the 7th September with the theme of “Utopia by Design”, this year being the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s book. As well as installations by 37 countries worldwide, there were a series of talks on design and the future by a wide range of eminent speakers – I went to three.

The first was a conversation with Ian Callum, Director of Design at Jaguar Cars. Billed as “A Life in Design”, the discussion began with Ian’s early history: sending a portfolio of drawings to Jaguar when aged 14. It then moved on to his career at Ford, Aston Martin (where he was responsible for the Vanquish – 007’s car in “Die Another Day”) and Jaguar. His philosophy of design-led, rather than modelling-led, development was very strong. Looking to the future, he was clear that Jaguar would be a leader in electric vehicles – having trialled one that did 120mph with dramatic acceleration – but called for more government investment in supporting infrastructure. He was much more sceptical about autonomous vehicles, believing that fall-back driver intervention would be needed for many years, not expecting a radical re-design of cars into an office or sitting-room on wheels. Although he did think “Uber modules” might emerge, his approach was to design cars that people would want to drive. His “design Utopia” was a collaborative team with diverse skills able to produce designs without interference from uninformed Board members!

The second event I went to was a conversation with Lord Richard Rogers, famous for the design of the Pompidou Centre, Lloyds of London, the “cheese-grater” and many other iconic buildings. He argued that we needed to sustain the radical spirit of the sixties with a naïve self-belief. His view of the city of the future was that it be largely a pedestrian city, with rapid transport systems, compact and sustainable, and mainly solar-powered. He was not a fan of the Garden City movement, arguing for denser, but not necessarily high-build cities, citing Barcelona as an excellent example. 3D-printing he saw as mainly useful for building models, rather than for buildings themselves. I asked, given it may be 15 years before a building is built from his design, and it needs to last for say 80 years, how he worked out what the future needs of the occupants would be – he replied that the only constant is change, so one needed to look to flexibility of use.

Very much on the Utopian theme, the last talk I went to was about the “Maker Movement”, where Daniel Charny, Professor of Design at Kingston University, examined whether the noise about was just hype. We usually study technological developments, but this is a cultural change with different dynamics. Prof Charny described how the movement was based on principles of openness and sharing, with examples from the physical – sharing expertise and tools of various crafts – through to online “hackathons”, via 3D-printing. Wired was discussing “Big DIY” in 2011, and The Economist described Making as “More than just digital quilting”.MakerFaires” have been set up around the world to share expertise, and have even attracted visits from the Presidents of the US, China and Germany, and there are high street presences – eg Brit Kits Bar, Drink Shop Do.

makeshop-britkits  drink-shop-doCopyright Brit + Co

Daniel suggested that the Movement was associated with hipsters and geeks, and that the Guardian had said we had “reached peak beard” in 2013 (still got mine – as does Daniel!), at the same time as the creation of knitted bicycles! He suggested that Makers had passed the peak of the Gartner Hype Curve and that MakerSpaces were facing financial difficulties, but the concepts were beginning to emerge from the sub-culture into the mainstream, with mass customisation through 3D-printing. Comments from the audience identified examples of MakerSpaces being used to overcome loneliness for old people through sewing circles, to assist immigrants in Sweden assimilate, and even to provide alternatives to violence for Farc guerilllas following the peace deal in Colombia. The concept is as much about the community activity as it is the product itself.

Looking around the installations themselves, I was struck by the Lebanon installation: a typical Beirut street (much quieter than I imagine a real one to be!), regarded as Utopia because it was peaceful, a break from the warfare and strife of the past – a reminder to us to be grateful for what we have. One of the prize-winners.


The Swiss installation won the Jaguar innovation award, but I wasn’t taken with the “Utopia of Neutrality”, even if it was still intended to represent movement, as typified by oversize watch springs. Russia was the third prize-winner, with lost archives of Soviet design, a period when the designer was not to be identified. I was struck by the Chilean example of the smart city – designed in 1970 by Stafford Beer during the Allende rule, by the VR representation of Santander and by the UAE water systems. The UK contribution, Forecast, a kinetic sculpture that moves with the wind, is intended to evoke Britain’s nautical past and its future use of renewable energy – sadly there was no wind when I was there!


The lessons for futurists? The first two talks illustrate that technological developments can take a long time to become reality, and that strategies based on adapting to change rather than trying to predict it may be more fruitful. The third shows that cultural change can be as powerful as technological change – and probably more confusing!

Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

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