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Designing Utopia

All over the world, designers are becoming optimists, working together on new solutions to the planet’s worst crises
by Maura R. O'Connor

Most of us are simply overwhelmed by the innumerable problems confronting our world. Pollution, overpopulation, species extinction, poverty, disease, and severe wealth disparity—we are acutely aware of these issues but, on the whole, at a loss as to what the solutions might be. That’s why it’s so encouraging to take note of the growing number of designers—product, industrial, and architectural—who are increasingly convinced that they have some of the answers we critically need. Collectively, they’re proving that design is about much more than modern furniture or robo-pets; it’s not just the cause of many of our problems but also the means to create a radically new world. And luckily for us, it appears that various governments and corporations, those that have the real power to implement sustainable policies and build new infrastructures, are beginning to pay attention to them.

Take Portugal, for example. This year, the country is launching the world’s first “wave farm,” located in the Atlantic Ocean off its northern coast. Four-hundred-foot-long orange cylinders will capture the energy of oncoming waves and direct it to an underwater cable that will run to the mainland and provide electricity to thousands of homes. Or consider Mercedes-Benz, the German-based luxury car company whose designers recently unveiled the first-ever bionic vehicle. Bionics is a burgeoning field of study that applies design principles found in plants and animals to new technologies; Mercedes found their muse in an unlikely sea creature—the boxfish. By carefully studying the boxfish’s aerodynamic shape and unusual skin, they managed to create a four-passenger diesel car that gets seventy-five miles to the gallon, emits eighty percent less nitrogen oxide, and has up to forty percent more strength than other cars in its class. Meanwhile, other designers are looking at everything from butterfly wings (for ways to color fabric without using chemical dyes) to mussels (for clues as to how to make glue so strong it would be capable of repairing broken bones) in the search for ever more innovative bionic inventions.

Bruce Mau, the well-known Toronto-based product designer, is a prominent example of those designers who are “daring,” as he puts it, “to believe in the best for mankind.” Mau has so much faith in the potential for design to improve the human condition that he has launched an entire global movement toward that end. Called “Massive Change,” it’s an attempt to bring together the most ingenious and compassionate minds of the international design community through a traveling art exhibit, a website, an online community, and a future documentary film. Perhaps the best way to grasp the spirit and scope of Massive Change is to peruse the new book by the same name published by Phaidon Press. It includes page after page of stunning photography, hundreds of examples of technological inventions, and thirty-two interviews with scientists, environmentalists, philanthropists, engineers, programmers, and researchers, all pioneers in their fields. The defining characteristic of the movement is optimism, and by page 349, it starts to rub off. Indeed, Massive Change might just be the perfect gift for depressives, pessimists, and eschatologists alike. “We will eradicate world poverty,” the authors declare. “We will build a global mind. . . . We will bring energy to the entire world.”

One member of the movement is William McDonough, the eco-architect best known for his work building sustainable factories for corporations like Herman Miller and the Ford Motor Company. His theory of “cradle-to-cradle” design, in which waste is converted into energy and new materials, and pollution becomes nonexistent, is a central concept of Massive Change. But surprisingly, the first truly “massive” implementation of cradle-to-cradle design, which McDonough says could constitute the “next industrial revolution,” may not take place here in the West but in the hugely overpopulated, notoriously environmentally destructive country of China. It’s been reported that the powers that be in Beijing have adopted McDonough’s book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (written with Michael Braungart) as government policy and that President Hu Jintao frequently enjoys quoting from the Chinese translation.

The rest of the world should feel lucky: in its quest for global economic power, China is currently engineering an industrial revolution on a scale never before seen in history. To this end, the government is poised to relocate no less than four hundred million rural people into cities by the year 2030. The problem is that if the Chinese begin consuming resources at the same rate as Western urbanites, we would need three planet earths to provide enough. In an effort to prevent this apocalyptic possibility, McDonough, as co-chair of the China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development, is traveling to China and rebuilding six districts in six different Chinese provinces based on cradle-to-cradle principles. If these cities convince the Chinese government to provide more funding, McDonough believes that he can change the lives of the entire Chinese populace, something he says would be “nothing less than the magnificent re-evolution of human enterprise,” a manner of living that not only radically improves quality of life but protects the earth as well.

Each of the six areas McDonough is redesigning will be filled with parks and waterways, enabling the migratory patterns of native species to go undisturbed and citizens to walk or bike to and from work. The city streets will be built at angles that will disrupt cold winter winds while ensuring that city air is constantly circulated and kept clean and allowing the maximum amount of sunlight to reach apartments all year round. Businesses are to be located on the ground floor of buildings, residences will be above, and rooftops are slated to become farmland, the individual plots connected to one another by pedestrian bridges. These buildings will be constructed with special insulating materials that McDonough is developing so that the buildings can be heated and cooled for “next to nothing.” Each apartment will be equipped with toilets so slick they require only a light mist to be flushed and with soundproof walls that will give China’s extended multigenerational families the luxury of privacy. Bamboo wetlands outside the cities will be used to purify human waste, and the surrounding acreage that is of “marginal” value to both humans and animals will become giant fields of solar panels providing energy to the districts. China, McDonough predicts, will soon be the largest solar energy provider in the world. All in all, it’s enough to convince you that there really is, as Bruce Mau claims, “a revolution going on” in design. “If you ask people about what’s happening in the world,” Mau told Wired magazine, “most respond with a negative answer. But if you check the Human Development Index since 1820, all lines point radically upward. Yes, there are still horrible disparities, and mistakes are made, but overall, true progress . . . is the real story.”


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