By Mary-Ann Schreurs
Strategic Advisor at Innovate.City
If not now, then when? Challenging times for Eindhoven and Dutch Design Week
At the turn of the 21st century, the design field in Eindhoven was in a flux. Already big in consumer products made by companies as DAF but especially Philips, Philips Design, had a brilliant director, Stephano Marzano, who moved the company far beyond into the realm of future city development and design of total environments. Applying it amongst other things to the field of care, but also making the combination of light and city identity. He influenced heavily the curriculum of the 2001 newly created Industrial Design faculty of the Technological University of Eindhoven, including the business angle and focusing on making technology fit for practical use by people.
At the other side of the spectrum, the graphic school had turned into the Design Academy. Coming from an art background it had become a breeding place for the so-called Dutch Design. Conceptual in its approach and worldwide celebrated, it was object-orientated in a way you can say it was about deconstructing and reconstructing chairs. Some of the graduates of the Design Academy settled in Eindhoven to work or start their own company though there was a preference to leaving for Amsterdam. A lot of the teachers came from there and the Annual Graduation Show was there. When the Academy chose to transfer it’s annual presentation of the exam of students from Amsterdam to Eindhoven in 2001, it meant that a total different kind of ecosystem came to Eindhoven and the DDW.
So at the start of the century a substantial impulse took place in the design field of Eindhoven. Very much in tune with the worldwide rise of the creative classes as described by Richard Florida in 2002. But this development was not really top of mind within the local administration. In 2002, I started my first period as vice-mayor of Eindhoven. One day a colleague of mine who did culture asked me to replace him at the opening of the “Week van het Ontwerp”, as the Dutch Design Week was then called. Apparently we subsidized it in a very small way. It was a very local affair based on designers showing other designers what they were creating, initiated and organized by designers themselves. The director, who was a Design professional from Philips, allowed to take on that job. I was sold on the spot. It was not only the positive energy of people passionately showing what they were doing, a bit like becoming part of their flow. But the focus and ability to make things better was even more enthralling. Moreover, it illustrated that what we create is a cultural decision. We can also choose differently, what is mportant to realize when dealing with new technology, something that became very important later on. However, at that moment in time, the co-creational design methodology that enabled creating things that work for people was the most important aspect.
Since the Second World War the division of labor was ingrained in all we do for the public good. Though meaning well in organizing things in such way to cope with the demands of the welfare state, it reduced both workers and beneficiaries to objects. Objects distributing or receiving benefits top down devised for a standardized person, who does not exist. As a consequence, you are trying all the time to put round people, in square boxes. And on top of this, it is all organized in silos, which causes inconsistencies.
This made the co-creative design methodology become a gift from heaven. Especially how Philips applied it was a example to follow: they designed hospitals that way. With all the stakeholders included, they turned the hospital into a patient centered environment. An environment in which as a patient, you did not feel estranged and stressed. The positive effect is not only apparent in the feedback from the patients, but also in the drop in stress-related vital signs, declining number of days spent in hospital because of faster recuperation and less time spent in procedures as scanning. And this makes designing it also more cost-effective. It is a never ending process, where you design something that works better, but which is never the end of it. You can always make a next step forward.
We really have to get into design, I said to my colleagues in the executive committee of the city when returning. Do that, they replied. Amongst other things, conferences were held on the use of design in the public domain to create understanding. The first uses of it in the local government were made. A design program was started within the Brainport cooperation –the economic cooperation the Eindhoven region is famous for– with Li Edelkoort chairing. An old court of justice was made available for exhibitions. And the Dutch Design Awards were acquired and made a part of the DDW.
In 2006, elections lost, I was back in the council with time on my hands to write a design policy with four council members from other parties creating a political majority for it. In the policy, the distinction was made between industrial design, social design and conceptual design, though predicting the merger of the three in the foreseeable development of technological innovations in Eindhoven redirected on societal goals. The latter poses the threat of societal goals becoming under the domination of technology push and economics as illustrated by the Smart City development lead by companies after the crisis of 2008. It also makes the design of governance and regulation including all stakeholders crucial in the years to come.
The policy was unanimously accepted. It proposed to give extra money to the DDW and for implementing design in the work of the local government. One success story enabled heroine prostitutes to create a new life for themselves. It was done by a social design institute from Germany, proving a challenge for the Design Academy coming from a more esthetic and individual rethinking background. A breathtaking example of how to make the most of both worlds were the sets of cutlery made by a French graduate of the Design Academy. Beautiful and helping people who suffered a stroke to regain dexterity and independence.
At the technological university, the problem was including technology without real added value. But the making of clothes for premature born babies including sensors was spotted on. Enabling handling premature babies without being inhibited by wires and alarms going off.
I was back in the executive committee after the elections of 2010. Design and designers were then made an intrinsic part of the governmental organization. The threat of a smart city taken over by business was counteracted by launching the innovation program. The possibilities of new technology were used for co-creating roadmaps and solutions with all (also business) stakeholders. It fundamentally challenged that the use of technology has to be technology driven or worse data driven or worst black box Artificial Intelligence driven. It has to be people driven, asking the question what we, all the stakeholders, want to use the technology for and how are we going to implement it in our lives, putting the lives of people at the center. The New Institute of Rotterdam, a cultural institute on architecture, design and data, was in the program to help the citizens to ensure this, which they did.
Meanwhile the DDW continued to grow. The number of visitors stabilized around 350.000 in 2018 and 2019 with 2600 exhibitors. The financial spin off in the city of 15 million euros spent in shops, restaurants, bars and hotels and 17 million worth of free publicity, as research on 2017 showed, and 80 percent of the visitors came from outside the city, 65 percent from outside the region and 20 percent from abroad. The backbone of the venue still consists of designers showing what they are doing. Also designers from abroad. Moreover, the Technological University has a joint exhibition together with three more Technical Universities.
The city using design has inspired other authorities to use design and show it. For instance, the regional government went for combining agriculture and food with design. On another note, many companies outside our own region are induced (seduced) to use design for their own goals and then show it at the DDW.
A lot of fringe meetings are taking place. Talks and discussions, national creative programs gather. Within the Netherlands design was, after dealing with Amsterdam, allocated to Eindhoven. As a result it became easier to get national money for the DDW. However, a few years back financial problems arose. Since then, the ownership of the DDW belongs to the city, otherwise it would had been politically impossible to put the money on the table to salvage the DDW. Already this was difficult, but the money was not coming from anywhere else. The organization also changed into the DDF (Dutch Design Foundation), in which there is an advisory board of designers.
Lastly, it is worth mentioning that there are buildings and areas in the city partly or wholly allocated to designers to develop or use. These sites play a big role during the DDW as appealing locations. However, this is not always easy to develop and the role of the government may differ. But they have an effect far beyond enabling designers to work. It enhances the livability of the city. Just one illustration that a thriving design ecosystem has many effects in a city beyond design…
In Eindhoven, the local government was just lucky to have that ecosystem and the event to go with it. The most important thing to do was seeing what was ‘under our nose’ and then enabling it to flourish. But only the intrinsic value and drive of the designers grounds it in your city. In the end, the local government is only an enthusiastic user and enabler. It is important and even necessary to contribute to the ecosystem, but you are not the essence. That essence should be protected and enabled.
The real question is whether or not this is still the case in Eindhoven. A few unnerving examples will be protrayed now. In 2018, the innovation program was ended and the use of design in the organization was made unnoticeable. At the same time, the slogans of the DDW became more and more presumptuous: If not us, then who, in 2018. And in 2019, If not now, then when?
But when Corona hit, no use was made of design disciplines whatsoever by the local government in dealing with the situation. Also the DDF that normally brings everybody together for the DDW was nowhere to be seen. Communication was only centered on the event. The net result of the local government failing in asking, and the community representative in putting forward, is on the one hand, that the value of design and of designers was not put to use when needed most, and on the other hand, leaving designers without work.
In a national economic program, the region got funding for a Design Museum. The concept developed into a Lab to address wicked societal problems using design and technology. An application was made for a national subsidy for the exploitation. The independent council judged it not up to the mark in any respect. However, when Corona hit early this year this was not known. With the formal purpose of dealing with wicked problems and a wicked problem actually knocking on the door, you expect action on it. Apparently content was not the driving force.
At the same time that a lot of effort and money was put in this Design Museum, the Eindhoven Cultuur Organisation let it be known that the small design and innovation organizations of the ecosystem are keeling over.
To finish off, a last example on the value of design not being the focus of the local government is presented. The council just remade, under the guidance of the mayor, the Council Chambers. Not only the Gesamtkunstwerk of art with the interior of the Council Chamber was destroyed, but the new design replaced the old circular egalitarian design downplaying differences of power, including the citizens, by a panopticon design stating who has the power and that the role of citizens is to be an outsider.
Design is only a matter of taste a spokesman of the Green Left said. Of no interest whatsoever to citizens the liberals said. Both have the biggest number of seats and are leading the coalition together. Often, events are created by genuine passion about the intrinsic value. What looks now even more worrying is that the whole ecosystem is under threat, as well as all the societal immaterial and material gains that go with it.
I have asked myself if the reason of this being able to happen in Eindhoven is the lack of reflectivity in the city. Since design is getting more acclaim, you have to shift the focus anyway from letting it be seen to looking at the darker sides. Reflecting on who pays the bill, especially since design also touches upon the technological developments. In Den Bosch, there was an exhibition on the design of the Third Reich. Corona shows what had gone awry in our society. It therefore also shows what wrong turn design is taking in Eindhoven because of those that should facilitate the implementation of its value.
Questions for further discussion
- Is it worthwhile to arrange an European research program on the implementation of design also in connection to citizen engagement ?
- Is it possible and necessary by use of governance and a regulatory framework to regulate the use of design?
- Should not the ecosystem itself/ the designers be back in control of the DDW?
Mary-Ann Schreurs believes in design as an important engine for our economy and being just the right tool for defying big challenges of the city. As the first Dutch Vice-Mayor of design she therefore introduced design in local innovation policy. Her goal is to improve citizen’s lives by using the methodology of designthinking in co-creation with the citizens itself and other stakeholders in the city. Before she became council member and Vice-Mayor in Eindhoven, she was co-initiator of (European) innovation projects linked to design.