Although I’m still on my training wheels in this industry I’ve quickly realised that a big part of my job as a planner is to make connections between what’s changing in the world and how this impacts on the way consumers engage with brands, businesses, products and services.
This means I often find myself reading things that make me stop and think ‘No. Really? That can’t be right.’ A few days ago I came across one such nugget of information, and an unsettling one at that. The world’s population is growing by the equivalent of a city the size of London every six weeks.
1 new London every 6 weeks? That’s an extra 77 million people every year. As someone who grew up in the most isolated city in the world, Perth, this is a pretty difficult concept to fathom.
The situation is this: millions in emerging markets are migrating from their rural homes to new urban lives, more and more people are living in densely populated spaces, more singles are living alone and the traditional family unit is becoming a multi-generational clan. Put this alongside the frightening truth that we are burning up the world’s resources at the rate of 1.5 planets, 3 if you live like the average gas-guzzling, air-mile loving European, and we have ourselves in a right old pickle.
Kowloon in Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated areas of land in the world
Whilst this has created an entirely new set of urban problems, it also signals an opportunity for designers and innovative thinkers to leverage their skills and create clever, innovative and sustainable solutions that benefit themselves, brands, companies, indeed the planet as a whole.
It was with these thoughts swimming in my head that I went along to LS:N Global’s Future Cities evening, held at the Future Laboratory in Shoreditch last week.
In their typical 6 x 6 x 6 method, six thought leaders in the fields of infrastructure,transport, packaging and design gave their perspectives, in under six minutes, on what they think it means to live through the greatest migration of the 21st century to date.
The Future Laboratory, London
The speaker with the most, ah, shall we say strongly-phrased ideas was Eric Kuhne, founder of Civic Arts, a research and design practice that works on global urban regeneration projects. Kuhne bustled in and launched off with the brilliant opener “Let’s skip the introductions, shall we? I don’t want to waste the time. I’m here to talk about the fact brands are the new slave traders…” and closed a few diagrams and some equally direct turns of phrase later with “Right. Time’s up. It’s nice to not meet you.”
Eric Kuhne, centre
To be fair Kuhne’s opinions about how brands should behave towards customers amid a growing cityscape stuck with me perhaps the most of all the speakers. In particular his point that people don’t buy products, they buy ideas, and if you can empower consumers, you can change a society overnight (or in his words; “you can’t force people to hoover up your crap, you have to empower them.”) Not a new argument, but no less right because of it.
Other speakers were Charlie Crook, founder of Future Industries, who showed us his micro-recycling system that lets people re-purpose their own plastic waste into new and useful objects like this:
Next up was Jason Bruges, founder of Jason Bruges Studio, presented some of his recent work that shows how public spaces can be more beautiful and friendly to the environment.
Rick Robinson, IBM’s Architect for Smarter Cities, explained why he believed living in future megacities can be enhanced with technology and by understanding the flows of people as well as systems.
But my personal favourite was the last speaker, Clare Brass, a senior designer at the Royal College of Art and founder of the brilliant SEED Foundation. In a more personal account on the power of design, she spoke about how her realisation that “with designing, so many products end up in landfill…” led her to walk away from a successful design practice in Milan. Instead of designing products with a sustainable bent, Brass believes the solution lies in designing systems; “there is no such thing as a sustainable product, but if you can make the product part of a longer existence than turning into rubbish, then the impact is reduced.”
When prompted on her favourite piece of work she immediately mentioned ex-RCA student Markus Kayser whose solar-powered 3D printer creates glass from just sand and a sun-powered cutter. If you haven’t already seen it, I’d really encourage you to watch the video of his cutter in action in the Egyptian desert.
Markus Kayser's solar panelled 3-D printer
It’s astounding to me that this kind of design is already possible, and one of dozens of examples that make me confident the pure ingenuity that lies behind all great design will ensure the demographic trends currently putting such pressure on the planet do not become our undoing.