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Design for the other 100 percent

Tom Fisher’s new book lays out the dangers of a highly efficient, connected world

By Adam Overland

Tom Fisher
Tom Fisher (photo by Erika Gratz)

June 23, 2009

If recent headlines read like a descent into global madness, you may want to pick up Tom Fisher's new book, Architectural Design and Ethics: Tools for Survival. It exposes a pattern of behavior in world problems like the banking and auto industry meltdowns, pandemics, the energy crisis, and global warming. Understanding this pattern could be helpful in a return ascent.

Fisher, dean of the University’s College of Design, opens by recalling the 2007 collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis. He says the catastrophe has become symbolic of “vulnerability and uncertainty just below the surface of our lives.”

"The whole superstructure of modern civilization," he says, "…has started to feel as shaky as that bridge just before it collapsed." Yet, after a collapse we always rebuild. And how we rebuild will decide the fate of humanity.

What happened to the SUV: the auto industry as a case study
Consider the auto industry. It resisted moves to increase fuel efficiency standards. But when the Obama administration said the industry standard will be raised from 27.5 mpg to 39 mpg--close to that of today’s hybrids--by 2016, the industry responded, "Sure thing."
"Look at how quickly things change after a collapse," says Fisher. "This is an industry in serious trouble, and all of a sudden what [was] impossible before has become probable afterward."

What happened to the doomsday proclamations about government regulation? If allowing increases in fuel standards inhibits greater profits on bigger cars, it makes economic sense for a company to fight those regulations. Likewise, it makes design sense to convince people they want and even need these vehicles. But don't confuse this with the economic rule of supply and demand.

"In the supply and demand curve of economics, design [keeps] demand out ahead of supply [by creating] new models, new styles, and new desires," writes Fisher. It's not a free market fix. "The marketplace is never free," he says. "It has power interests built into it … like the auto industry--they've skewed the free market so that it benefits them."

Design and desire
Automakers may argue that manufacturing what might be an unnecessary vehicle results from supply and demand. Thus, a question of ethics becomes one of economics, with no guilt or shame attached to the greater consumption of resources it takes to create or operate such an automobile, or to its subsequent pollution. The designers, whether of cars or other things, traditionally have sought to address the client’s desires.
"The mistake most designers make is to confuse service with being servile, with doing exactly what a client tells them to do without speaking out for what their professional expertise and experience tells them is the right thing to do," writes Fisher.

Forgotten fundamentals of capitalism
Fisher describes the period we're going through as a sort of "capitalist fundamentalism," an idea that somehow the free market is always right. In his first chapter he discusses Adam Smith, pioneer of capitalism and author of its founding text, Wealth of Nations. But Fisher says Smith’s book The Theory of Moral Sentiment is more central to understanding capitalism.

"Capitalism has to be within a framework of moral sentiment, with concepts like shame," says Fisher. In a capitalist society, he says, the community must remind practitioners that if their behavior is too destructive to the community, limits will be placed on them.

Fisher suggests that society “stop being so naïve and optimistic." When his design students present projects, the criticism they face is always one of "but what if this were to happen?"

Fracture critical

The I-35 Bridge was known to engineers as "fracture critical," meaning that redundancy was absent to the point where the failure of any part would bring the whole bridge down catastrophically. The engineers who designed the bridge knew this, but assumed that the bridge and its maintenance would not fail. But, argues Fisher, “there is always going to be failure. Since World War II we've moved to a system where we've removed redundancy."

For example, the food system pre-World War II was much more local in its production, so that droughts or disease in one area would cause only limited failure. "While we've become extremely efficient, we've become extremely vulnerable at the same time," Fisher says.

Too big to fail
The recent collapse of the banking system in the United States illustrates perfectly what fracture critical means to the shared globe. Also, as visiting professor of geography Robert Wallace recently noted in the New York Times, the “livestock revolution … has created cities of pigs and chickens" in poorer countries with weaker regulations. Design anywhere may give rise to diseases with pandemic potential.

Therefore, says Fisher, "I look at ethics as a survival tool, not as something to moralize about. We have to enter into anything that we depend on for our very survival with the idea that there is a high likelihood that something will go wrong …we need to build resiliency back into the systems." The solution, he adds, is to build more locally oriented and locally independent systems.

If good news is to come from this holistic understanding of the world, it is that, as Fisher says in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education editorial, "At a time of declining employment in architectural offices and fading prospects for architectural graduates, an enormous amount of work remains largely overlooked by the profession." Students in the U's College of Design have their work cut out for them, but only if the job is conceived and offered not by the government, private industry, or any lone discipline from engineering to economics, but by humanity’s collective recognition of its shared goals—and fate.

A thought experiment…
"Adam Smith believed that moral sentiment—the powerful effect of people seeking the approval of others—could keep the potential excesses of the rich in check and pressure them to spread their wealth widely. But in a global economy, in which the wealthy need never know or even see people [of lower] economic status, there is little leverage that moral sentiments can provide," writes Fisher. As a video called Miniature Earth illustrates, there is nothing like proximity to a problem to return us to moral sentiment.