Regardless of your opinions of former President Bill Clinton, the guest list of the Clinton Global Initiative is nothing to sneer at. Those in attendance comprise a who’s-who at the international level from foreign dignitaries to business bellwethers. Yet despite being surrounded by some of the greatest minds in economics and political governance, President Clinton kicked off this year’s CGI gathering of his by tapping the design population for finding solutions to world problems.
For the conference’s first plenary presentation called “Designing for Impact” (which one can watch here) the CGI had compiled a diverse panel for discussing the effect that design endeavors can have on addressing societal issues. The group included Walmart President and CEO Michael T. Duke, Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim with President Clinton moderating the discussion.
The conversations spent some time talking about the effort of countries and organizations to respond to the changing nature of the young world and its demands. One of the key diverging realities between the political realm and how designers operate is that governments have a tendency on responsive policy that addresses the current condition instead of proactive approach that strives towards a desired outcome in the future. In many ways the speed that has accompanied our technological savvy makes us now live very much in the present–clinging to the instant. On the other hand, designers will tell you that the design process is not instantaneous, but rather an iterative process that takes time and often a great deal of patience.
Yet even after the design process yields a suggestion for action the solution can still be stalled at the prototype stage–sometimes indefinitely. At one point, President Clinton raised a provocative question that haunts every aspect of societies around the world:
“How come in a world where nearly every problem has been solved by somebody somewhere, we can never seem to take it to scale?”
Sustainability certainly suffers from this conundrum. We stand with numerous solutions to solve a large range of environmental issues, many even with existing, successful precedents, that are still a long way from societal norms on the national level. Recycling is a perfect example. For all of the progress that recycling has made in the past 20 years we have still not tapped the full potential of what the infrastructure could offer to our waste stream, let alone how it can influence the design of new products. By now we should have mandated recycling at the federal level. Green roofs are another prime example of a system with numerous benefits with low levels of utilization in the U.S.
It’s not as though architectural designers have found a solution to this problem either. Architects strive to investigate society’s relationship with the built environment and continue to solve spatial problems in response to the combination of functional and aesthetic needs. At the same time, penetration of cutting edge design ideas is arguably relatively shallow for the country as a whole. For many commercial projects the architect remains a cursory role in place for regulatory facilitation and consultant coordination. In the world of single family homes, architects are involved with a fraction of the marketplace with the vast majority claimed by developers and contractors that cling to older models of construction, function and appearance.
At the same time, there are things that manage to pierce through society extremely quickly to change the way we live and work. The realms of social networking and mobile devices were non-existent a decade ago yet now drastically influence how the developed world operates. The World Bank’s Jim Yong Kim agreed, saying that, “Scale is different from a successful pilot project.” But when looking at the task of social acceptance on the large scale, “Can there be a science about delivery? Can there be a science around social goals?”
President Clinton also postulated that the solution may be a change in the focus and nature of our goals, citing that a lot of our efforts today are built around the goal of ‘keeping bad things from happening rather than making good things happen’–a defensive rather than productive approach. He conceded that “the systems required to make good things happen often have more moving parts than the systems required to keep bad things from happening.” Admittedly so, and once again striking a strong parallel when it comes to sustainability in our culture. The systems required to innovate definitely have more moving parts than the systems required to perpetuate the status quo. This is a reality that stands as the root of many of our environmental problems. But beyond that, especially as we stand knee deep in the technological age, there are probably more moving parts involved in fixing things that we damage (or destroy) than there is in designing things sustainably in the first place.
Similarly, architecture (and its interface with sustainability) falls prey to the same problem. Evolutions in the process of construction are hampered with the impasse of changing the way contractors want construct buildings. Familiarity provides not only comfort, but in many cases efficiency in a process at the end of the learning curve. Even if one can convince a contractor to broach materials and methods outside of their usual regime, the cautionary premium attached to the exploration is often enough to make the exercise disenchanting to the client.
I would offer that a solution (in architecture there is never just one) is that the thing that needs to change the most is our perspective on the time horizon, how far we look ahead in a way meaningful enough to allow it to affect the way we do things. Knowing that design is in itself a process, what good is it to try and come up with designs when the criteria is that they are created, be implemented and succeed almost instantaneously? It is one thing to be working on the three-to-five year plan, but in many cases the 10-20 year plan is just as essential to real results despite being worse for reelection campaigns. That means that more politicians, heads of state and business leaders need to be creating and contributing to endeavors that they will not be able to finish.
Bill Clinton ended with what is becoming one of his familiar credos:
“We live to prove that cooperation works better than conflict.”
Well actually, Mr. President, the natural world is the living proof that you are looking for. We are surrounded by it. Our task is actually to prove that humanity is capable of collective thinking worthy of our evolutionary status.