“There’s nothing more difficult than to change things.”

A few days ago, I lurked at the back of the audience in MoA’s Designing for a Sustainable Future seminar.  Designer Dan Hill, architect Toshiko Mori, and artist/curator Marika Wachtmeister all spoke warmly and vigorously regarding their own practices, with Laura A. Delaney Ruskeepää moderating.

It turned out that the three speakers counterbalanced surprisingly well, to the extent that I was starting to think that if the world were run by a handful of people such as these, things could even turn out to be all right. The first blow to laziness was the all-but-summary dismissal of the word “sustainability”.  It’s too much of a buzzkill, too broad, and when you use this word, nothing gets done. Strength and resilience are preferred – or whatever is most appropriate for your specific situation. Hill mused whether anyone would want to describe a marriage as “sustainable”, while Mori advised creators to “be specific, as specific as possible. And use science!”  Another nerdy t-shirt is born.

Socially-minded designer Dan Hill started with a talk that focussed on revealing and staying aware of the decision-making processes that surround, transmit, or even engulf and destroy creative work and social change. I’m almost tempted to think that “decision-making” is flipped thought for “political” – which makes me rather pleased, since the word political is a bit too waterlogged these days and encompasses too much for us to get a clear picture of what we’re talking about, much like sustainability. Can I change politics? Sounds tough. Can I change the decision-making process? That sounds like if I had a reasonable plan, I could really make things happen.

I could go on at length about a lot of ideas from dark matter to interactivity that Hill seems to keep up his sleeve, but in the name of brevity I’ll just mention his take on Helsinki’s Ravintolapäivä – Restaurant Day – in which any person can set up a restaurant, anywhere. He points out something that we often overlook in the excitement of a fun, take-part event: the impetus for setting up guerilla food stands (which are technically still illegal) was the red tape that prevents people from starting a restaurant business in the city. If I understand the jist, the red tape is the kind that is massive, difficult to budge, and probably shoots lasers.

On Ravintolapäivä, a guerilla restauranteur lowers bacon and egg muffin breakfasts from her apartment window. Photo by Dan Hill 2012.

Dan’s own blog post (go for the pictures, stay for the text) travels through his thoughts on the latest restaurant day in town.

But does it change anything? Hill also makes the point that Ravintolapäivä effectively circumvents the bureaucracy and the law for one day a few times a year, but the day after the event it remains as difficult as ever to set up a restaurant. Has it changed our decision-making?

Is this a menu for the 21st century?

Another question that comes up is who are we designing with, and for? This kind of menu is absolutely delightful because it makes no apologies. Maybe we love it because it seems to come with no strings attached, no corporate image – because it’s from one of us. But then again, if we want to change the way decisions are made in our society, how can we hope to engage with the institutions of influence if we decide that we’re us, and they’re them? What happens if the mayor of Helsinki holds a cook-up in his backyard for restaurant day – how are we to engage then?

These are questions I’m terribly interested in myself. Ever since having my first blog in 2000 and discovering that one’s public, workplace image and its internet counterpart can come into conflict, it’s been interesting. We’re fast approaching the days when someone who runs for public office really ought to have some stupid hijinks recorded and posted forever on Facebook, or they won’t seem authentic or trustworthy.

If that kind of thought floats your boat, do check out Mr. Hill. He’s prolific and interesting – two traits that are rarely found in combination.