Are meetups meeting the challenges of the future?

I attend my fair share of UX design meetups and events in Sydney. Each meetup is thoroughly enjoyable — there’ll always be a few interesting, inspiring, maybe even provocative talks and discussions. Oh, and did I mention the free food and drinks? Yes, I’m the first to admit I also thoroughly enjoy the perks that come along with many of these gatherings.

Design thinking and the future

To the uninitiated, UX design meetups may appear cultish at times; upon leaving an event, you could easily be forgiven for thinking that UX design is the answer to every problem in every industry and every aspect of life. In fact, you might even be convinced that the future will most certainly be shaped by these mastermind designers.

Designers often see their role as ‘builders of the future’, and there’s certainly a lot of truth in this. Great design thinking and a better future for all should be one and the same. Design thinking is an important way of thinking about current and future challenges in an increasingly uncertain world. It’s about changing the way we interact with our environment and think about the future. That’s big.

But what does the future really look like?

At a recent meetup held by InVision, a woman in the audience raised a really important question. We’d all just watched a screening of a documentary about design disrupters largely focused on improving our interactions with digital applications and experiences. But, she said, what about the real world? How can great digital UX design be applied to solve real world challenges? Let’s say for example, climate change?

This got me thinking. So, if only for the next minute or two, I ask you all to extract yourselves, ever so gently, from the ‘digital’ design bubble, and look at the bigger picture. Below.

You may be wondering why I’ve posted a photo of the remains of the free food we all enjoyed at the film screening after party. What’s this got to do with design thinking and the future? Is this a random diversion to make you hungry/jealous?

If only it were that simple. The way I see it, there’s an undeniable link between this image and contemporary design thinking.

Connecting the dots: our environment is our future

I’m guessing hundreds of these plastic disposable spoons were used to serve bite-sized food at the after party. Literally bite-sized. That means for every bite of food, a plastic spoon went straight into the rubbish bin.

And at every meetup I attend, I’m also given a name tag. In a massive piece of plastic. No one encourages me to return the name tag at the end of the event to be reused. Most attendees walk out with them. Unless they’ve got a thing for collecting plastic lanyards, or enjoy a bit of hoarding, I’m guessing they throw them in the bin, if not straight away, then eventually.

Where does all this disposable plastic go? Most of the time it ends up in landfill, where it takes up to 1000 years to decompose. Sometimes it’s burned, unleashing all sorts of toxins into the atmosphere. That’s not even taking into account the natural resources and energy that go into manufacturing all of this disposable plastic in the first place.

It seems ironic that we can talk so convincingly about disrupting the future through design thinking, while being so unwittingly dismissive at these events of the huge environmental challenges we’re facing. Designers are leading the way when it comes to building products and services that help solve big problems, but sometimes they just can’t see past their own screens.

So where do you we go from here?

Meetups are great for so many reasons. But perhaps we need to take a closer look at how we’re hosting events and bringing people together. Do we really need the big name tags? Can we choose venues based on their approach to waste reduction? Hell, can we even help solve these challenges through design?

The design community should be at the forefront of making this shift. When we get together and talk about disruption by design, let’s think beyond removing friction from everyday experiences and making services more accessible. Let’s think about how our everyday practices are impacting upon our environment — i.e. our future, and apply all of those wonderful design skills to really making this world a better place.

by Sally Langford

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