Beyond Change 2018 ConferenceDesign ResearchHGK

Beyond Change

Questioning the Role of design in times of global transformations

Current discourse in design research, art, cultural studies, media studies, philosophy, and the social sciences is dominated by the much-debated concept of the “Anthropocene,” which claims that we are entering a new geological age determined primarily by the effects of human activity on the planet. It has been used to increase awareness of the negative influence of our actions on climate and the environment, and thus on the terms and conditions of our long-term survival. Against the backdrop of ongoing catastrophe and normalised crisis, the image of designers as problem-solvers and shapers of material-visual culture is constantly evoked. Designers are expected to come to the rescue and to draft speculative scenarios, construct artificial worlds, and develop smart solutions. In short: design is wielded as a catalyst for global change.

But isn’t this image of the designer as an omnipotent problem-solver itself problematic? What if design is not the solution, but very much complicit in the problems it wants to solve? At this point, we feel compelled to ask: How can design truly contribute to a more just society and sustainable forms of living without compromising bottom-up initiatives and marginalising the voices of those who are most directly affected?

Our conviction is: Design cannot change anything before it changes itself. The conference “Beyond Change: Questioning the role of design in times of global transformation” is a critical response to the tendency of seeing global crisis first and foremost as a worldwide design competition. How can we reimagine design as an unbounded, queer, and unfinished practice that approaches the world from within instead of claiming an elevated position? How, for once, can we see design as a situated practice instead of turning it into the Global North’s escape and problem-solving strategy? How can we think about one world without falling into planetary-scale thinking and the idea that resilience is our only hope?

Conference Call for Paper

Conference Report

Beyond Change was the title of this year’s research conference of the Swiss Design Network. It opened its doors symbolically on International Women’s Day – 8 March 2018. During the process of accreditation, visitors were given a pink badge with the motto “Beyond Change Patriarchy”. The conference programme had been carefully designed by the team of Prof. Claudia Mareis and Nina Paim, with the assistance of Vera Sacchetti, Sarah Haug and Julia Sommerfeld. It was progressive in nature and provided a forum for self-critical topics that have long become urgent and compelling within the discipline, and that also relate to social transformation. Here, looking back, is a personal selection of the challenges, issues and statements that emerged.

What power structures do designers reproduce? What discriminatory structures can be revealed, reflected upon and overcome at educational institutions for design? What claims to interpretational sovereignty exist in the design discourse, and whose interests do they represent? How can we achieve a paradigm shift in understanding the terms of design? What can “progress” mean in the 21st century? How and where can a decolonialist, feminist design practice find expression? And how may supportive design processes and products be created? 

Download Full Report HereCloser Looks Part 1Closer Looks Part 2Closer Looks: Supporting Structures

Photo Gallery

Beyond Change Keynote
Beyond Change Keynote

Keynote Talks

Speakers: Beatriz Colomina, Kjetil Fallan, Cheryl Buckley, Ramia Mazé, Kenny Cupers, Mia Charlene White, Benjamin H. Bratton.


Are We Human?
Beatriz Colomina, Princeton University

Beatriz Colomina presents the books and curatorial concepts of the third Istanbul Design Biennial, which she directed with Mark Wigley in 2016. As their manifesto for the Biennial argued: “We live in a time when everything is designed, from our carefully crafted individual looks and online identities, to the surrounding galaxies of personal devices, new materials, interfaces, networks, systems, infrastructures, data, chemicals, organisms, and genetic codes. […] There is no longer an outside to the world of design. Design has become the world. The default concept of ‘good design’ […] is no longer adequate. It is an anaesthetic that has worn off. The urgent question is What is design after design?”

And After Us… Robert Esdaile and the Emergence of Ecological Design
Kjetil Fallan, University of Oslo

Making it his life’s mission to reform design practice and education according to ecological principles, Canadian-Norwegian architect Robert Esdaile and his concern for what comes “after us” represents an early, sustained effort to bring an ecological, or ecologically informed, critique to bear on design, its practices and ideologies. Tracing Esdaile’s work leads us along one of many trails through the extensive and dense Norwegian wood(s), exemplifying how ecological design grew from many and different roots.

On the Record: Researching Women and Design
Cheryl Buckley, University of Brighton

Over thirty years ago, women’s relationship to design prompted a process of critical questioning that is still ongoing. An important context for this was second-wave feminism: by proposing that “the personal is political,” feminist theorists highlighted the crucial role that culture played in locating women within patriarchy. Insisting that design is a vital part of everyday life that has shaped our gendered identities, this paper considers to what extent and how design historians have remained attentive to this.

Feminist Modes and Politics of Design Practice
Ramia Mazé, Aalto University, Helsinki

The development of the arts in higher education, research, and academia has surfaced vivid discussions for many decades, for example concerning the role of practice in theory-building and knowledge-making. Critical practices of design and “research through design” interrogate not only design but also the norms and forms of institutional structures that circumscribe design in academia. Feminist approaches, further, do not only question and oppose, but also project, activate, and enact alternatives. I will speak through examples of institutional critique and redirection within everyday design practice.


Conversation moderated by Elisabeth Fischer, HEAD Genève

The Earth that Modernism Built
Kenny Cupers, University of Basel

This lecture explores the roots of the modernist project – both heroic and tragic – to design the human by reshaping the environment, from the domestic sphere to the earth at large. It examines how statesmen, scientists, and designers mapped ethnicity onto territory and biology onto architecture, and in doing so, conceived of the human environment as an object of design. This entangled history of modernity demonstrates how novel ways of thinking about and intervening in the human environment were bound up with natural science and the colonial project, asking us to reconsider long-held assumptions about humanity’s relationship to the earth.

Love: A Blues Epistemology from the Undercommons
Mia Charlene White, New School, New York

How can we, designers of all kinds, educators of all kinds, truly contribute to a more just society? My answer to you and to myself, is that though we have not always realised it, you and I continue to yearn for freedom. All the time. So, what does it take to build a movement in the millions? It takes the struggle of and for freedom, in all our spaces. For me, it means theorising black and brown spatial practice as love – a love borne from the generative forcefield that is blackness, my own, and that of the undercommons universe, out of which some answers to the question “what are we to do?” (about murder, democracy, liberalism, gentrification, capitalism, war, suicide, white supremacy) remain waiting for experimentation. The undercommons are those spaces inhabited and produced by us, black people, indigenous peoples, queers and poor people, and it is where and how we say “…we want to tear down the structures that … limit our ability to find each other, to see beyond … we want to feel a new sense of wanting and being and becoming.”* These are love practices, and they have no beginning or end. I have witnessed them as both structured and improvisational – a blues epistemology of daily revolutionary actions, in the land and in the body, in the classroom and through the page, in all the spaces. * From the Introduction to Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Minor Compositions, 2013).


Conversation moderated by Emily Eliza Scott, ETH Zurich

Quote Unquote Design: Landscape-Scale AI and the Question of Agency
Benjamin H. Bratton, University of California, San Diego/Strelka Institute, Moscow

What are the design ontologies of artificial intelligence? Three propositions and a question: (1) design is never “human-centred” but a mix of deliberation, sleight, accident, and evolutionary forces; (2) “AI” is emergent mineral intelligence at landscape scale; it may perform feats analogous mammal cognition but is based on fundamentally different sorts of sensing and signalling dynamics; (3) AI is both an exteriorisation of programmatic thought and a model of distributed agency. Question: if intelligence exists within ecologies in multiple forms and at diverse scales, how might AI augment any or all of these and how might design adjudicate this, if at all?