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Reflecting on ‘The future is a work in progress’ at the Festival of Futures

Report by Nigel Thompson, 15 March 2024

Date Published: 16 May 2024

“We’ll always be ahead of AI” – so says Professor Rachel Cooper OBE, the founder of ImaginationLancaster.

“Design research is always pushing the boundaries of where and how it operates: it is in constant flux. This is why it’s both an opportunity and a challenge going forward,” she told delegates attending the symposium, ‘The Future is a w work in progress.’

With three key themes – Designing for health and wellbeing, Designing for net zero futures and Designing across disciplines – discussions were varied.

As President of the Design Research Society, Rachel is ideally placed to consider how the profession has changed.

“When I did my PhD in 1982 I really couldn’t understand why others didn’t recognise the value of design research. So I went on a mission with colleagues, some of whom are in the room here today, to actually prove that design research was valuable in universities,” Rachel said.

Fast-forward to 2024 and with a showcase highlighting collaboration among four universities the importance of design research has could not be clearer.

Professor Sir Christopher Frayling from Lancaster University welcomed colleagues highlighted as some of the most senior figures in the design research community. He was joined by Professor Andy Schofield, Lancaster University’s Vice Chancellor, in promoting what he said had been “the culmination of many years of stimulating and original work.”

“This is where the challenge of finding solutions to those thorny issues of the modern world are coming together, and to do so and see it illustrated in this particular gathering, couldn’t be more exciting for me. It demonstrates what design research can do in addressing those difficult challenges, sometimes in a local context, sometimes in a global context,” Professor Schofield added.

The projects underway at Northumbria, Newcastle, the University of the West of England, Sheffield Hallam and Lancaster universities have been made possible thanks to financial support from the UKRI Research England Expanding Excellence in England (E3) fund.

Over 100 extra staff and a 170% increase in research results, including publications and performances, have been achieved according to Dr Geoff Hill, UKRI’s Senior Policy Advisor.

“It’s a very diverse spread of units we funded so there’s all kinds of outputs. There’s a 122% increase in research income across the units, so that’s just over £20m per annum more, which has been increasing year-on-year during the four or five years we’ve been going. And there’s also been an increase in other income from teaching, consultancy work and IP spin outs,” Dr Hill explained.

Designing for health and wellbeing

Among those who have benefitted from the research investment has been the Lab4Living at Sheffield Hallam University.

An ageing population and a longer life expectancy formed the basis of Lab4Living’s E3 work. “In 2016, it was estimated that one in three children born today would live to be 100. A lot has happened since 2016, not least a global pandemic, and I think we’re still trying to understand what that really means in terms of longevity and ageing,” explained Claire Craig, Professor of Design and Creative Practise in Health and Co-Director of Lab4Living, Sheffield Hallam University.

Previously life was mapped out in three stages – education, work and retirement. Yorkshire researchers considered a ‘multistage life.’ Here periods of paid employment were mixed with times of creating intangible assets such as retraining or education, all aimed at helping people to flourish well into later life.

Work by Dr Shaila Afroj, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Print Research, at the University of the West could also help people enjoy a healthy later life.

She has developed wearable e-textiles specifically aimed at a healthy ageing population. Sensors integrated within clothing can collect health data. This ability to monitor vital signs – temperature, oxygen saturation and heart rate – could make the difference between life and death.

As modern technology now makes use of printed sensors instead of rigid electronics, this wearable e-textile can be used for fashion and fitness, as well as medical applications.

With a significant number of people living with heart disease, researchers say e-textiles could lead to earlier diagnosis of heart problems. Continuous monitoring to identify atrial fibrillation could be achieved by wearing clothing that can collect health data remotely.

While the effects of living longer are mainly a matter of managing our health, ensuring we reduce our impact on the environment was also discussed.

Professor Emmanuel Tsekleves, Professor in Global Health Design Innovation at Lancaster University shared the role of design in a truly interdisciplinary project The Future of Human Reproduction. Funded by Wellcome, the programme explores the cultural, ethical, legal and social challenges that will emerge as technological advances fundamentally change the possibilities for human reproduction. “Working with colleagues from very different disciplines, we’re looking at some of these futures, critiquing and using speculative design as a way not only to explore those futures and the unintended consequences, but the ethical questions they raise”. The process help people to understand and explore potential futures, create empathy, and identify new directions for policy and research.

L-R: Professor Gail Mountain, University of Sheffield and Dr Shaila Afroj, The Centre for Print Research, UWE Bristol. 

Designing for net zero futures

The Future Observatory is a partnership between the Design Museum and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The organisation’s programme director Justin McGuirk predicted that a new way of designing through collaboration is imminent. “In effect, what we have with the climate crisis, is a crisis of storytelling. We found it with sustainability, we find it with net zero. We need new narratives. I’d say that we’re entering the days of “designing with”. Designing with communities, designing with landscapes, designing with ecosystems, designing with other species,” Mr McGuirk said.

“The phase that we hope to enter now if we do conjure a new story, is that we’re not distinct from nature, we’re connected to nature, and that we operate in a more than human world and that design is entering a more than human phase,” he added.

An innovative method of raising awareness of climate change was highlighted by work carried out by Dr Kaisu Koski, Associate Professor for Art and Design at Sheffield Hallam University.

She shared details of how she spent a month in the Arctic, staying in the traditional land of the Sámi people at Kilpisjärvi Biological Station. Here she put to the test a theory by the Siberian biologist Zimov that the introduction of reindeer and horses to tundra areas could help compact the snow layer. This compaction would slow the thawing of permafrost thereby keeping the ground temperature cooler.

Dr Koski also sought to demonstrate that hierarchies between species could be disrupted by living close to reindeer and observing their reaction to her “picnic” in the permafrost.

She hoped both strands of research would help demonstrate how some challenges of global warming could be tackled through improved relationships.

How we choose to design our homes could also be part of the solution.

Dr Tavs Jorgenson, Associate Professor and AHRC Leadership Fellow, Centre for Print Research, University of the West of England explained how new ways of building could have a reduced impact on the environment.

Cob, a material mixed with subsoil, clay and sand along with straw, is classed as a very low carbon and low impact material. The product has been used for centuries and interest in using cob is growing. An experimental cob building has been built at the University of Plymouth and now a method known as extrusion, which adds strength, is being tested.

Construction of buildings using bio-materials is the focus of work underway at Northumbria and Newcastle Universities. Led by Professor Ben Bridgens, Professor of Regenerative Architecture, the team aim to use mycelium, the root network of mushrooms, to form a building.

“The roots of the mushrooms grow through the substrate, the material below, which can be pretty much any bio- based material like sawdust, for example, and bonds it together into a rigid material with fantastic properties: it’s fire resistant, it provides insulation and it’s quite strong,” Professor Bridgens says.

Using waste – sawdust from sawmills, pulp from the paper-making industry, and wool from Lake District sheep, all materials which are genuine waste of little value – could form part of a new look construction industry and a complete rethink of the spaces that we design and live in.

E-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world today, a sobering statistic highlighted by Dr Mike Stead, Lecturer in Sustainable Design Futures at Lancaster University.

The Making Rooms, a community maker space in  Blackburn, where workshops and engagement activities have been held aimed at reducing waste is one project that may signpost changes.

“We get excited by the short-term applications of bright and shiny tech, but fail to often consider the longer-term implications of those technologies as we embed them into society,” Dr Stead said.

“Our adoption of digital data driven systems like artificial intelligence, is also having a huge tangible environmental impact. Through engagement workshops, activities, my other projects have been exploring how design can make the material impacts of these immaterial systems more visible and explicit to a variety of audiences,” he added.

Dr Stead’s work is aimed at creating guidelines to encourage industry, academia and consumers to think more long term about the effect new technology can have.

Designing for net zero futures panellists L-R: Prof. Ben Bridgens, Newcastle University, Dr Tavs Jorgensen, UWE, Bristol, Dr Micheal Stead, Lancaster University, Dr Kaisu Koski, Sheffield Hallam University and Responder Justin McGuirk, Future Observatory. 

Designing across disciplines

One of the key messages of the Festival of Futures is that cross discipline working, the merging of skills from a variety of specialists, can lead to exciting developments.

For Professor Carinna Parraman, Director of the Centre for Print Research at the University of the West of England, highlighting ‘a coalition of the willing’ has emerged thanks to investment by UKRI. The challenge now is ensuring longevity and sustainability for those working on projects highlighted at ImaginationLancaster.

“These projects don’t take a couple of years to complete – they take 10 years in order to build collaboration,” Professor Parraman said.

Putting a successful bid together and persuading partners to adopt knowledge is a real challenge according to Professor Paul Chamberlain, Professor of Design, Co-Director of the Lab4Living at Sheffield Hallam University.

“It’s no good investing in a project and then finding out downstream, ‘Ah, it doesn’t fit with regulation,’ or, ‘We haven’t thought about this,’ Prof Chamberlain explained. “The community should be involved in the writing of the bid with us. I think partly it’s down to resource to get all the stakeholders involved, and then we’re more likely to fast-track and accelerate knowledge into adoption and impact.”

Dr Jane Scott, Academic Track Fellow at the Hub for Biotechnology in the Built Environment based at Newcastle University, agreed saying: “What has been so amazing about the E3 funding is that we have brought our interdisciplinary team together. We have an incredible team of scientists that we work with to do small projects which we’ve then been able to grow.”

How the UK could look in the future may be influenced thanks to work by Dr Paul Cureton, Senior Lecturer in Design, Lancaster University.

With no national map or model for land-use decisions in the UK, data is fragmented.

With support from UKRI a team led by Dr Cureton created the largest 3D open dataset in the UK. While it was relatively small it showed, he said, how interacting and engagement with the public can start to highlight the country’s built environment and natural systems.

From health benefiting clothes to buildings that grow around us or planning to live to be 100  ‘The Future Is A Work In Progress’ gave an insight into just some of the projects underway.

ImaginationLancaster’s Founder Rachel Cooper OBE said the symposium was a ‘celebration’ of the design centres.

The hope now is that the event marks the beginning of new conversations and collaborations.

Dr Jane Scott,  Newcastle University.

Takeaway points from the host Professor Sir Christopher Frayling:

Panel number one, Health and Wellbeing.

  • If we are going to live for 100 years, we should be periodically stepping off the escalator for education and re-training.
  • Design research is taking over the traditional role of science fiction, offering examples of alternative futures and ‘what ifs.’
  • If the future holds more deadly viruses, environmental and financial problems, in our uncertain world are we too fixated on the effects on first world countries, without really considering the effects on developing countries?
  • What are the ethical implications for change and how can design explore speculative ethics?

The second panel, Designing for Net Zero Futures.

  • Design with rather than design to. Consider the importance of getting beyond net zero thinking and spreadsheets to reflect instead on the relationships between humans and nature.
  • Can we create a strong story and narrative that’s easily understood?
  • Could cob, an ancient material, combine with the latest digital technology become a sustainable building design solution?
  • Bring the arts and sciences together by thinking critically about technologies and consumerism ie repairing rather than discarding.
  • Increase the public profile of design research in the future and amongst policy makers within the public sector.
  • Share your ideas! Get out there and get involved.

Designing Across Disciplines

  • Work towards creating genuine collaborations rather than just “shotgun weddings” between disciplines.
  • Leave your ego at the door for collaborations to work towards a common cause, otherwise there is a risk of silo mentality.
  • Use gaming and the way the industry thinks in order to put over complex ideas about urban development. This could help promote speculative design.
  • Involve the stakeholders from day one rather than bolting them on halfway through the project. Accept that trans-disciplinary research takes a very long time.
  • Visualise the future: use alternative ways to communicate concepts rather than just another written paper.
  • People don’t know enough about the work we’re doing. Influence policy makers and get really involved in the public sector: raise the profile and make

Thank you to Nigel Thompson for his insightful event summary. If you would like to listen to the Festival of Futures podcast (also produced by Nigel) on ‘The transformative power of design’ featuring researchers from all four design research centres you can find this on Lancaster University’s ‘This is Lancaster’ channel on Spotify here: https://open.spotify.com/episode/2ZZGaTMeRdyZN34byQprlI

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