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32 experts on the most urgent matters facing designers today

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In honor of the 10th year of our Innovation by Design Awards, Fast Company asked some of the world’s preeminent designers to identify design’s most pressing challenges. Terri Irwin, director of Carnegie Mellon’s Transition Design Institute, cites a slew of critical problems, from forced migration to political polarization. “Instead of finding a cause célèbre,” she says, “we need to do triage; pick an urgent, local problem and use it as a ‘window’ into the larger system that needs to be transformed.” Here are more than 30 responses suggesting other such windows.—Jay Woodruff

We are living in an age of many difficulties. Prioritizing these should be done with two filters: How fast-progressing is that crisis? And How much impact can design achieve?

With these in mind, I think the design impact on fast-evolving AI, and the autonomous ‘things’ using it, is the most urgent to address.

We need to impact the way autonomous cars or robots evolve, just as must as we need to address the application of AI throughout our society. The issue is larger than important matters of diversity or inclusion. It is asking ‘What is intelligence?’ and what type of guidance we can or cannot receive through AI.—Gadi Amit, founder, New Deal Design

The most important issue is designing for the circular economy, an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design. The Ellen Macarthur Foundation has created three principles to build and rebuild overall system health. First, design out waste and pollution. Secondly, keep products and materials in use and regenerate natural systems. And finally, designers must become environmental activists as we are in a position by the choices we make to change our relationship to the natural world.—Ivy Ross, vice president, design for hardware products Google

The single most urgent design issue is mobilizing people of all ages to understand the climate heating emergency and take action, working together to turn it around. We just marked Overshoot Day, July 29, not a day to celebrate—our consumption of natural resources surpassed the Earth’s potential to regenerate them, five months prior to “break even.” In 1990, Overshoot Day was October 10. Design can be the lever to lift us out of this global emergency towards a more conscious, responsible, empathetic, and solution-oriented future. We are not changing our lifestyle quickly enough to stop global warming, climate change, and all the issues that go with it. Now is the time for design to wield and manifest its power to come together and collaborate on the biggest problem of humankind.—Caroline Baumann, former director, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian National Design Museum

Our climate crisis is fundamentally reorienting design at Nike — and at large. Given our size and scale, we have a responsibility to do what we can to tackle it. We’re embracing sustainability and how we use our choices to create change. This, to me, is the creative imperative of today and tomorrow.

Considering form and function alone is not enough; our impact — our footprint — must be part of every equation, every decision. In fact, form and function should follow footprint. Beauty and utility both must be tied to sustainability. At Nike, we reject the view that circularity compromises or dilutes design. Nor can it be an add-on, an afterthought, latent or somehow disguised. Instead, let’s welcome the emergent new aesthetics circularity suggests as an opening for dialogue. Sustainability is a non-negotiable — it’s the objective design must reach.—John Hoke, chief design officer, Nike

Toshiko Mori [Photo: Ralph Gibson]Climate change affects everyone in every geographical location and culture, and manifests itself in diverse crises that are economic, environmental, societal, medical, and cultural. Every design project we undertake must consider the fact of its detriment to the environment, value system, and long-term life cycle. We must remove ourselves from the consumer mindset of scrap and build new, which creates more waste. Going forward, we need to be mindful and purposeful and learn to live with less. We can design a more ecologically sustainable life cycle for each object and building in harmony with both nature and humanity.

For example, I am designing a chair using wood waste from lumber production. The chair can be repaired, maintained, and replaced over its lifetime and when its usefulness comes to end, it returns to the forest. The chair’s design encourages a sitting position that assists in an ideal alignment of the spine so that stress is relieved during long hours of sedentary work. With this design, I try to promote living in symbiotic balance with natural resources while enhancing the wellbeing of human life.—Toshiko Mori, principal, Toshiko Mori Architect, and Robert P. Hubbard Professor in the Practice of Architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design

Climate change is undoubtedly the biggest challenge of our time. We cannot rely on businesses and legislation to solve the issue for us. Each and everyone of us must contribute: from more mindful consumption to reducing waste, choosing to support local businesses and switching to green energy, we need to encourage individual participation. Individual buying power has the potential to make or break companies, and we must harness this power to support companies that are focused on delivering a green- and community-focused agenda. Real impact will come from a combination of individual change and government policy.

All design and creative disciplines have a role to play in addressing the climate crisis, from graphic design to digital. From an industrial design perspective, it’s imperative that we design products to last, and that we design in such a way that valuable parts and materials never end up in landfill. We need to look at both minimizing waste, as well as using waste as a resource, something we’re seeing a lot of with the development of new materials.—Paul Priestman, founder and chairman, PriestmanGoode

Before we can successfully tackle big issues like climate, sustainability, and racial equity we really need to harness the power of design to reshape community, in the spirit of bringing humans together. Solutions are obviously not easy and they require collaboration, communication, and physically bridging groups under common goals. Design offers us a platform for communication and unification when words fail and if we can solve how design can help us successfully build community as humans, it can be a key to unlock solutions to these broad global issues.—Derek Fridman, design partner, Work & Co.

We need to stop designing for ‘right now.’ A lot of the issues we are facing with climate change have to do with our throwaway culture. Our society has focused on convenience over longevity for so many decades that much of our work is disposable. How did we shift from caring more about having something fast and cheap than producing something of quality and substance?

We need to start designing not just within but below our means. Instead of thinking – what’s the most we can do on a project, we should be thinking what’s the least? What’s the smallest move we can make to solve the problem? Every year we consume 1.6 times more resources than the earth has the capacity to regenerate. That means we are borrowing from the future knowing that we never intend to pay it back.

What if we were the caretakers of every beautiful thing we brought into this world and part of our work was to ensure its continued life beyond our own projects? What if we deliberated long and hard about the necessity of every extra finish or detail and its toll on communities and the environment?—Verda Alexander, cofounder, Studio O A

We’re at an inflection point right now, conditioned to feel an immediacy around all things in life. We want the best and we want it at our fingertips. This has an enormous impact on the way we see the world and leads to unintended consequences that stifle our individualism and creativity. Think about the decline of traditional newsprint and they way information is now consumed and delivered by the algorithms that define digital experiences. This rampant evolution was........

© Fast Company

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