• Catherine Osborne
  • , May 2017
  • - Azure

Bruce Mau on how design can solve the world’s biggest problems

The Canadian designer and creator of the main exhibit at EDIT, Toronto’s inaugural design biennial, talks to Azure about the revolutionary power of design methodology.

On the heels of Boston, London and Istanbul, Toronto is the latest city to launch a design biennial. Called EDIT – Expo for Design, Innovation & Technology – the inaugural exhibition and festival will take over an abandoned detergent factory for 10 days this fall, filling five floors with installations, talks and exhibits that propose innovative cross-disciplinary solutions for some of the world’s toughest challenges.

Presented by Design Exchange, EDIT’s programming responds to four themes connected to the United Nations Development Programme’s Global Goals for Sustainable Development: Shelter, Nourish, Care and Educate. Floors two through five of the old factory will each focus on one of these themes, their unique programming curated by diverse thinkers and organizations that include Carlo Ratti and the Jamie Oliver Foundation.

The linchpin of EDIT will be Prosperity For All, a comprehensive first-floor exhibit created by Bruce Mau, the visionary Canadian multidisciplinary designer and founder of Massive Change Network, a consultative design practice based in Chicago. Within the exhibit, Mau will present a selection of photographs depicting conflict and struggle from around the world, taken by award-winning Italian photojournalist Paolo Pellegrin. The images are intended to provide a context for the solutions presented throughout EDIT.

Azure editor Catherine Osborne sat down with Mau following last week’s official announcement of EDIT, to talk about the role of design in our current global reality.

Catherine Osborne: I liked your intro, that we are now living with two realities: a war-oriented world, and a world that already has so many solutions to the problems we face.

Bruce Mau: One of the realizations for me that really changed my way of seeing the world was to realize that the problems we have are “success” problems. We have lots of problems and we think that since we have all these problems, we must be constantly failing, that we’re somehow kind of useless. But if you start from the concept that the problems we have are success problems, you realize wow, this is a very different way of looking at the world. To get to seven billion people, we solved disease, sanitation, hunger. The solutions aren’t evenly distributed, but they’re largely distributed.

If you look at the incidence of malaria in Africa in the last couple of decades, it’s a steady decline because of applied design solutions. It’s bed nets. And it’s more than bed nets — it’s the distribution of bed nets. It’s figuring out how to make them cheaply; how to circulate and distribute them; and how to communicate to people that this is the solution.

For me, all of these things are demonstrations of this extraordinary application of design as a leadership methodology. If you think about what leadership is, it’s an ability to envision the future and systematically execute the vision.

Osborne: What’s unusual about EDIT is that you’re pushing beyond disciplinary boundaries. You’re presenting these problems and solutions in a context that really belongs to art or culture. What is accomplished by doing that?

Mau: The problems don’t fit our classical boundaries … Almost all the success problems we have are really complex, cross-disciplinary problems. So solving them with the old disciplines won’t work and it doesn’t make sense. It’s really looking at them in this new, holistic way and seeing them for what they are, which are really diverse design problems. It’s understanding them as design problems and, for me, inspiring a generation of designers to think like this. To say “I’m going to use my power as a designer to solve these problems and really engage in the great movement of our time.”

Osborne: How is this show different than Massive Change, the 2004 exhibition and subsequent book you are so well-known for. Massive Change was also about design methodology as a powerful force for change.

Mau: There are a few profound differences. One is the context. I think seeing what Paolo is documenting as a photojournalist who works in regions of crisis will have a really profound emotional impact. When people walk in and experience his images, and then also see designs that present alternatives to the destruction of war, it’s going to be something they’ve never seen before.

Design has always been extracted from life. We take these things out of their context and we present them in a pristine world independent of reality. In this case, I wanted to say let’s not move away from that. Let’s not look away. Let’s look directly at the worst of human behavior so that we can understand the scale and scope and complexity of the challenges that we now face. And then let’s celebrate the people who are doing it.

Osborne: What impact do you think EDIT will have?

Mau: I’m pretty confident that what we’re going to do is going to be really compelling. And that it will go beyond this place. One of the principles of Massive Change design is “Break through the noise.” There’s a way to do it. It’s a design methodology. If you think about the way institutions create noise, they do lots and lots of things. They never actually push beyond the kind of standard fare. They do nice things and they live their life, but they don’t change the world.

I think this is a project that clearly breaks through the noise. If you’re here in September in Toronto, you’re going to want to see this. Even if you don’t like it. Even if you walk in and see what we are doing and you say, “I just don’t want to see all that stuff. I just want design,” you’re still going to want to know about it.

EDIT: Expo for Design, Innovation & Technology takes over the old Unilever Factory at 21 Don Roadway in Toronto, September 28 to October 8, 2017.