What’s Next in Design? Or Design of What’s Next?

Salvatore Iaconesi
10 min readMay 18, 2016

We have recently published the call for proposals at the Design For Next international conference which will bring people from all over the world in Rome to explore two different large questions:

  1. What is Design for the Next? and
  2. What is the ‘Next’ focus for Design?

I have been named among the chairs for the Technology session of the conference, together with some other wonderfully interesting people (you can see them all here, across all sections of the event). This makes me very happy and, at the same time, poses a great responsibility: what would I really want to see in this conference? How will we — both staff and participants– be able to create a meaningful experience and sense?

Well, here is what I would like to see at the conference.

We live in a time of rapid transformation. In which everything around us is mutating really fast: the ways in which we express and represent ourselves; our rights and expectations; our jobs; the ways in which we learn things, communicate and share knowledge and information.

We are also living in a time of radical mediation and encoding.

Everything we do is progressively becoming mediated. There is a service for everything: for expressing, consuming, travelling, relating, loving, eating… This fact progressively transforms everything into consumption: when everything is mediated through a service, everything can be consumed, which also entails the fact that we become more dependent on the existence of services to perform these behaviours, less able to perform them autonomously and in our own terms as they emerge from a social process.

This implies an act of delegation: we progressively delegate more and are transformed into customers, subject to services’ definition of life to perform a growing number of behaviours.

This is particularly clear in education, and specifically in education for children. It is progressively harder for children — well, at least for some children, the ones which live in our cities and have access to innovation, school, sport…– to be able to spend time on their own. Their lives are becoming a sequence of packaged timeframes, one after another, in which to spend time with planned activities mediated by adults. The result is that they progressively loose the possibility to spend time on their own, and to be indisciplined.

This fact is also true in most other circumstances. It is becoming very hard to be indisciplined. Both technically and in our perception and imagination. But indiscipline, transgression, is a very important part of our lives, as it is here that we both become innovative and learn in deeper ways how to establish our presence in the world, contracting our identity with the others and learning how to embed it into the greater relational networks around us.

Transgressors do not cross borders and boundaries, they recognise them and move them. And, thus, they innovate, radically.

In the age of interface and code defined politics — whether online, or at the post office, or accessing a call center, or using a search engine… — we become the subjects of interfaces and code, which embed ideologies and visions on the world, forcing us (in perception and practice) to adapt to them and diminishing the opportunities for difference and autonomy.

Which leads us to the second element: encoding.

The process of classification is becoming ubiquitous. We are constantly observed and classified. The data and information we generate is continuously collected and analysed, whether it is through forms, customer satisfaction surveys, social networks, wearable devices, or the technologies and interactions embedded in the environment around us.

Most of the time we don’t even realise that this is happening: when we hold our phones in our pockets we don’t realise that we are generating information about our location and behaviour; when we flip the light switch on in our apartment we are not aware that we are generating data about our presence and lifestyle; when we purchase a tomato we don’t figure that we are generating information about our habits and tastes; when we post something on social networks we don’t really think that we are generating data which is the object of interest for marketers, insurances, governments; when we walk down the street we are just walking, we don’t think that we’re generating images, or that we’re detected by sensors of multiple types, all the time.

On top of that, the data and information we generate is analysed by hordes of software agents, from the dumbest to the smartest ones, individually and together with other people’s data, with the objective to transform it into usable knowledge for a variety of actors.

These software agents basically classify. They put us into boxes which are used to try to understand who we are. Whether we are type A or B, whether we like C or D. Whether we are interesting for Y or X. Whether we act like someone who does K.

These understandings have effects on the world around us: agents talk with other agents which shape the information environment around us. This results in bubbles: the content and opportunities around us become driven by our own biographies and, thus, start resembling us. This makes it progressively harder to experience difference.

This also puts people in a peculiar condition: it becomes progressively harder to get in contact with the unknown-unknown, with the things we don’t know we don’t know. The world becomes a smaller place, at least in our perception.

A smaller place which is also more controlled, and in which it is hard — if not impossible — to become aware of the logics of this ongoing classification, to exercise any control on it, to be able to represent and determine ourselves in our own terms and in the terms which result from interaction with the rest of society.

Design plays a large role in this, both for its intrinsic characteristics and for the fact that it is the interconnective and transitive practice which brings together the needs of a variety of actors (companies, organisations, governments, people) to interpret and transform them into systems, interactions, objects, gestures, places, activities. Design is a translation.

Translators are writers themselves. This is why reading a book in its original language holds an experience which may be completely different than reading its translation. This is why it is so difficult to translate poetry, as translators, in a certain way, need to be a poets themselves.

Technologies play multiple roles in this game. On the one hand they are the main agents of encoding and power. On the other hand they are the tools which can help to radically open up these processes, to bring on new possibilities and opportunities for imagination and social collaboration.

Furthermore, technologies come in waves, just like crises, and monopolise our attention. They are the tool for large operators to steer our attention through the progressive evolution of perceptions which are able to promote specific visions of the future, of what the future can (or should) be.

Immersed in the flow of the continuous state of emergency (both in negative terms, such as for debt, unemployment, housing, food, poverty, and in positive/constructive terms, for robots, AI, blockchains…), there are progressively fewer subjects who are able to suggest “future”, to effectively promote precise perceptions of what the future will be.

In the digital era, in the era of immateriality, all organisations become cultural organisations, producing a single product: the vision of the future.

In this scenario “future” tends to become a singular word. Mono. One. This one.

Which is really not the case, as it should be perceived as a plural word. There are many futures, all depending on our actions and performance, on our decisions a directions.

On top of that, there is not a lot of attention to the Near Future.

Organisations drive the visions about what the future will be — usually defining it through their projected business models — and they don’t really discuss how to get there, or the ways in which the daily actions and decisions which we perform during our daily lives can bring to those futures, or deviate from them, or how we could opt for different scenarios progressively, by deciding what to do in every minute of our lives, or radically, by transgressing and challenging the state of things, individually and as a society.

The knowledge and understanding of the evolutive tensions in the world — whether about the environment, economy, rights, education, food, jobs, emotions — are used by few to produce scenarios and models which are then communicated to induce visions about the future (mono), trying to educate customers, buyers, subjects, and to transform them into that future (mono).

What if.

What if we changed the game we are playing?

What I really would like to see contributed to the conference proposals are ways in which we can use technologies to multiply future, making it become futures, in at least two ways

  1. facilitating the social discussion and construction of imagination, awareness and action, transforming the Designer into a new type of subject: the Designer of systems, contexts, objects, places, times, processes which constitute the platforms for the polyphonic expression of multiplicities of subjects and for the emergence of their social discussion and construction; and
  2. bringing back transgression and indiscipline into the equation: breaking the vicious loops of encoding and critically reflecting on the issues of mediation, to create the humus for emergence and, to use the words of Massimo Canevacci Ribeiro, methodological indiscipline, or the possibility to recognise difference, divergence, noise, dust, ruins, multiplication and radical openness as not only a value, but also as a platform for the constructive mutation of human societies and of their impact on the planet.

Which technologies and which practices connected to technologies are able to support this? Which are changing the role of Designers in this? Which are suggesting new roles for Design in this scenario, transforming the figure of the Designer into a different one? How can we act and reflect in these terms?

In our practice, to reflect on this, we often use the metaphor of the garden.

There are at least two types of garden.

a first type of garden (source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9a/French_Formal_Garden_in_Loire_Valley.jpg )

The first is the administered garden, the one in which the shapes, colours, forms, types of plants, are controlled, designed, expressing a single vision about what the garden should be, how it should look and feel like, and what its functions and determinations are. It needs continuous intervention (and energy) to be determined and maintained, it includes limited (bio)diversity, it is stable and static, and it matches a single ideology.

a different type of garden (source: http://archiobjects.org/nature-against-civilization/)

A second possible type of garden is the one described by Gilles Clément in its concept of Third Landscape. This is a really different type of garden: it moves; it has no constant determination, as the plants which compose it change all the time; it is autonomous, as it it does not require us to provide energy or resources and, on the other hand, it generates energy and resources; it is emergent, as it is composed through the combined actions of birds, human beings, buildings, nature, wind, and everything else in the environment; it is radically inclusive, as it is a syncretic map of the environment, it expresses all of the ideologies which are present, which here find a way to coexist and to produce meaning and the context for enabling also the others to co-exist; it is a commons.

When describing the Third Landscape, Clément says an interesting thing, as he does not point in the direction of the “end of the gardner”. In his Garden in Motion, instead, he asks an interesting question:

What would the gardener of a garden without a form be like?

What would be the role of a gardener who doesn’t use shovel, scissors and rake as his tools, but, rather, who uses the wind, all the subjects who are present in the environment and knowledge as tools?

This is a really interesting question for a Designer.

And, in our context: which technologies and which technologically relevant practices can steer in this direction?

And, of course: what other possible directions are there, and what are their critical issues, their opportunities, their possibility for co-existence, synergy, syncretism, support, inclusion?

How can we set forth a role for Designers as an enabler of multiple possible futures which are created through the interconnection of the needs, imaginations, desires, opportunities of a plurality of subjects, and of their opportunities for representation, determination, autonomy and co-existence?

Which technologies go — or can be used to go — in this direction?

How can we confront with the Near Future of this kind of process and, in the meantime, use our action to take into account the effects on the longer timeframes of our planet and of our societies?

And, in the end, how can we go beyond the state of continuous emergency and crisis, and of the apparent and often misleading need for speed, to acquire the calmness and welcoming attitude which is needed in order to make these processes inclusive, interconnected and joyful? Are there any technologies for that, or should we refer to other dimensions of human beings?

These and more are questions which I would really like explored in our and the other sections of the Design For Next conference, and they are among the questions which drive our practice at Art is Open Source, at Nefula and also at La Cura.

I would love it if, in the following months, here or directly through the call for proposals, we could explore these themes, bring on new ones and manage to collaboratively create a meaningful experience, for us and everyone else.