Design at the Intersection of Technology and Humanity
For as much as we regard technology as a panacea to heal the world, design is probably the most formidable tool we have in addressing the challenges of the 21st century. Its relationship with technology is often symbiotic, but just as common are the strange contradictions that emerge at the intersection of design, technology, and humanity.
Architects have had a funny relationship with technology since the days when a handful of European intellectuals adopted a 70-year-old technology and chose to call themselves ‘Modernists.’
Perrett, Wagner, and Loos cracked the seal on Modernism in the earliest parts of the twentieth century. But it wasn’t until Le Corbusier, Mies, Gropius and the Bauhaus worked their marketing magic that the “International Style” really took over the world. And all along we sang the same hymns about our shared heroes: a group of design radicals embraced ‘new’ technological innovations in order to free us from 2,000 years of neoclassical hegemony. And bless them for it; otherwise, we’d all be sitting around detailing Corinthian columns and that sounds quite dull.
As it usually is, the truth is much more complex. Technologies like flat plane glass and reinforced concrete were hardly new by the time Le Corbusier wrote his manifesto. Reinforced concrete was invented in 1849 and the first reinforced concrete house surfaced in 1853 – a full sixty years before the Domino house. That period saw the invention of dynamite, the internal combustion engine, the telephone, the safety elevator, the first flight, and the Model T.
The world was going through a multi-dimensional, technological revolution for decades before architects smartened up and joined the party.
Perhaps we shouldn’t judge too harshly, however. They were fighting against thousands of years of architectural tradition. Everyone knew what a column was supposed to look like and for Heaven’s sake, it wasn’t supposed to look like a cylinder. Between the emergence of these technologies and their eventual codification into an architectural aesthetic, an argument raged within architecture: what should a column look like? What should a façade look like?
The transition from neo-classicism wasn’t fast, or neat. It eventually took a World War to settle the argument. A planetary crisis unprecedented in scope and scale – a visceral experience shared by all those famous names you read about.
Architecture found it’s ‘Modernism’ because the aesthetic itself started to make sense of social, political and economic grounds. Quite simply, the world needed something new and found it in the frameworks of what would come to be known as ‘Modernism.’
We once again find ourselves at the maw of a planetary crisis. This one not of tanks and infantry, but of ideals, climate, and inequality. The advancing fronts of mega-urbanism, climate change and inequality command a new ethic of design.
As it was in 1914, we find that many of the technologies that might promise a better future are already laying around. Advancements in AI, drones, CAD/CAM manufacturing, renewable energy, digital identity are familiar to us all because they make for sexy news. They have a ‘cool’ factor that’s undeniable. But there’s a group of designers who are out there exploring the boundaries of technology as they work on the world’s toughest humanitarian challenges. They are the new ‘modernists’ inasmuch as they are sounding a bell about new possibilities. We have to choose to hear it, though.
At the Curry Stone Foundation, our mission is to empower the practice of community-driven social impact design. As part of that mission, we seek to connect our followers with the most innovative design voices through our industry-leading podcast Social Design Insights. In the next several months, we’re going to be looking specifically at that special point where design encounters humanitarian intent at the edge of technology.
Among others, we’ll be speaking with Michelle Moghtader of Shared Studios, who uses sophisticated video-conferencing capabilities in order to bring together communities that need to be (but maybe aren’t) talking to one another. We’ll be talking with Krista Donaldson of D-Rev about what that organization’s second decade of innovation is going to look like. And we’ll be speaking with Ken Banks of Yoti about creating – and protecting – digital identities for the bottom billion.
Our guests believe, as we do, that technology guided by a designer’s compassion and empathy can become the tool by which we heal the world. But technology is a tool like any other inasmuch as it is morally neutral. It has no compass of its own. We have to supply that part. Join us.
Author: Eric J. Cesal