L-R: Ezio Manzini, Rachel Lehrer and Ker Thao (Photo: Mashal Khan)

Design is something that most of us have a vague interest in, if only while furniture shopping. But what does a plebeian like me, to whom design still relates to physical products, make of the changing definition of the word? What do all the thousands of students entering design school every year really do? Surely they can’t all be trained to design pretty wall hangings? Sometimes the words “social impact” creeps into my mind and I think of things like this utilitarian tent-cum-jacket meant to shelter refugees fleeing war, but that’s as far as my imagination stretches.

To bust my old-school notions of design and attempt to satiate the lingering question of why so many people swear by it with a cultish reverence, I made my way to a panel discussion at The New School for Social Research last Thursday. Part of VergeNYC, it was titled “Immigration & Invisibility – How Might Design Be An Agent Of Positive Change?”

The conference was a buzz of activity early Thursday morning, partly because Ezio Manzini was to talk at the panel. Evidently Manzini is a raging superstar in the world of sustainable, creative community design, and is almost always described as the leading thinker in the field. He’s a Professor of Industrial Design at Milan Polytechnic and author of six books about social innovation, design and the push towards a sustainable future. He’s also the founder of the DESIS Lab Network, a worldwide network of design-oriented universities that build off of their shared principles of sustainability.

(Photo: Mashal Khan)

Ker Thao, a current student, kicked off the morning session with a touching personal story of having been born in a refugee camp in Thailand. Once relocated to the United States, he and his family had to replace that lost sense of community. Of his family’s experience he said, “Lingering trauma, a desire for closure, and a perpetual longing for the past are the underlying repercussions of our experience as refugees. Their effects continue to impact future generations and their ability to cope, adapt, and imagine viable futures.”

Manzini, who followed, spoke about the refugee crisis in Europe. Without trying to equate Europe’s experience with the current immigrant situation in the US, Manzini suggested that designers could look to DESIS’ approach and adapt it to the American context. This begins by changing the frame through which migrants are perceived and treated, instead of simply drawing attention to the politics of the situation. It starts by changing the connotation of the words refugee and migrant, which normally elicit numbers and statistics rather than real human lives.

(Photo: Mashal Khan)

Taking the argument further, Manzini spoke about the two curated visions of the refugee: first, as an element who will make insecure the stable, western society that she enters. This is the vision that motivates people to “build a wall.” The second contrary vision common among the left-leaning populace is one of being charitable by taking in refugees, or of rationalizing it through economic gain. “I think these are very weak positions,” declared Manzini, saying that a third, more dynamic vision may be more accurate: the one that recognizes that the mass migration will forever change the ethnic make-up of the world, and that this may be a huge advantage. According to him, it signals the emergence of a younger, more diverse demographic, capable of hybrid ideas and dialogue. “This is what we must work towards accepting,” he said, citing two examples before conceding the floor.

The first example is of a bicycle repair project that enabled immigrants to repair and reuse discarded bicycles. It gave them mobility, freedom and sense of inclusion. “It’s simple but if we don’t do it, it’s not going to be there,” he shrugged, proving that sometimes simple design is necessary. The second example was complex– he cited Riace, a land-locked, deteriorating Italian village of 1,800 inhabitants that accepted 400 immigrants. The townspeople, whose population was on the decline and whose shops were closing, saw the influx as an opportunity to revitalize their community. By using the funds that came with the migrants for small community projects, the locals and migrants were able to reopen shops and start entirely new ventures – such a manure collection system. It’s a prime example of how migrants can become a catalyst for positive change– “It’s a philosophical point of view, but it’s also practical.”

(Photo: Mashal Khan)

In a slight deviation from Thao and Manzini, Rachel Lehrer spoke about the challenges of designing programs in a completely foreign culture. Lehrer, a New School alum, now works at International Rescue Committee. “Have you guys heard of pilot-itus?” she asked about the pattern of social programs that shut down after the pilot phase, upon running out of funds. She then launched into an explanation about how fledgling organizations should do a better job of communicating with one another, and perhaps even combine programs in an effort to stretch the donor money for longer. “There might be two organizations working side by [side], doing similar work, but don’t know about each other,” she said. She also spoke at length about a program to reduce intimate partner violence in Liberia and the advantage of assimilating religion and local experiences into it, to improve the efficacy of the program.

When questions were thrown open to the audience, one woman shared a story about her cousin in Ohio to whom a conversation about migrants was totally irrelevant. “How do we, as designers, make it more relevant for people like him?” she asked. This is the kind of question I was waiting for, hungry to learn about the real-world application of design methodology. To my dismay, and perhaps hers, the panelists confessed that they didn’t have any good answers to the question in the present moment.

Lehrer instead lead with an anecdote that stressed the urgency of coming up with creative solutions to world problems. “This will have direct implication if we leave America,” she said, remembering a funny scenario at a friend’s recent wedding in Liberia. One of the wedding events was the exchange of dowry, with Lehrer and another American on the giving side. The wedding guests performed a scenario where they were stopped at border patrol while entering the US– now it was up to the Lehrer and her friend to pay a bribe and let them in!

Amid laughter from the audience, Lehrer cautioned that never before has she been harassed at border control the way she was after President Trump’s election. It’s unsavory but pertinent to add that Lehrer is a white American woman. “We are diminished in the eyes of the rest of the world,” she stated grimly, a realistic reminder that we need to act with urgency.