How We Can Design a Better System Through "Ethical Hacking"

In this article, originally posted on Grasp as "We Are All Ethical Hackers!", Kasper Worm-Petersen demonstrates how design has the ability to make the abstract tangible and create desirable activities. When that ability is used to promote sustainability and improve the state of the world great things happen and we all get a chance to become ethical hackers.

There are enough big issues to tackle in the world today. The financial crisis and the climate crisis seem almost insurmountable. And as our old habits are keeping us from adapting to the new circumstances there is a need for viable alternatives to our current way of living. At the Design for Smart Growth event held by the Global Agenda Council on Design and Innovation some interesting and promising solutions were presented. And they all had design as a key component.

The Danish Minister of the Environment Ida Auken set the scene when she discussed her engagement in environmental policies, “I was so frustrated with the image of environmental policies. That green was someone who hated life... I really want to flip it around and see how we can get people to actually want to live in a sustainable way. How can we make them desire it? And that is where designers come in. It is as easy as that.”

Read on to find out how we can be "ethical hackers" after the break.

Introducing harbor baths in Copenhagen has proved a way of turning the abstract idea of clean water into something concrete and tangible. Image © Jacob Friis Saxberg

Unleash the creativity

The question is of course, how to get designers to come up with solutions that can make sustainability desirable. If it was simply a matter of doing it, one would imagine that it had already been done. According to Bjarke Ingels, Founding Partner at Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), it comes down to actually giving the designers the possibility of coming up with new solutions. From Bjarke Ingels’ perspective that is something that rarely is an option today due to prescriptive legislation, “The core is that if you make prescriptive legislation you reduce the amount of options, which completely stifles any kind of innovation, and which also means that you somehow lock the output into preconceived ideas. So in the end you have a few legislators and their advisors determining everything that is going to happen, and then you have a whole ecology of designers that are now inhibited from any kind of innovative thinking. It is a bit like giving the answer, instead of really framing the question.”

In architecture Bjarke Ingels has seen how legislators in fear of ending up with something horrible have reduced the playing field in which the architects can unfold their creativity. The architects and designers are not challenged to come up with the best answer to a framed question. They are given a near finished solution that they just have to draw. This process does indeed prevent the worst case scenario from happening but at the same time it rules out the best case by only focusing on what is thought to be doable. To Bjarke Ingels the solution is to turn it on its head, “In the end the legislators [should] be very clear about the goal but not how to get there. And then find ways of defining values so that there is an overall framework, and specific measurements that you can aim for. Then there is all the creativity in the world to reach those goals.”

And to solve the big problems we face all the creativity in the world is needed. It is not just a matter of coming up with a political solution and a strong argument. “Human beings have an amazing capacity to disregard all kinds of noise”, as Bjarke Ingels puts it. To make people care it must be made impossible for them to disregard the issues by making the problems tangible, and by making the solutions so desirable that they cannot resist them. And that is designs cue, “The power of design is to make things concrete – to make the abstract tangible”, says Bjarke Ingels. So if political ideals should translate into everyday action amongst the citizens bringing in design might be the way forward.

Turning quantifiable goals into desirable activities

Keeping in the spirit of making things tangible and present, Bjarke Ingels highlighted the Copenhagen municipality’s installation of harbor baths as a successful way of communicating political ideals to citizen through design, “In Copenhagen there were a lot of initiatives initiated by the government to make the water cleaner. At some point the municipality says: ‘Okay let’s make a harbor bath.’ And suddenly, what is already there, which is clean water and which is an abstract value, turns into something completely concrete... It becomes something desirable and now you can’t think of downtown Copenhagen without thinking of the harbor baths. It becomes a natural part of the inner city experience.” This in turn makes the citizens more aware of the quality of having clean water and they are probably more likely to take steps to maintain this standard.

Shift the focus from the price to the solution

There is a great potential for a fruitful relation between policy and design. As Bjarke Ingels puts it, "Policy making is very much about abstract ideals and quantifiable goals. Design has the capacity to turn these things into very concrete experiences and desirable activities.”

The challenge is then how to realize the potential of the relation between policy and design. Ida Auken proposed an alternative approach for governments when requesting for tender as a way to utilize the capabilities of design. The proposal was inspired by a project in Holland, where a highway was to be build through a troubled neighborhood. Basically it entailed eliminating price as a thing to compete on, thereby encouraging more creative and innovative solution. Instead of listing specifications the local government posed a lot of questions asking for help to solve their problems. They fixed the price and announced that the winner would be chosen based on how well the tender answered the questions and thereby solved the problems, not on who was 10 % cheaper. The winning tender was an innovation solution that not only limited the damaging effects from the highway, but also incorporated a park, a water reservoir, and a plan to limit congestion. “So governments can at least do a lot by using tender in an intelligent way – ask questions and pose problems, not answers”, Ida Auken concluded. The proposal was well-received at the event and would, according to Bjarke Ingels, if it were to become EU tender law, “be the biggest urban revolution in the last decade.”

Daria Golebiowska-Tataj, executive Board Member at the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, believes that policy makers should be allowed to take risks. Image © Lan Nguyen

Let’s experiment!

Another solution was put forth by Daria Golebiowska-Tataj, executive Board Member at the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT). She argued for the need to allow policy makers to take risks. Without experimenting and risk taking no new solutions will surface. The EIT is a great example of what could happen if experimenting gets incorporated in policy making. Five years ago the EU wrote a small check and empowered a group of people to design a radical new way of financing and managing innovation in Europe. The result was a body consisting of three communities giving grants to projects. In itself not a radically new approach, but the way they see themselves and operate is very innovative. Daria Golebiowska-Tataj explains, “We understand our role not as a public grant-giver but as an investor. We ask them to have a business plan. We want them to be financially self-sustainable when our funding is finished. So we change the thinking from a budget-thinking to an investment-thinking... We like to think about ourselves as an impact-investment-institute. That is a very different understanding of what a policy maker is and what a policy instrument is.”

With her experience from the EIT in mind Daria Golebiowska-Tataj had a simple suggestion for innovation in the policy framework, “Let’s experiment! Let’s put aside a small amount of money and a group of people to experiment with how to achieve what we want and to design on a very different level in our society.”

We are all designers

Despite of all the talk about design the important thing is not how we perceive design or how we describe it. As Daria Golebiowska-Tataj framed it, “It is not about thinking about whom we are and what design is. It is about getting your hands dirty and getting things done.” And once you get your hands dirty, great things can happen. The winners of the INDEX Award, widely recognized as the biggest design award in the world, ironically did not think of themselves as designers. They simply thought they were entrepreneurs solving a problem.

Design is not something that is exclusive to Designers. It is something that everyone does. Patrick Frick, Partner at Social Investors and moderator at the event, summed up the event by coining a phrase he had picked up from the winners of the INDEX Awards the night before, and made a strong call to action: “We are all ethical hackers! [So] hack the system because it is not working! Go out there – make it better – and do it today instead of tomorrow!”

About this author
Cite: Kasper Worm-Petersen. "How We Can Design a Better System Through "Ethical Hacking"" 05 Jan 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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