June 11, 2014
Design is not a fine art but a social art, always facing outward toward other people. The building, the playground, the toothbrush, the smart device, the shoe only become that imagined something better if people use it. It gives design its power as a “consequential endeavor.”
I believe that the facts of life in our time—worldwide--not only set us up for design as a consequential endeavor but demand urgent attention to design as a necessary tool for a new reality. There are more than seven billion people on the planet as of 2011, in a hundred years growing from only one billion. We live longer and survive more than at any time in history, an undeniable achievement of the last century. Though the intensity of the pattern varies, increased lifespans and more people living with functional limitations are true of every continent. The leading measures of development are fewer births, higher rates of health, and longer lives. Today only Japan has a population in which 30 percent of the population is over 60. By 2050, there are expected to be 64 nations with 30 percent or more of the population over 60.
It’s not just aging. Within the last 15 years there has been a sea change in how we think about functional limitation. It is no longer the fixed condition of a few but a mainstream experience of most of us for at least part of our lives, assuming we live out today’s typical lifespan. In the face of radically different demographics, the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) spent 10 years to develop a new definition of disability that recognizes that a diagnosis does not predict outcomes, that there is no hard line between health and disability.
WHO published the International Classification of Function, Disability and Health in 2001 and offered a new way to think about human ability: equalized mental and physical reasons for limitations and Defined disability as a contextual variable, that is an individual’s functional limitation becomes disabling based upon the intersection with multiple environments of modern life, including Physical, communication, information, policy, and social environments.
If context is the variable that converts a limit in function into disability, the multi-faceted environment in which we live our lives, it’s a radical invitation to designers to reinvent our role in society. And the invitation is marked “URGENT.”
The old days of accessibility as simple barrier removal could not hope to deliver a response to this global need. Instead, our challenge is to create “facilitating” and “enabling” design with the potential to support equity, inclusion, and thriving across the spectrum of ability, age, and culture. The WHO called out universal design as the most promising strategy. Universal design, also called inclusive design, or design-for-all, is a way of thinking that puts people at the center of the design process. It’s a framework for the design of places, things, information, communication, and policy that focuses on the user, on the widest range of people operating in the widest range of situations without special or separate design. In 1997, a group of five U.S. organizations developed a set of seven universal design principles at use, sometimes with tailoring for cultural priorities around the world.
We are seeing a response to the need for inclusive design among designers but it is, to date, the passion of only a fragmented tribe scattered around the globe. We depend upon the precedents, experience, and research generated by these stalwarts but need to spur a broader, deeper recruitment of design talent to the universal design cause. Demographics are one of the least ambiguous sure bets for nailing a trend. Failing to see and to act now risks that many societies’ economic and social stability will deteriorate, unable to support the care-taking and economic dependency for people who would be independent contributors if we design for it.
One of the most reliable methods for infiltrating and converting how we think is to share stories that upend the familiar. The most compelling stories grow from being embedded in the customs and values of particular communities. The National Endowment for the Arts invited me to moderate this session of the Learning from Abroad webinar series on the topic of universal design in landscape.
Landscape architecture shapes shared spaces in which we establish and derive a sense of place and a sense of self. Our public outdoor areas offer the perfect mingling of a vision for environmental and social sustainability. These are the places in which we can build the social capital of connection, understanding, and interdependence.
I will open the webinar by framing the rationale, shared global international policies, and note some of the current challenges to progress. We will hear from American and committed globalist Walter Hood from Oakland, California. He’s a professor at the University of California at Berkeley’s Landscape Architecture and Environmental Design Department, which he chaired from 1998 to 2002. His studio practice, Hood Design, has built a practice that illustrates community-inclusive spaces since 1992. Also, we will hear from Goh Siam-Imm, architect and director of Universal Design Department in the Building and Construction Authority for the Government of Singapore. She is centrally involved in all aspects of implementing Singapore’s commitment to integrating universal design into the built environment.
We will hear good stories and inspirational precedents from Mr. Hood and Ms. Imm. But let’s make the dialogue an opportunity to provoke discussion about why inclusive design has such scant traction in design education and practice in the U.S. What do we need to make an urgent case that this brand of consequential design has the potential to radically alter the future for the better for all of us?
Valerie Fletcher has been Executive Director since 1998 of the Institute for Human Centered Design (IHCD), an international educational and design non-profit organization based in Boston, Massachusetts. The organizational mission is to advance the role of design in expanding opportunity and enhancing experience for people of all ages and abilities through excellence in design. The Boston Society of Architects awarded her the Women in Design award in 2005. She co-chairs the Design Industry Group of Massachusetts and is Councilor to International Association for Universal Design in Japan.
The next Learning from Abroad design webinar with Valerie Fletcher, Walter Hood, and Goh Siam Imm will take place June 18 at 3:00 pm ET. The webinar is free but you must register to participate.