Design Emergency: how the design world is tackling the pandemic

A chat with British curator and journalist Alice Rawsthorn, who in April 2020 launched the Instagram profile investigating the role of design in building a better future.


Last March, during the first days of the lockdown, our lives took a different turn. We wondered how and how much the pandemic would affect society and we tried to imagine a post-COVID 19 future. The world of design contributed by proposing reflections on the future of living, but also concrete solutions for tomorrow. And it is solutions, ideas and opportunities that the Instagram profile Design Emergency has been working on, trying to trace and analyse possible future scenarios through the contribution of leading names from the world of architecture and design. The project was presented in April 2020 by Alice Rawsthorn, British design critic and journalist, together with Paola Antonelli, senior curator of the Department of Architecture and Design and Director of Research and Development at MoMa in New York. One year later the launch of the project, we spoke to Alice Rawsthorn.

Over the last year, our lives have changed profoundly. In this delicate context, how do you think design can actively become a vehicle for change?
Design has fulfilled many different functions throughout history, but its elemental role is as an agent of change that can help to ensure that changes of any type – social, political, cultural, ecological, scientific, or whatever – are interpreted in ways that will affect us positively, not negatively. We need design to fulfil this role at all times, but never more so than in an urgent global emergency like this pandemic. Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, design has been a rare source of optimism by addressing the challenges of improving its treatment, stopping the spread of infection and helping us to support vulnerable individuals and communities with such generosity and ingenuity. We now need design to ensure that our lives will change for the better in the post-pandemic reconstruction process.

In recent months, there has been a lot of talk about the role of cities, how they are experienced by individuals and their well-being. There has also been a lot of talk about the emptying out of metropolises, in favour of less densely populated areas with a lower risk of contagion. What is your opinion on this?
The pressures of the pandemic and the long term changes that have accelerated as result of it, such as home working and video conferencing, have prompted us to reconsider where and how we wish to live. Many people have already chosen to move out of expensive and congested cities into small towns, villages or the countryside. Others have chosen to remain in cities but may use them differently, by spending less time in the centres and more time in their neighbourhoods, creating clusters of what the French urbanist, Carlo Moreno, calls “15 minute neighborhoods” in which all your daily necessities are a 15 minute walk or cycle ride away from your home.

In the long term, in your opinion, are the new challenges architects and designers will have to face in the post-Covid era?
This is an intensely turbulent time when we face daunting challenges on many fronts. We knew our lives weren’t fit for purpose before the pandemic, but the problems we faced then -  such as the deepening climate emergency and refugee crisis; the rise in inequality, intolerance and injustice; ever more terrifying terrorist and cyber-attacks, and escalating technophobia – are now aggravated by the economic carnage and geopolitical instability caused by the Covid-19 crisis, and the human tragedy, not only of the many deaths, but of the profound damage to the mental and physical health of the survivors. Design isn’t a panacea for any of these problems, but it is a powerful tool with which we can try to resolve them.

In this delicate scenario, last April saw the launch of Design Emergency, a container that has given space to a number of voices, sparking an interesting debate on current issues in relation to the world of design. What are your impressions almost a year later?
Paola and I are thrilled by the fantastic reaction to Design Emergency. We launched the platform last spring to investigate design’s response to Covid-19 and have focused since the summer on its role in building a better future. At the outset, we felt strongly that the stellar design response to Covid was such a persuasive demonstration of its power to help us to address complex and ominous challenges that it could transform public and political perceptions of design and ensure that it will be deployed ambitiously and intelligently in the reconstruction of our lives after the pandemic. On a personal note, it has been heartening and inspiring for us to engage with such incredible designers, architects, engineers and others, all of whom are wrestling with complex challenges with courage, integrity and dedication.

The Design Emergency account is very popular: are you planning to publish a book on Design Emergency?
Yes, we’d love to.

© — All rights reserved.

— See also...