In 1979 I moved from my hometown of Oegstgeest to Amsterdam. I moved from the comfort of my parent’s house to the Spartan conditions of a squatted building. We occupied the old newspaper building on the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal – still known today as the Handelsblad building. It was a vast space, it was cold and there were plans to demolish it. Most of us were students and artists. We started little shops on the ground floor. Artist studios and living quarters were on the other floors. Our presence and activities livened the place up and what was once vast and cold soon became forgiving and warm.
It was our home. Today, the building, which was supposed to be demolished in 1979, still stands and is still in use as a cultural hub.
Now, what’s the point of this story, besides me establishing my bona fides with you as a former squatter? Well, I think it presents us with two questions:
1. Was the building saved because of its great architectural design?
2. Was it saved because we saw it in a different light?
In other words: when we ponder the question of what design can do, should we be thinking about the design of an object or about our perspectives and ourselves too?
One of the goals of this government is to encourage crossovers between different sectors. This is of course about changing people’s perspectives. What we’d like is for people to break out of the traditional moulds of their professions and seek collaborations they would not ordinarily seek.
We need skilled workers. We need specialists. And we need craftsmen and women. But we also need those that dare to divert, go against the grain and oppose consensus. We need what professor Helga Nowotny calls competent rebels. It’s these competent rebels that can change the way we look at things; change our perspective. That this approach can lead to great and useful designs has been proven many times.
One such very recent innovation is the Temstem app, which won the Rotterdam Design Award last year. The idea behind this app is to help people who suffer psychoses silence or at least quieten the voices in their minds by distracting the language centre in the brain with language games. The language centre of the brain becomes so pre-occupied with solving language riddles that it essentially drowns out the voices.
Another example is ‘into d’mentia’.
A learning tool for those caring for patients with dementia.
Into d’mentia is a great example of a crossover project: health care professionals, doctors, scientists and designers worked together to design a mobile simulator.
Once inside, the caregiver experiences what it is like to suffer dementia.
95% of the participating caregivers said they had gained new insights about patients and would change their approach when giving care.
I think this is the type of design that one of today’s moderators, David Kester had in mind when he said that ‘design is about taking ideas and making them work for people.’ ‘Design not as an embellishment’, Kester stated, ‘but a force that drives innovation.’
I agree. At the same time we should be mindful of the fact that innovations also cost jobs. Professions disappear.
The room I occupied in that abandoned building in Amsterdam used to be the newspaper’s composing room. It was the typesetter’s domain. The digital age made them redundant, because digitally the work could be done faster. Enter the desktop publisher. Who’s work has shifted from printed media to mobile devices. The job still exists but is very different to what it was 15 years ago.
Some professions no longer exist simply because we live differently than we used to. The waste food collector is no more. Yet urban miners collect precious metals to be recycled.
Of course, the digital revolution has created many new professions too. Online community manager, search engine optimisation specialist, mobile app developer, to name just three jobs that we had not heard of at the start of this century.
It is this perpetual process of change and reinvention that forces us to stay flexible. Adaptation is key. And so those of us already working must never stop learning. And those who have yet to enter the labour force must be properly prepared. We must prepare our kids in school.
As minister of education, culture and science I see it as my task to offer good cultural and technological education. Besides introducing pupils to beauty, cultural education challenges them to develop a critical attitude, an open mind and to view the world from different perspectives. It teaches pupils the importance of creative thought and new ideas. And technological education does the same on a more logical level.
How does the world work? What is the connection between a and b? Can I influence that connection?
Combining specialist and general skills prepares pupils for perpetual change and reinventions. Competent rebels and specialists side by side. Our curiosity combined with our know-how.
Our technical capabilities combined with our hopes and dreams. Our appreciation of beauty combined with our determination to create a better world.
It’s similar to occupying the Handelsblad building in 1979: we appreciated it for what it could be and were determined to make it work. No longer vast and cold but forgiving and warm. This is what great design does.
It turns abstract ideas into warm and forgiving objects that work for people. This is what design can do.