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An inFLUX of emerging design practices: Reflection on Flux Symposium 2022

2 May 2023

6 mins

In examining the interrelationship of design theory and practice lies an opportunity to “challenge, shake us up, provoke, shift our paradigms, change the way we think and turn us around,” noted Professor Ramia Maze, as she critically reflected on the role of design in today’s world and the future. This comment resonates quite perfectly with the principle, ethos and spirit of the Flux Symposium. Held on the 29th and 30th of September, 2022, the two-day design panel and symposium at Loughborough University, London brought together design students, researchers, academics, practitioners and thinkers. I write this blog as I reflect on my experience of participating in the symposium as a doctoral candidate at Loughborough University’s Institute for Design Innovation (IDI). The common thread that tied together the symposium was the notion of flux- exploring how the world is constantly in a state of temporality, subject to change, uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity. Through the themes of dialogue, displacement and difference; the essence of the panel was to examine the emerging practices of design to combat a world in crisis and flux.

The first day of the symposium was an incredible day to bring guests Professor Ezio Manzini and Professor Jilly Traganou to critically engage with the PhD students at the university through an interactive session of poster presentations, followed by vibrant discussions and feedback. Speaking true to the creativity fostered at IDI, research students presented their work through visual materials such as posters, models, and artefacts and also expressive forms such as performances and narratives. These dialogues created a spirited environment for sharing views, providing insights and debating with individual understandings of design. Additionally, it was rewarding to converse with and gain feedback from academic researchers whose work informs and influences our research argument. Following this, the momentum was kept high with a tour of Hackney by Simon Cole. The tour was an engaging and appropriate activity to fit in the theme of FLUX, as it provided exposure to the gentrification, wicked social problems and consequently, the creative innovation that is thriving in the area around Loughborough University London. Having studied in the vicinity for almost a year, it still succeeded to give me a diverse perspective of the area as well as the legacy, challenges and opportunities it provides for design and social innovation. After, the day was concluded with a keynote by Ezio Manzini, critically reflecting on the notion of care and community building in liveable proximity. It was an interesting perspective on how to work towards a sustainable future through an emphasis on connecting, local interaction, innovation, collaboration and surely, care.

On the second day, the panel consisted of talks by Professors Ramia Maze, Lesley-Ann Noel, Erling Björgvinsson, Noortje Marres and Jilly Traganou as they responded to the theme of FLUX with respect to their own work. The first speaker of the day, Professor Ramia Maze explored the notion of flux by examining the contribution of design to respond to framing global challenges. It was a refreshing perspective on future studies in design theory, commenting on how prototypes and visuals of the future may help probe into the decisions, actions and differences that should be implemented in the present. Evidence from her paper exploring Cape Town as a World Design Capital demanded introspection of the implications of designing urban development, governance and architecture while being aware of the ontological understanding of design in the Global South. Next, Erling Björgvinsson presented a thought-provoking talk on the aspect of participation, which has become an integral part of modern design practices. The talk was particularly pertinent for me and my research since I investigate citizen participation in the emerging field of design activism. The framing of design participation as patronage, instead of being an activity that is inherently collaborative and codeveloped was extraordinary. It challenged the modernist view of design and questioned whether design was perpetuating power imbalances, hegemony and a sense of saviour complex. I will have to admit, the talk resonated with me quite strongly as I engaged in conversation with Profession Björgvinsson and have been actively applying this framework to investigate participation in resistance with more critical eyes. A workshop facilitated by Lesley-Ann Noel was an energising activity that brought out all the design materials and made the hands-on designer in everyone quite content. The workshop divided the participants into groups to investigate the Critical Alphabet, a deck of cards that shines a line on the ABCs of critical design theory by provoking designers to think about their work more deeply. The groups were given themes like oppression, liberation, justice, and equity to create a manifesto statement for how that word is important to their design practice and vision. It was an engaging activity that helped everyone in the room to think collaboratively and also engage with important aspects of design. It encouraged dialogue and the discussion of difference, as diverse perspectives and opinions came to light through the manifesto statements. The next talk by Noortje Marres focussed on the interdisciplinary capability of design and AI. By presenting the ongoing project Shaping AI, the emphasis lay on how creativity can help in enacting agency through visual representations of concerns and controversy. The project is an amalgamation of activism, technology and design to radically problematise the growth and evolution of AI in the current world. It highlighted the role of design in communicating differences and enabling a dialogue through challenging and organising controversy. In the final presentation for the day, Jilly Traganou examined a topic that lived in close proximity to the campus of Loughborough University London- which refers to the gentrification of Stratford (specifically Here East, where the university is situated) and the Olympic legacy. Since the presentation involved performative expressions of different voices, I participated to give voice to local residents in the form of a poetic exclamation depicting the contrast between the modern, luxurious new developments in the area and the affected locals of Newham. This spoke to the theme of displacement in such a poignant manner, with a more ominous and critical impact due to the geographical location of the university. 

With plenty of food for thought and reflection, the symposium concluded with a lovely opportunity to interact with one another and continue the conversations and debates. To sum up, the symposium served as a wonderful opportunity for me to think and rethink what design is truly capable of achieving in the face of flux.

Written by doctoral researcher Devika Sharma who is investigating design activism practices through her AHRC Techne-funded project, based at the Institute for Design Innovation.

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