What Happened? Where Do We Go From Here?

This closing keynote address at “Designing for the 21st Century III,” an international conference on universal design organized by Adaptive Environments and held in Rio de Janeiro last December, was delivered by Metropolis editor in chief Susan S. Szenasy. The December Notes from Metropolis: Bad Design and Bad Attitudes is an excerpt of this speech.

I have been pleasantly surprised—indeed, much encouraged—by the number of people attending this conference. Apparently there is a definite growth pattern in universal design, although when it comes to the design of everyday products in the U.S., people still cite the OXO Good Grips collection, which is more than a dozen years old. But judging from the Japanese cars, phones, clocks, toilettes, and other things we have seen here, the universal industrial design segment is also in a growth pattern in places outside the U.S. Though countries like Britain, Japan, and Finland are way ahead of us, our 80 million baby boom population will soon fix the product market. This willful American generation demands cool-looking products they can use easily. Never for a second will they admit that they might be growing old, soon to experience all the diminished physical capabilities, from eyesight to mobility, that our natural life cycle brings with it.

We’re still in a life-cycle denial mode in North America. While universal design—with civil rights and social justices at its core—has been a legislated movement in the U.S. (the Americans with Disabilities Act, ADA, is 15 years old in 2005) it hasn’t grown as rapidly and as dramatically as the federally un-legislated green design movement has. In 2004, for instance, the U.S. Green Buildings Council’s convention drew more than 6,000 attendees, up from less than 500 three years before. The marketplace and our federal government’s enormous purchasing power have a lot to do with this growth. Just think of this: The new U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Washington, D.C. contains 2.5 million square feet of floor space furnished by the interior design giant Gensler. Now think of all the furnishings and finishes that went into that building, all of them meeting the General Services Administration’s green guidelines. This volume of furnishings and finishes orders can create a whole new marketplace, and is doing so.

But contrary to its current success, the environmental movement in the U.S. building industry has had a rather slow and unremarkable start. Our modern environmental awareness first surfaced with the drama of the gas price hikes caused by energy shortages in 1972, when Middle Eastern oil producers fell short of the growing Western demand for cheap fossil fuels. The environmental movement in the building industries also suffered from some god-awful designs and a lot of holier-than-thou rhetoric. In fact, it’s probably because of their aesthetically challenged buildings that green architects were largely dismissed by the establishment and ridiculed by the avant-garde. Architects like Frank Gehry and Richard Meir who still won’t talk about their buildings’ green features—although we know they or, more likely, their local collaborators in places like Germany which have strong green laws—are positioning their buildings according to the incidence of sunlight, using water features and natural ventilation, as well as environmentally benign building materials and finishes.

So the growing impact of these two sister movements, sustainability and accessibility, lead me to think that the English historian Arnold Toynbee might have been correct when he wrote that “The 20th century will be chiefly remembered by future generations not as an era of political conflicts or technological inventions but as an age in which human society dared to think of the welfare of the whole human race as a practical objective.”

My own life is certainly proof of the 20th century’s daring to “think of the welfare of the human race as a practical objective.” I arrived in the U.S. when the brutal, repressive regimes of the Soviet Bloc were beginning to crumble, starting with the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Soviet Communism didn’t fully fail until 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. But the welfare of the Eastern Bloc nations slowly began to improve after 1956, although there were vicious crackdowns before that could happen.

This slow change pattern that I have been describing to you, both in the environmental movement and in international politics, is merely a gentle reminder that institutions and behaviors evolve slowly, incrementally. Then something happens like the Berlin Wall falling and the whole system suddenly seems to fall with it. The reality is that what you are involved with now—the good work that you are doing around every human function everywhere—is shaping future changes in attitudes and approaches to social equity and universal design. There is a long and difficult road ahead but the roadbed has already been cut by you. The time is coming for building that road to a design that no longer needs to call itself “sustainable” or “universal”—just good, need-oriented, environmentally sensitive design. Just design. Design with justice at its core.

You—each and every one—have defined your areas of interest and earned considerable expertise in them, be it in designing for the everyday needs of Alzheimer’s patients or taking care of the ambulatory needs of the sight-impaired. In your daily lives, each of you comes across environments, products, and systems that are disabling—designs that are thoughtless to the point of insulting our humanity. I am of the firm belief that the modern, efficiency-oriented, and bottom-line driven design practiced today is harmful to human health and to environmental well-being. I also believe that we are in the process of changing this. But we have a lot to do. The systems and attitudes we have are failing.

Bad Design and Bad Attitudes
Let me tell you the story of how I got to Rio, this most blessedly beautiful harbor city in the Americas. The afternoon of my departure from lower Manhattan was marked by one of the most persistent gridlocks in the five boroughs of New York City; the same gridlock that has been the norm for some time, yet this year it’s much worse than it was last year. I finally get to JFK where the terminal for Varig airlines has no directional signs; if there is one I didn’t see it, so there isn’t one as far as I’m concerned.

I am happily checked in, just making my plane as the door was about to close. After a smooth take-off the captain announces that we will be in São Paulo at 6:30 the next morning. São Paulo? My ticket said nothing about a stop-over. The young man who checked me in didn’t mention it. Was I on the wrong flight to the wrong city? I looked at the map and saw a 600 mile cab ride. Damn, I just recovered from the excruciating ride to the airport and the disturbing site of everyone stripping at security control and the rush to the gate. Now my anxiety level hits another high.

I ring for the attendant who would not acknowledge my summons. I’m anxious so I ring again. No one comes, but they’re beginning to take the duty-free cart around (just what I wanted to see at this stage of my panic!). So I flag down one of the attendants and he assures me that I’ll get to Rio, but gives no further details.

After nine hours of trying to sleep in a chair designed by someone who flunked out of ergonomics college, we land in São Paulo. At the gate a young man gives me a boarding pass to Rio, which says “free” where seat location is indicated, and tells me to take a right to gate 20. The numbers, however, go up in that direction. We just landed at gate 22 and now I’m at 27. This cannot be right. There is a crowd entering an unmarked gate. Everyone, it seems, knows where they are going except me. Bad way-finding and uncaring attendants make me feel idiotic.

The unmarked door leads to a security check. We just got off the plane, so could I possibly have picked up a machine gun in that narrow, badly signed, desolate hallway? Finally I see a sign for gate 20. No flight postings at the desk. No person in sight. A lot of people milling around, confused. The only person who knows where she is, is a woman who was brought to the gate in a wheelchair. The rest of us are on our own.

When an attendant arrives, a group of us accost her. She grudgingly tells us that, yes, this is a flight to Rio and we can board without seat assignments. No microphone is used to make this announcement so only a few of us hear it. The rest, as the numbers grow around the gate, apparently are in the wrong place, as we find out later. When the attendant calls first class passengers to board everyone rushes on, going past the flimsy crowd-control ribbons that have been put in front of the gate.

I am, however, happy. I’m flying down to Rio as Fred and Ginger did in the Deco 1930s. Maybe this circus I’m living in will end soon. So I hope, but not yet.

Upon landing in Rio, “foreigners” are directed to their own line by a young woman in a tight blouse wearing some official badge. Our line soon out-numbers the natives’, but the four immigration booths designated for us are empty. We wait and wait and wait. In the distance I spy a small table with various forms scattered all over it. These must be meant for us to fill out, though there is no sign saying so and no one tells us to do so. When I get to the table I pick up one of the forms that I can read in English. This is the foreigners’ line. Should there not be forms in at least three of the major languages of the world?

Another young woman goes around checking passports but apparently not the papers we were supposed to fill out. When two people finally start working a booth they end up sending back several foreigners who didn’t notice or didn’t understand the need to pick up immigration forms and customs forms, as I was to find out two hours later. A third young woman instructs people in wheelchairs, families with children, and the elderly to form a special line for quick service, now that the foreigners’ line had multiplied to at least 500. The immigration officer who handles my papers is working two cell phones, one of which rings endlessly.

At last I’m free to claim my luggage, but where? Only two flights are posted in baggage claim and neither of them is mine. I have been waiting at the wrong conveyer, as I find out when I show my boarding card stub to an official-looking man. Bag in hand I join tons of luggage pushed by hundreds of foreigners and natives who have formed an endless customs line.

Somewhere in the middle of this procession a live combo plays a samba; then they disappear. By now I know that one of those forms I didn’t fill out was a customs declaration form. When I reach the lone customs inspector who handles all these hundreds of cases I try to explain and he tries to find a form in English. He doesn’t have one either. So in frustration, he waves me on.

Okay, I’m finally in a comfortable cab with a courteous driver, but my tour of design failures and social injustices isn’t complete yet. Traffic here, too, is grid-locked, so I have time to observe my surroundings. What I see is not the Rio of postcards but the Rio where real people live, in the kind of abject poverty that is the shame of the human race. Scrawny horses graze by the highway, fallen-down buildings are clearly inhabited, and barefoot children chase each other.

In my room—an air conditioned perch in the clouds with a panorama of Sugarloaf Mountain—I read in my packet an ominous warning: “Do not leave the hotel wearing jewelry or carrying expensive photo or video cameras. Prefer to leave the hotel in small groups.” This warning seems to be universal anywhere an underclass has been allowed to develop.

Many Personal Decisions Add up to a Movement
How many of us, in our air conditioned rooms and our gated communities, think of the price paid by others for our luxuries? How many of us question the existence of such social inequalities? And if we question them, what are we ready to do about them? Are we willing to make less than seven percent on our mutual funds which include developers like the giant Equity Properties? Bob Kaye, who is here from the Boston office of Equity, would like to know. He’s among a handful of developers in the U.S. who want to do the right thing, not just make money. But the system of financing real estate development demands a high return on investment. What we fail to see, as Bob likes to point out, is that each and every one of us has a decision to make. Do we want the highest earnings for our retirements or do we invest in projects that pay us less but may help create cities where we can live in harmony with our neighbors, rather than in fear of them?

There are many such decisions to be made. And maybe we can make them more easily if we consider, and then remember forever, John Zeisel’s research in the neurosciences. As he so dramatically pointed out, our brains are hard-wired with basic human attributes, whether we live in Rio and speak Portuguese or live in New York and speak a hundred-plus different languages. Human beings of all cultures, genders, ages, and abilities will cry when they lose a loved one, react to the warmth of the sun and the glimmer of water, are artistic at their core, smile and frown when provoked, and enjoy feeling safe, among other basic behaviors.

That shoeless boy in the favela carries the same imprint in his brain as this magazine editor from Manhattan and every one of you in the room. How can we ignore this fact? How can we condemn our brethren to scrounge in our garbage dumps while we eat meals that would feed a small village? Our way of life—the North American brand—and our attitudes toward money and possessions are not sustainable. In fact, as the hotel’s warning to us says, they’re downright dangerous. Some pissed-off and hungry kid on the street may be angling for your cameras, cell phones, and gold jewelry, thinking them valuable, wanting them for their coolness or simply to sell for something to eat. This kid—our kin in humanity—deserves a better chance than he now has.

Design Challenges
The sustainability movement talks about interconnectedness, systems thinking, and things like bio-mimicry, and bio-philia. All these systems of thought say that we have an obligation to ourselves and to future generations. And that obligation centers on knowing and understanding the natural environment we inhabit and the impact of our activities on it. We now have information such as the astounding figure that every two minutes the sun gives the earth more energy than we use in one year, worldwide.

Here in this city on the Tropic of Capricorn, there’s a potential of harvesting more energy from the sun than the area would need. Cities like Rio could become the energy producers of the future. Clean, safe, free energy for harvesting, and we already have a growing number of sophisticated devices to do this, devices that are undergoing constant refinement. Such new forms of energy harvesting, as well as a new generation of environmentally benign materials, and the possibility of remaking our world for the “welfare of the whole human race” (Toynbee again) are giving the design profession unprecedented challenges.

I see ours as a time of great challenges for designers, as a time of optimism, when new, world-shaping innovations are happening. Areas like nanotechnology are bringing us solar computers and windows that can clean themselves, among thousands of helpful, good things. Our times are challenging us to be better, to know and understand more than we did before. The design professions can be at the forefront of this new thinking. But for this to happen, designers and design students must rigorously research the materials and processes they use.

It has become clear that interdisciplinary design—the kind of sophisticated design the world needs today—cannot happen without superior designers. Designers who are so well-trained in their professions, so knowledgeable about their materials, so clued into the cultures they’re working in, that their clients will think of them as valuable collaborators and not just as service providers. This heightened state of design also welcomes other areas of expertise which help inform design. No, I’m not asking designers to be biologists, cultural anthropologists, neuroscientists, physicists, and historians. I’m asking for designers to know what these professions can contribute to the shaping of our physical environment. I’m asking designers to consult with other professions—individuals also at the top of their fields—to create the most accessible, most environmentally safe, and the most beautiful products and places human beings are capable of creating.

This challenge is not for those who think design is about style change. We don’t need one more toaster restyled. We don’t need the 25th brand extension of Colgate toothpaste. We don’t need another doorknob or faucet handle that doesn’t conform to the human hand and shows no understanding of how that hand works, be it that of a small child or her arthritic grandmother.

“The problems of the world,” as president John F. Kennedy said in 1963, “cannot be solved by skeptics and cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need people who can dream of things that never were.”

So, where do we go from here?

You might have thought that the ordeal of my travels was a tangential tirade. Many do, when I rail against the failures of the designed environment. But I see it as an object-lesson in what needs to be done.

And so I challenge urban planners and design professionals to work with government and industry and technology to eliminate gridlock. By studying transportation as a system of moving people and products around, a whole new, inter-modal solution is revealing itself. The question to ask is not just how many acres we need to find parking spaces, but how we get people to their jobs and schools safely and easily, using all modes of mobility including bikes, wheelchairs, electric vehicles, magnetic levitation trains, light rails from urban cores to airports, cars, electric vehicles, etc.

This complex system of transportation will need an equally complex system of communication design—easy to read and hear, logical, thoughtful signage that shows an understanding of our hard-wired need to see and sense landmarks in order to find our way. Such complex way-finding systems need to enlist well-trained, enthusiastic human beings who fill in the missing information. The man who checked me in at JFK should have told me I was flying to São Paulo when he saw that my travel agent left that information off my ticket. The flight attendant should have explained the system Varig uses to global travelers who don’t understand local cultures. The greeters at the airport in Rio should have been trained to guide people though immigration and customs processing. Such helpful human involvement would have gone a long way in making us feel welcome. The table where the immigration forms were kept should have had appropriate instructional signage. And the man in the immigration booth should have been trained to give his full attention to the task at hand.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T
What I’m asking for is respect to be built into every system of design. Respect for our differences, respect for our similarities. Respect for others can only be injected into design systems by those who practice ethical design. Ethical design may be best understood by the first, do-no-harm principle familiar to doctors who have taken the Hippocratic Oath. If, for instance, you have specified materials that disturb my respiratory system—you have done me harm. You have behaved irresponsibly and unethically. You have contributed to my temporary disability.

I ask you to think back to the time when you decided to become a designer oor whatever other profession you’re in, to that wonderful, idealistic moment when you knew you could change the world, to make it better, more beautiful, and better suited to human beings. I ask you to tap into your humanist roots and keep them with you at all times. This will help you to remember that your ultimate and most important client is the human being at the other end of your designs and services.

Kyle Maynard, the 18-year-old wrestling champion who was born without elbows and knees, told Larry King the other night that he was looking for an SUV adapted to his particular needs. “I just want to be normal,” said this beautiful young man who has figured out how to type without fingers, walk without legs, wrestle without hands and feet. Human ingenuity is boundless. It’s the most inspiring trait we have. I ask you to keep Kyle Maynard in mind each time you think about the designed environment. And think of how much the world would have been a poorer, meaner place if a spirit like Kyle’s wasn’t part of it.

I ask you to always keep in mind motherhood issues, as some have come to call our basic rights to sunlight, clean water, clean air, and safe foods. If any of the processes and products you work with do harm to any of these motherhood resources, figure out new, safe, less toxic ways to make them.

A degrading environment is a disabling environment. Most of us can’t escape into luxury limos and air-purified high-rises. We live with and are made sick by environmental degradation. Cancers have reached epidemic proportions. When network TV advertises cancer drugs in the U.S. we know something is terribly wrong. Cancers have been known to be caused by man-made materials like dioxin—which, by the way, is in the chlorine used to bleach that nice white paper graphic designers like to print on, as well as in other materials.

In Our Own Backyards
We have heard here the importance of solving problems in our backyards, working on things we know, using local materials and resources. Local solutions and expressions are also cornerstones of the sustainability movement. Rosemary Chiotti, who works with abused Afghan women, said this morning that she found abuses of another kind in her own neighborhood. In the Washington D.C. area, the birthplace of the ADA, Rosemary has observed that non-ADA-compliant apartment buildings and banks are being built near our seat of political power. She’s in a wheelchair and cannot get by the front steps. You’re already watching your neighborhoods for such abuses; it’s time to create a national and international, “shame on you” list and web-cast it so that the responsible parties may be made aware of the public’s outrage at their illegal and insensitive practices.

I’m impressed by how many organizations, from around the world, are represented at this conference. Your networks and your body of knowledge are enormous. Your spokespeople are dynamic and inspiring. If there isn’t one yet, I hope there will soon be a worldwide index of universal design organizations and their various areas of expertise.

Each perspective you represent has its own truths, its own issues. Understand these, tell your truth, advocate for your cause. But always remember that you are part of a larger movement, a bigger idea, the idea that Toynbee so elegantly identified, “the welfare of the human race.” Now add to that the welfare of the natural environment, which gives life to the human race as well as to other species.

Stakeholders vs. Shareholders
At this point I’d like to get back to the money part of the equation and call your attention to a growing movement in the investment sector. Economists talk about the characteristics of shareholders and stakeholders. If you are a shareholder you demand the quickest and highest return for your investment, disregarding what your money ends up paying for, be it luxury condos or video games or gas guzzling Humvees. If you are a stakeholder you are watching those motherhood issues that support life in your community, and by the way, you may also end up with a good return for your investment. The idea of ethical investment is taking hold and this group’s social consciousness and worldwide influence will help keep it growing.

The economic globalization we are experiencing today is a sick model. It waters down local cultures and skills, it devalues the hand and its creative input, it poisons our air and water supply, and it creates enormous populations of the disadvantaged and dispossessed. It is up to stakeholders to turn this economic juggernaut around. Each of you in your own community can create powerful alternatives to global economics. For instance, what if sun-drenched lands like Brazil and Florida started to capture and disseminate solar power?

The kind of business activism I’m advocating relies on our understanding of financial proposals and investment documents. There are ethical bankers around to help you do that, but such collaborations require you to be vigilant and knowledgeable about what needs to be done and keep your eyes on the prize of human empowerment.

Let the Silos Fall
Collaborations of all kinds are needed to work on complex problems like universal and sustainable design. The silos built by each design profession must fall. The conversation must be opened up between architects, interior designers, industrial designers, landscape architects, engineers, graphic designers and media designers. The next topic of every conversation needs to be “the welfare of the whole human race”—back to Toynbee again. Nothing less will do.

Every designer says he or she collaborates, yet none of the individual professions in the U.S. know truly what the others do—some are downright hostile to one another. The turf war between architects and interior designers is legendary. This kind of behavior will not solve our society’s problems, and squabbling American designers stand to lose out to the Japanese and the Brits on one of the biggest movements around—the movement of converging expertise arrayed around the issues of human and environmental welfare. We need everyone to participate. This is not a competition. This is an emergency.

Convergence has been the buzzword in the electronic media for years. Now we hear about physicists bringing together the great thought systems of modern times in something called “string theory.” String theory attempts to unify the physics of gravity (the large scale), with the physics of the atom (the small scale), for a better understanding of the principles that move the universe.

I see this kind of convergence coming to the humanist design specialties—universal design, with its social justice and accessibility focus and sustainable design with its focus on the environment and environmental justice. Neither one can survive without the other in a world that cares little or nothing about design. Both must find ways to work together while focused on their unique issues and expertise.

Together sustainable design and universal design are a powerhouse. Start networking. Tempus fugit.

Universal Design Links:
Adaptive Environments
Center for Inclusive Design
Center for Applied Special Technology
Helen Hamlyn Research Centre
Inclusive Design
Universal Design Alliance

Categories: Cities

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