Futurist Nicklas Larsen explores how the future can be used as a source of hope, social innovation, and sustainable development together with pioneers in the field.
Q&A with Kaave Pour, CEO of SPACE10, about new solutions that will enable IKEA to live up to its original promise of creating a better everyday life for the many.
SPACE10 is a research and design lab on a mission to create a better everyday life for people and the planet. The award-winning company is supported by and entirely dedicated to IKEA by working to bring about new perspectives and design new solutions that will enable IKEA to live up to its original promise of creating a better everyday life for the many. We met with Kaave Pour, creative and cultural entrepreneur, who co-founded SPACE10, for a conversation about democratising design, understanding the impact of new technology through play, how the internet will continue to be a game changer, and why human-centred design should be a thing of the past.
Kaave, tell us about how SPACE10 came into being …
SPACE10 is essentially a product of how large companies need to become more proactive to secure their future survival. IKEA had a saying that the inside of the organisation was not changing as fast as the world outside, so the overall intent was to support IKEA in navigating the uncertainties of the moment and to become relevant for the many through better design and more affordable, sustainable, and inclusive homes in the future. SPACE10 then came into being as a vehicle with a new way of looking at the world, where it is headed and new ways of acting upon those findings outside the mothership’s comfort zone, both legally, financially, and even physically. Unlike other studios, we only work with IKEA to ensure both depth and long-term commitment.
How is design emerging as a practice, from your perspective?
‘Design’ has developed a lot over the history of the term. If you look at John Maeda, a strong voice previously at MIT Media Lab, he points to the advancement of design from a very confined and safe practice: we wanted to solve a problem, so we made physical products that would last, that did not evolve and stayed the same, like a chair or a house. Design thinking then became a big buzzword in the 2000s, drawing aspects of design into most areas of business up till today, where design is suddenly not just about static products or business thinking. Lately we have seen computational design and how digital design is scalable, alive, something constantly changing, evolving, and adapting to feedback. These changes have created a bit of panic in terms of adapting to this new world of design.
How can the future aid such evolutionary design?
As we are moving towards the idea that we should not design anything to last, but to evolve, the future’s role in design becomes instrumental, with an inbuilt necessity for more longevity. In that sense, the future is not a destination, but it gives directions, allowing research into potential evolutions of how people will live their lives at home in a 10-year perspective. The future is valuable in that it often changes the conversation to what we are trying to solve, or the value we want to bring, rather than focusing on the specific solution, which might change multiple times in the course of the project anyway.
If exploring futures leads to new questions, how can design then help to answer those questions?
Research informs design, but design also informs research, so where do we start? Are we starting with problems we already know, or do we start, as I often prefer, by exploring problems that we are not yet aware of? When we survey people’s homes today, the answers are often that ‘my home is too small’, ‘not safe’, ‘not cosy,’ ‘too expensive’, ‘far away from family and friends’. But when trying to understand how people would like to live in the decades to come, the questions become about dreams of future homes, and then suddenly the answers are not just about affordability but more in the direction of liveability and sustainability. This is where circularity becomes an interesting new domain to champion.
How can design aid the maturation of circularity?
I would say it is twofold. There is a lot of technique in the choices of material, the choice of use, where we are making it, and where people will be able deliver the products and components, etc. On the other hand, it is about responsibility. For the last 10 years it has been easy for companies to say that it is all about people, but that narrative is polarising. One side argues that we should never force people, they will be smart enough to decide for themselves. The other side argues that states or international bodies ought to design systems where it is easy for us to do the right thing. And I am on the latter side. Tell us why As a proxy example, people are not buying cars at the same rate anymore. They are buying access to cars, and that changes the company’s incentives. Suddenly energy efficiency becomes a result on your bottom line, not just the selling proposition. Cars need to last a lot longer, they never leave the hands of the owning company, and the circularity of things remains the company’s responsibility. In the previous world, so to speak, you bought a car and then it was up to you to make sure it did not pollute too much and was recycled. This big shift will accelerate circularity by shifting responsibility from individuals to the big organisations, where I think it belongs.
What tools are you using that you would recommend to others?
The most important tools for us are communication and open processes. Communicate often, and not in a vacuum. It’s probably a bit radical for a design company not to have one holy grail design process, but we have chosen humility: the humility of letting our partners decide on the process through their experience, as we see ourselves as an interface for innovation, in which we can bring in the right competencies on the right projects. Believe it or not, there’s a quote from Mike Tyson I like that says: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. The point is that we can have a lot of preconceived ideas of how we should approach a design project that will not work.
What does ‘democratising design’ mean, and how do we do it?
First, we need to realise that we tend to design for those who already have a lot of choice, and ask ourselves: Who are we improving life for? Most innovative investments are being put forward for the top 50% of the world who already have a middle and highincome class. I believe, in the future, that successful companies will realise the other 50 per cent as a huge opportunity, and start doing good for people who do not have a lot today. From IKEA’s perspective, democratic design is concerned with combining sustainability, form, function and quality — all at a low price. It means that when you design, you make sure that those designs are available for the many. If not, then it’s not democratic design. That would be like a democratic election in which only 20 per cent of the world population could vote, because they had access to the means that could buy them a ballot with their name.
How can we ensure more empathy and mindful designs that take account of the future?
As you know, I’m not a big fan of human-centred design. It was great once, but not anymore. The reason is that we were quite bad at designing in this world, so putting somebody in the centre obviously helped us some of the way. But putting ourselves in the centre was not the right choice, and we are now beginning to understand that. Human-centred design has been good at making us aware of who we design for, and that we cannot just design for elderly white men. We need to design for all humans, people with disabilities, people with different cultural backgrounds, people of colour, people of different genders and sexualities. There has even been a bit of inflation in this. Now we no longer talk about people but about consumers, which is the number one hate word for me. We forget who we are designing for if we hide them behind business terminology. It’s important to say this, because semantics matter!
How do we get beyond human-centred design, then?
If you look at the world right now, it’s clear that humans and the designs we have made are not going according to plan. We have had a tradition of making something that is relevant for people, and then everything else is a by-product. Now we are lonely. We are polarised. We are fucking up the planet, to put it mildly, and that’s because we only talk about putting people in the centre of design. So I welcome the posthuman design era, where humans are part of the equation — just not at the expense of everything else. This has been called ‘people-planet design’, ‘life-centred design’ and ‘System Driven Design’, in which we can only create a good life for people if we create a good life for the planet.
How is design changing with technological development?
We are at quite an interesting tipping-point right now. The internet is slowly consuming various industries and new areas. It started with communication. That was the first big thing. Think media, news, music: All silos that the internet now has unbundled, creating new needs for new designs. Next up is the internet of mobility, energy, money, and food. A lot of new behaviour, aggregators and centralised units will emerge from that.
How will that challenge future design?
In the near future we will see billions of people coming online, and they will use the internet very differently, calling for very different design solutions that we cannot even imagine in today’s Europe or the US. Think how mobile payments took off in Africa, how they leapfrogged the networks and landlines. What will happen when the internet meets the people without credit cards and banks before they get a financial system in place? The same goes for energy. There are more than 3.5 billion people with very unreliable or no access to electricity. It’s impossible to foresee the individual applications, just as it was impossible for us to imagine what would happen when the iPhone arrived in 2007. I don’t know how many platforms and infrastructures have been built around that little rectangular device. It has even changed urban planning and how we move around in our cities, how we work, and how we communicate.
How do you do research these matters in the best way?
By approaching research in two tracks: play and insight. I’m a firm believer in playful research, making sure that research is not boring, complicated, and exclusive, but something that excites people and makes them want to engage with it. Research has no value if nobody engages with it. Then it just becomes information and data that sits on a shelf somewhere gathering dust. So one way we do research is that we play a lot with technology. We play with different concepts, designs, we play with people in events and talks, and the goal is to explore and discover things through play. That’s the way kids learn, and they learn fast. So we are trying to apply that in a serious manner.
Can you extract some insights for us from a playful process?
When it comes to new and advanced technology, we often don’t really know what it is about and what we will end up doing with it. We can make PowerPoint slides and talk about AI or whatever, but it doesn’t really educate us about what could happen. So what we do instead is to say certain projects are not meant to be commercially viable; they are intended for us to understand. We have a project called ‘Everyday Experiments’ in which we try to explore what future technologies will mean for the way we live at home. What will it mean when we do not have phones but augmented reality in our home — for better or worse? What will it mean when our home relates to sensors from an opportunity point of view, but also from the privacy challenge point of view? We recently naively explored ‘health and home’. Most of the ideas are not great, but we still understand a lot from play, and afterwards we can often see some patterns where we actually think ‘Shit, there’s something here’, and then we move towards design to develop this at scale and see if it works.
What does the future hold for design as a practice?
I hope more responsibility accompanies the possibility of solving problems and making solutions. It is not going to fly if, in today’s world and with so much inequality, you are fortunate enough to be working with design, and take that opportunity for granted by benefiting only yourself and your peers. In the future there will be so many structural challenges that if you’re not part of the solution, you will be part of the problem. Designers are already escaping companies that are not purpose- or value-driven.
What is some advice you can give from present to future, Kaave?
Keep bringing optimism back into dystopian and pessimistic discussions, because if we don’t believe the future can be better and nobody tries to make it better, then we’ve already lost. And I hope you have learned to be more patient already. It’s not just about where you’re going, but also about how you feel while you are going there. Being happy, being excited about what you do and living your values along the way is as important as the goal itself.