Design Can Change the World
From architects to engineers to inventors, those of us in design professions constantly explore how to make life on Earth better for all of us. Changing the world, in the most basic meaning of the phrase, is exactly what designers aim to do: We help decide how the resources and energy of our world should be rearranged, and into what form. As cliché as it may sound, many of us also want to change the world, in the sense that we want to make it a better place economically, socially, ecologically, and aesthetically. Through the professional development grant I was awarded as a part of DLR Group’s PDG program, I explored the connection between changing the world, and changing the world, through both design and ethical inquiry.
I’ve been interested in ethics and the built environment since graduate school where I explored topics such as sustainable building and food systems, and had the opportunity to help design a learning house for young adults with disabilities. A few years into my professional career, I discovered the work of Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, which ranged from innovative social housing schemes to austerely beautiful civic buildings. Aravena’s approach resonated with me because he strived for a greater goodthrough innovative thinking and heavy community involvement. I was thrilled when the Pritzker Foundation announced Alejandro Aravena as the winner of their namesake prize in 2016. His recognition, in turn, validated the many like-minded designers around the world taking on social, economic, and ecological challenges in their work.
In the midst of deadlines, client expectations, and daily pragmatism, how do we create substantial good in designing buildings and spaces? How do we create an ethical framework for discovering and understanding good in the built environment? How do we approach the multiplicity of possible ethical expressions in the built environment, from ecological conservation to social justice to energy efficiency to disaster relief to ergonomics? I made it my goal to discover how designers could apply ethics to the built environment through the design process to create tangible, positive outcomes.
My initial research included reading a variety of books, attending pertinent conferences, dialoguing with colleagues, and interviewing topical experts. The research process brought me a better understanding of how ethics intersects with the physical world, a deeper awareness of the responsibility of being a designer, and an appreciation for related topics, such as public interest design. Most applicably, I began to observe how design practices with specific ethical focuses approached the design process. I describe this approach to designing the built environment as “design as ethical inquiry,” and I believe it could be adapted to a range of design practices of different scales and focuses.
Design as ethical inquiry builds on Thomas Fisher’s and others’ ideas about design thinking. It considers design’s logical structure and capacity for including research as an ideal framework to ask ethical questions, resulting in actionable knowledge and better projects. As a result, using design to ask ethical questions about how we design the built environment will increase our value as designers and help us improve theethical norms of our society.
Design as Ethical Inquiry
We can apply this thinking to an every-day situation in the design studio with an ethical sentiment relating to physical space, one that many of us would agree with: “Elementary school children ought to have the most ideal learning environments possible, because positive early education outcomes have a net positive benefit on society.” This statement intuitively sounds correct, but we would need more information to validate the implied connections between learning environments to educational outcomes, and these outcomes on society. To this end, we could ask: What is the most ideal learning environment? What is possible in a given context, and what are the outcomes that might benefit society?
Our hypothetical learning space designer would know, or learn, about the nature of an “ideal” learning environment by first empathetically understanding the problems to be solved. This means the designer would seek a deep understanding of relevant factors and context from the point of view of all affected parties, including students, teachers, maintenance staff, the community, and even the natural environment. Empathy in this sense is a rigorous application of design’s typical starting point—gathering knowledge and defining the scope of the project in terms of function, or establishing goals. Next, the designer would imagine responses to individual design, which could involve designing new solutions, reviewing precedents, and relying on research and professional expertise. In the given example, this might include finding example imagery, sketching and modeling design ideas, doing research, and considering the implications of different design decisions. In terms of design logic, imagination is the creation of hypotheses to be tested, and in this case specifically, hypotheses about the ethics of learning environments.
The process of negotiation dovetails with imagination, and consists of resolving the imagined, hypothetical responses within the bounds of empathetic understanding. This requires establishing metrics for considering the ethical function of design decisions, such as asking questions of how fair, equitable, well-intended, or acceptable the results might be. Finally, evaluation is the process of answering these questions, determining if the design, as a logical hypothesis, was successful or not to assign it value. The purposes of evaluation are improving design processes and products, and contributing to the larger discourse. Through a comprehensive understanding of the project, the designer is able to talk about it in a meaningful way.
Through these steps, design must encourage participation of those who stand to benefit from the realized project. These design intentions, as far as they convey ethical ideas and are sufficiently realized in a project, comprise its ethos. Even a well-intentioned, well thought-out, and demonstrably successful project will eventually fail if those who use the project don’t effectively participate in its ethos.
As exciting as it was to see a socially and ecologically innovative architect such as Aravena receive architecture’s highest honor, it’s even more exciting to see an ethically aware approach to the built environment happen “on the ground” at our practice at DLR Group, and in the work of like-minded peers. My hope is that ethical inquiry becomes central to the design process. Moreover, I hope that design professionals realize their potential to contribute to the field of ethics. The good news is that both things are completely achievable: The design process already contains the logical structure to improve ethical outcomes in the built environment, and to provide ethical insight into the shape of our world.
You can read my full exploration on the ethics of design here.
To learn more about DLR Group’s PDG program, read about my colleagues’ projects for a sustainable community in Nicaragua; raising sustainable natives in Orlando; and an internal eZine to catalog design culture.
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