How Can a Designer do Nothing?

Sometimes things might be better off as they are, but how do we know? Two recent podcasts describe examples of where a more minimal approach to design might have resulted in better quality of life and indeed, lives being saved.

The first example comes from the outstanding 99% Invisible podcast [1].

Responding thoughtfully to the recent Californian wildfires, Episode 317 Built to Burn, considers what causes wildfires to spread and how best to stop them destroying property.  It turns out that it is the embers of a wildfire – not the wall of flames – that generally sets property alight. They do this by accumulating in the crevices of wooden structures that exist around many houses – in shingle roofs, for example.

Wildfire

A firefighter battles the Butte wildfire near San Andreas, California. The swiftly spreading flames have destroyed hundreds of homes and forced thousands of residents to flee. Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

With a few simple interventions around ‘the home ignition’ zone, the episode concludes that homes can easily withstand fire, even in areas that are prone to wildfires.

So why spend hundreds of millions funding infrastructure – planes, helicopters, equipment, not to mention the firefighters themselves – to fight fires when you can just let them burn and instead concentrate on a few simple measures to build and retrofit houses to withstand fire?

The second example comes from Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History [2], which focuses on issues from the past that have been ‘overlooked or misunderstood’. I like this podcast because it often reveals structural injustices through examining particular cases.

Episode 5 from Series 3 General Chapman’s Last Stand is a case in point. The episode looks at the history of two neighbours – Mexico and the US – and particularly the migration of people across the border.

From effectively no border at all in the early seventies – free movement of people – the border between the two countries has become less and less porous. Checkpoints, surveillance, fences, and latterly, walls, have slowly made the ease and cost of migration prohibitive.

Mexico Border.jpg

A family stands next to the border wall between Mexico and the United States, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on 23 May 2017. Photograph: Herika Martinez/AFP/Getty Images

But this has also changed the nature of migration from a circular migration – where workers would cross the border when seasonal work was available and return back over the border to their home and family in Mexico when it wasn’t – to a permanent migration – where workers were ‘locked in’ to the US so also brought their families with them and in effect relocated.

With an open border, migration is dynamic and impermanent. Crucially, net migration stays low. Closing and policing the borders paradoxically raises net migration because it is too hazardous for workers to return home and then attempt to cross to the US again at a later date. So hundreds of millions is spent on keeping people out, when nothing at all achieved approximately the same result!

The two examples follow a similar pattern. First, they are both based on insightful research being carried out, with solid data, revealing an alternative understanding of the problem. Second, that understanding of the problem implies a simpler solution than current practice. And third, the State is invested in maintaining that current practice.

Logically, to achieve better results (on the measures that the current practices themselves use to measure their effectiveness) designers doing nothing, or close to nothing, would result in better solutions. But how can a designer do next to nothing?

The key point above is that the State is invested in maintaining a current practice. In the case of fire, to actively confront the wall of flames. In the case of migration, to directly prevent certain people from entering the country. The State is invested in these practices because of the way it believes people think about these issues (as bad things) and fears the political consequences of not intervening.

The interventions, of course, are designed interventions. A hi-tech wall, an infrared detection drone, a device to drop large amounts of water, a system to dynamically map the spread of fire. These interventions feed the narrative and human drama of both stories: the brave and heroic firefighter, the devastated couple who have lost everything, the family caught trying to cross the border. There is politics, but there is also 24-hour news and expectation.

We have come to believe that fire and economic migrants are bad things, things that will threaten our property and the goods we enjoy. We have also come to believe that they are problems that need be solved in particular ways – through fighting and containment – so the designed interventions are aligned with these ways of framing the problem, and designers will respond to the briefs that fit these problem frames [3].

The problem for a designer wanting to do next to nothing, then, is more than showing that we already have (cost) effective ways to achieve the defined goals. The problem is to create a frame that convinces people and politicians that less interventionist solutions can sometimes be better.

In other words, a designer wanting to do nothing has a lot of work on their hands.


 

References

[1] The 99% Invisible podcast celebrates the unnoticed designed world around us: https://99percentinvisible.org/ Episode 317 looks at how solutions to fighting wildfires might be simpler: https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/built-to-burn/

[2] Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent Revisionist History podcast is available at: http://revisionisthistory.com  Episode 5, Series 3 considers how overly efficient bureaucracy has led to the current US-Mexico border arrangements: http://revisionisthistory.com/episodes/25-general-chapman’s-last-stand

[3] See for example, ‘US-Mexico border wall tender calls for 30-foot-tall concrete barriers’ at https://www.dezeen.com/2017/03/09/us-mexico-border-wall-tender-30-foot-tall-concrete-barriers/

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