12 November 2008

Using design to crack society’s problems

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Hilary Cottam
Hilary Cottam is the 2005 UK Designer of the Year and former director of RED [archive site], the meanwhile closed innovation unit of the UK Design Council. I interviewed her last year for Torino World Design Capital site. And she is suddenly hot.

She made it last week into the International Herald Tribune, and now you can read another story about her company Participle in Fast Company magazine. Both stories are written by the same author Alice Rawsthorn, but have a somewhat different angle.

Participle isn’t a conventional bunch of social workers or do-gooders. It’s a design team. Participle’s interdisciplinary crew includes anthropologists, economists, entrepreneurs, psychologists, social scientists, and a military-logistics expert, but it is driven by design techniques and headed by Cottam, 42, who also has used such strategies to tackle the shortcomings of Britain’s school and health systems. “Hilary’s — and my — favorite kind of design has to do with making people’s lives better, often taking account of their mundane daily concerns,” says Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “Her projects not only work, they give people a sense of hope and strength.”

Cottam is one of a new wave of design evangelists who are trying to change the world for the better. They believe that many of the institutions and systems set up in the 20th century are failing and that design can help us to build new ones better suited to the demands of this century. Some of these innovators are helping poor people to help themselves by fostering design in developing economies. Others see design as a tool to stave off ecological catastrophe. Then there are the box-breaking thinkers like Cottam, who disregard design’s traditional bounds and apply it to social and political problems. Her mission, she says, is “to crack the intractable social issues of our time.”

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