The idea of a design school for positive futures, whose overarching goal is to initiate radical transformation towards sustainability, emerged during the hearing on the “Future of Design Education”, which took place from 13 to 15 March 2019 in Gmund am Tegernsee (Germany).
Ursula Tischner (econcept – Agency for Sustainable Design, Cologne, Germany) was involved in the development of this idea. She once again summarizes the concept exclusively for the iF Design Foundation Magazine:
Humanity is facing major challenges – and not just since the outbreak of the pandemic. It is becoming increasingly clear that most of the systems that have emerged since industrialization, be they economic, technological, political or social, are no longer contributing to improving life on this planet. In addition, the vast majority of the population worldwide realizes that industrialization not only comes at the expense of poorer populations and countries, but also involves over-exploitation of our planet. We cannot continue in this way without destroying our natural life-support systems. As designers, we are involved in this and have to take our responsibility seriously. We design for users, but on behalf of profit-oriented companies and all too often for a throw-away society.
Apart from a few exceptions, design schools are only beginning to address these issues, although they have been known for decades. However, one would expect especially educational institutions to address questions about the future and to design desirable futures and develop the processes to get there. Design education in particular, with its combination of trans-disciplinary research, creative design and concrete implementation of teaching content, is in a pole position here.
Buddhist monastery + laboratory + bridge + park
Based on this situation, a working group in the Gmund Hearing designed the concept of a new “Design School for Positive Futures”. This school trains designers who take their social and ecological responsibility seriously and who want to contribute to the survival of humanity on a livable planet Earth through their intellectual, creative and implementation skills. In the workshop, the symbol of a Buddhist monastery as a synonym for a place of contemplation, reflection and exploration, but also of critical questioning and personal development, was combined with a large workshop building or laboratory, which serves as a symbol for making, experimenting, and applying traditional as well as advanced tools of design. Both buildings are connected by a bridge that overlooks the surrounding public park, which is full of people. The bridge and the park symbolize practical projects that deal with socially and ecologically relevant issues, taking into account influences from the outside world and collaborating with real protagonists. These projects always aim to generate positive effects in the real world.
Positive motivation, coopetition and boot camps
The school should have no entrance requirements; it should be open to the gifted and interested without regard to regular school-leaving qualifications. Furthermore, it should not involve excessive performance monitoring because we know that people learn much better through positive motivation and enthusiasm than through fear of bad grades. Elements of healthy coopetition are desired, in the sense of competing and growing together. There should not be any limits on the length of study or any fixed degrees. The school is a place for personal growth and, with its modular structure, allows individual paths through the curriculum.
Basic courses in ethics & aesthetics, balance, regeneration and ecological footprint are part of the minimal mandatory program. Focus on social innovation and nudges towards changes in behavior and thinking are also possible. External guest lecturers provide up-to-date, future-relevant content from a wide range of disciplines. Implementation skills are taught in workshops and boot camps and can be further deepened by the students themselves in their independent work. In a time of abundance of online tutorials for design-relevant software tools, learning such tools can be very well placed in the responsibility of the students. The university advises them on this.
Thus, the Design School for Positive Futures is a place where both generalist and discipline-specific knowledge and skills are taught and where students can learn how to think and act responsibly – at their own pace and considering individual specializations. The overarching goal is to initiate radical transformations toward sustainability and to create value for as many people as possible instead of value creation for companies only. To achieve this, such an institution must also deal with the business models of designers and companies. For example, various financing options need to be explored, from crowd-funding to public grants to innovative business models, i.e. approaches within or beyond the prevailing economic systems. The school itself could be based on such an unconventional business model.