Depending on how you look at it you can see What Design Can Do as a political conference sold as a design conference. But also as a science, technology, philosophical and creativity conference. Richard van der Laken, founder of the event and partner at De Designpolitie, considers the designer “a researcher, entrepreneur and initiator.” According to him the crisis offers designers an opportunity to expand their role into game changers. Jet Bussemaker (Minister of Education, Culture and Science) agrees. She opened the conference with an appeal for “competent rebels who bring new perspectives.” Adaption is key, she says. Something she said she learned as a squatter when she was young.

On the other hand, Lucas Verweij read out a column in which he positioned designers in the “hope industry.” They tend to overpromise because – theoretically – creativity could solve everything. Like the electronic vacuum cleaner of Daan Roosegaarde solving the smog problem in Beijing, while a big part of it is politics. Verweij warned us for the overpromise of design before it turns into what he calls “The Design Bubble.”

Designing beyond borders
There are enough problems that are bigger than only design can solve. Maybe that is why Barbara Wolfensberger, who kicked off the second day, stressed that every sector is its own enemy. She is part of the Dutch Creative Council and CEO of ad agency FHV/BBDO. She wants creative minds to break through the over-compartmentalization of sectors. We need broad thinkers to change the game, she said.

Architect Teddy Cruz sees an even bigger division on a global scale. He calls it The Political Equator: An imaginary line forming a corridor of global conflict. On this borderline there is a high contrast of inequality between both sides in political power and income. He urges us to reinvent citizenship beyond these borders. And to even see conflict as a creative tool, so that we can redesign the conditions and the political processes that created them.

Teddy Cruz' Political equatorTeddy Cruz’ political equator.

As an example Cruz shared a story of skateboarders wanting to build a skate park on a piece of no man’s land, bordering land owned by several governmental organisations. The police stopped them, so then the skaters had to cut through a lot of bureaucracy to get their park. In the end they formed an NGO that introduced new definitions to the legislation, which made them able to claim the land.

Another speaker who also knows how to overcome slice through a lot of bureaucracy is Nelly Hayoun. She created an International Space Orchestra (ISO), with scientist from NASA’s Ames Research Center and the SETI Institute, while obviously there was no imminent need for such an orchestra. The odds were against her, but thanks to Hayoun’s energy, perseverance and contagious spirit, she got the job done. The last slide of experience designer Nelly Hayoun’s said: “What design can do = Get involved in politics.” I think politics is not the favourite past time of most designers, but if you want to change the game, you should be part of the system that formulates the rules and policies. Being part of the political debate as designers is thus inevitable.

Designing debate
Paola Antonelli is a MoMa curator. In a way, she just like Teddy Cruz uses conflicts as a starting point. She designed a platform around violence in design, with the sole intention to spark debate. She takes a violent object, like the 3D printed gun – aka ‘The Liberator’ – created by crypto-anarchist Cody Wilson and then throws in a thesis: “We cannot limit open source design, even when we do not support the consequences.” – in this case the free accessibility of guns.

Rob Wijnberg and Harald Dunnink also designed a platform for debate; De Correspondent – a paid online-only newspaper, without advertisements. Different from Antonelli though, they don’t publish news around the exception – a 3D printed gun – but about the rule. In their opinion journalism beyond the newsy exceptions shows the deeper structures and developments behind it. Giving a clearer view on how the world works.

Dutch TV program Tegenlicht tries to interpret the consequence of a constant changing world. Filmmaker Rogier Klomp and designer/illustrator Shuchen Tan showed how they used research by design as a tool for investigative journalism for Tegenlicht. Shell is literally a closed shell via the official channels, so Klomp and Tan used wikileak cables and a fictional LinkedIn profile of a young project manager working at Shell – who, within no time was connected with everyone within the company – to map the links between Shell and the government. And made visible how people swap functions between both.

Designing science
Someone who brings the future to the present is artist Daisy Ginsberg, with her talk “When fiction comes to life.” One of her projects resulted in cheese made from foot fungus. Not the most appetising idea. Nor is her suitcase filled with colourful excrements, dubbed the E.chromi project. But it holds a brilliant fictional idea that could become reality; disease monitoring as a consumer product. With synthetic biology the colour of our feces could tell us how the gut is doing. An important question Daisy Ginsberg asked is: “What future do we want to design?

E.ChromiColoured turds that indicate the state of your gut.

Italian architect Carlo Ratti also plays with the senses, but in the urban environment. With his Sensible Cities project Ratti tracks trash to make consumers aware of its enduring existence. Another environmental project of his, is The Copenhagen Wheel, turning ordinary bicycles into hybrid e-bikes that communicates with your smartphone. An elegant product from an environmental stand point, because it can be installed on any bike.

Another senses-magician is Bernard Lahousse of Foodparing, who together with his team explores new combinations of taste. Since the largest part of taste is smell, he can simply see on a molecular level whether food smells similar and thus matches well. That’s how Foodparing finds combinations like oysters and kiwi or catshark and pear. They share these combinations with cooks and companies to so that they can create new dishes. Unfortunately I missed Lahousse’s breakout session with seven dishes and wine.

Aesthetic treats
Besides the taste candy and mind candy What Design Can Do also brought eye candy, as you can expect from a design conference. And there was plenty.

Audience favourite Paul Smith doesn’t need much to get inspired; he sees a colourful (striped) pattern in anything he lays his eyes on. He told us that inspiration is everywhere. And if you can’t find it, you’re not looking properly. What really amazed me is that every interior design of a Paul Smith store around the world (80 in Japan alone!) is completely different.

Knitwear designer Laduma Ngxokolo (luckily the presenter got his name right) wondered why young Xhosa man wear Paul Smith when they finish their initiation in manhood – and have to dress themselves smartly. It felt to him like denying your own past. That’s why Ngxokolo took inspiration from the patterns of the traditional Xhasa clothing for his knitwear, he is selling under the name MaXhosa, with great visual result.

Serie-entrepeneur Shaolan Hsueh, who is born in Taiwan, but living in the US now, also uses her creativity to make the complicated understandable. She started her gem project Chineasy during her sabbatical, turning Chinese characters into illustrations – with a fitting meaning – to make them easier to remember. She started this project because it frustrated her that her own kids couldn’t learn Chinese.

Shao Lan ChineasyLearn Chinese through illustrations with Chineasy.

Take out
What Design Can Do is a conference that shows the can-do-attitude of design. In that sense it confirms designers in their role. But mainly it shows that design is a mode of thinking that can be applied to many fields. It is a way of constructing new questions and coming up with new answers. A trade that that will be useful as long as we exist.