In the 1950s we had movies that showed engineers tackling important problems with science and the future was bright with technology making life more manageable and comfortable. I love those videos because it was the heyday for people who daydreamed about endless possibilities. My favorite pass time. Fast forward to today and that kind of thinking is lost. We are a little less hopeful. A little more cynical. And we no longer rely on engineers to solve our problems. Today when you hear someone talk about building something whether it’s the sock in your drawer or your career, it’s typically prefaced with the title “designed”.
We have elevated the design world to almost godlike status. Just look at this new documentary out about big names in the design industry: Design Disruptors.
This is a highly commercialized vision of design is nothing new. It has its roots in the way engineering was marketed. We could probably come up with a few examples from back in the day when engineering used to be the catch word for everything from toys to washing machines. Over the years the language of modern marvels went from “superior engineering” to “well designed” and it has little bit to do with how we have changed our views over the last century or two.
Let’s bring in Foolproof, a book by Greg Ip which takes an interesting perspective on some of our recent catastrophes like The Great Recession and hurricane Katrina. Explaining that as a society we have become overly cautious in a way that allows small problems to balloon into more disastrous problems, the book looks at the battle between two concepts of problem management that has erupted within the last one hundred or so: Engineers versus Ecologists.
By early 1900s ways of thinking, we believed we could control every aspect our world through scientific knowledge. Whip nature into submission. Hunt the last buffalo and reap the endless natural resources in the name of progress. Ip called these people engineers. These are the people who conquered the West taming wildfires or building tremendous dikes and canals so that settlers could use the land more efficiently. On the other side of the table are is a relatively new school of thought that natural processes serve as a control and by interfering we ultimately cause harm to the entire system. These ecologists have fought within the last fifty years or so to allow nature to take its course and you can see it in periodic controlled burns that are supposed to reduce wildfire risk, mimicking smaller naturally caused fires. Under this filter you can start to see a tension throughout recent history as policies become split along this divide with different attempts to address problems of our day either by whipping or nurturing.
In thinking about Ip’s analogies it occurred to me that by midcentury American society was getting high on science and technology. You used to see all kinds of articles, movies, magazines, comics, and TV shows promoting the miracles of modern science. Engineers were working to solve everyday problems and make life better for every man and child.
That language has gone away and probably represents a sea change in crises management thinking, but out of the fight has birthed this idea that life is “Designed.” We have Graphic Designers, Website Designers, Robot Designers, Landscape Designers, Fashion Designers, Furniture Designers, home decor is designed, and cars are designed. We design rocket ships and dams – all jobs that used to belong engineers.
With recent technology and commercial success “designer” has also become a generic word for people who make pretend things that only exist in computers or on the Internet. We draw pictures, we create data files, we plan out events, but we don’t actually manufacture things any more. Since the economy has moved on from production to more imaginary things we needed a new term to describe the things our economy does. It’s the new economy. A new way of doing business that just has shitty words to use when describing new jobs.
Today the term designer encompasses so much partly because it offers commercialized success by making all things sound more expensive. But it also connects the two worlds using the skills and knowledge of one realm with the wisdom and foresight of the other. It interests me to think that Ip’s engineers and ecologists have merged to make designer babies (which a scary thought for a different article) hybridizing these once separate fields.
Once upon time I worked with the U.S. Green Building Council which promotes environmentally conscientious building standards. In this nonprofit is a collection of literal engineers and builders coming together to balance construction with ecological concerns. The perfect melding of control freaks and nature lovers that previously would have been impossible. In this world of people getting all Al Green and blending the engineer and ecologist DNA we tended to use the word design. If only to help lay people understand what the hell we were talking about.
In Foolproof Ip spends a lot of time on the financial crisis saying that the body of policy that is built on old-school engineer thinking is going to create larger problems for us down the road. Unless we can find a way to bleed off some of the pressure. Foolproof gives us the example of the Dutch who have started to move away from the canal systems that are so iconic in their country to more natural designs. Instead of trying to fight nature, controlling water flow by building ever bigger canals and dikes the inevitably break and cause larger and larger chaos, they have started building parks that can be used as natural flood control areas that release the pent-up pressure accumulating in their system. It is a compromise reached with an understanding of how the two worlds intertwine both protecting existing populations and working within the confines natural physics.
With so much bickering in the world right now, especially in politics, it’s heartening to think that there is progress in the world. That we don’t have to be cynical all the time. As a control freak myself I can relate to the kind of thinking that leads to a flattened, standardized world. Yet I know that in the war between man and nature we lose every scenario. What we see in the presidential race I think reflects a worldwide epidemic. There is pressure that has built up and needs to be released before it grows so big that it wipes out entire cities. It’s the blending of ideas that will help us to better manage crises before they happen. Or should I say, “We can design a better world”.
Greg Ip’s book is a quick read and talks about historical disasters that you might not have known about. I especially like how he addresses the management styles in relation to the crises we have faced, but I do wish he dove a little deeper into a couple of chapters. The full title is Foolproof: Why Safety Can Be Dangerous and How Danger Makes Us Safe. Check it out.
Photo by Stephen Radford
Copyright © 2016 Robert C. Olson