Design as survival skill

Design as survival skill

In my reading about innovation I have seen the idea stated, and more than once, that innovation cannot be achieved or should not be attempted during a time of crisis. I will admit that this has always puzzled me. On the one hand I can understand the reasoning behind this idea – it is hard and perhaps even risky to make the changes that are the result of innovation, and especially when morale or resourcing are low or governance and strategy making are being challenged. On the other hand I have seen instances where innovation has happened as a result of a crisis, as a reflex to adapt and invent solutions in the face of that crisis and as a manifestation of survival instinct. These instances have taken place outside of the business world; they have been the responses of small not for profit organisations or creative workers to (organisational) life threatening constraints.

I was reminded of this recently when I read a lovely interview of designer Keiji Ashizawa by Rachel Elliot-Jones for Assemble Papers (11 June 2015) – Modesty and Materiality: Keiji Ashizawa:

“Keiji Ashizawa’s hats are many. As an architect, product designer and erstwhile steel fabricator, his work spans vast luxury residences to tiny tealight holders… Among his many plaudits, Keiji is the founder of the Ishinomaki Laboratory – a community DIY workshop he initiated in the wake of the Great Tohoku Earthquake, where local people could cometogether and begin to build their post-disaster future – 0ne red cedar 2×4 at a time.”

I love the idea of Ishinomaki Laboratory and its work:

“To Keiji, design is the ultimate “survival skill”, one that has helped him solve numerous ‘problems’ in everyday life – a new studio with no desks; an impromptu dinner with no table; an international exhibition that needs to be installed in a day. Whatever needs doing, he does himself (or with his colleagues), using the materials he has lying around. In Ishinomaki, Keiji could see that those people who were DIYing their houses and shops were rebuilding faster than those waiting for government assistance, but not everyone had the skills or the confidence to do it themselves. His idea was that an all-welcome community workshop could inspire more people to get hands-on by providing simple techniques and ideas for furniture that might “make life easier or nicer”.”

It seems to me that its design approach and its business model are enmeshed in a community development model. These three things work together and inform each other; each is an intelligent and empathic immediate response to a devastated community and urban landscape. The interview and documentary, great as they are, have not furnished me with the details, but it seems to me that each of the three components contain innovative elements individually, and that these innovations arose from the affect the three components had on each other. This initially arose from a need to respond to the aftermath of a disaster and a lack of resources.

Perhaps the most striking innovation is the way the design approach, business model and community development model have grafted onto each other. I feel that this is a case study that would equally delight a community development practitioner, a designer, a social entrepreneur, and a business man.

Surely this is an example of design thinking at its best? Ishinomaki Laboratory produces aesthetically pleasing furniture that requires operationally streamlined production processes, and these things themselves have arisen out of deep insight into the needs of the customers gained from a literally hands on approach to customer engagement. Inspirational stuff indeed!

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