How Marco van Hout creates space by focussing on humanity-centeredness
Happyplaces Stories (video)
Independently and simultaneously innovation
When I think of space, what comes to mind is one of the missions that I have. At the moment that is that I try to figure out what ‘multiple discovery’ is. This is a thing I started reading about. It’s a phenomenon that states that a lot of things have been invented at the same time worldwide by different people. So if I ask you for example who invented the aeroplane? Then you might say the Wright brothers, or you might mention someone else. If I would ask you who invented the iPhone, then people usually say Steve Jobs, but of course, it wasn’t him alone. If I invite you to answer who invented penicillin, it would be Alexander Fleming. If I would ask you who invented the telephone, you would probably say Alexander Graham Bell. But it wasn’t Bell for sure. You have Elisha Gray, and you have Guglielmo Marconi who both claim to have invented the telephone.
What we can see in inventions is that there are a couple of myths. That there is that one genius that invents stuff. With multiple discovery, you can now see that different things are made independently and more or less simultaneously by multiple scientists and inventors. So you could say that the first myth is that the ‘lone genius’ doesn’t exist. The second is that nobody really invents something alone. Mark Twain said: ‘You need a thousand people to invent the steam engine, and only one takes the credit.’ That is basically what you see happening. A third thing is what you see happening now, is that people long for this kind of construction of inventions. To see how we can actually orchestrate multiple discovery? I come from the world of design thinking and creative sessions. What people hope for is that in those kinds of sessions things start pop up. We try to really orchestrate that. There is this company in San Francisco ‘Intellectual Adventures’, that tries to force invention. It puts geniuses in a room and leaves them there for a couple of hours and then they hope for aha moments, inventions and of course patents. They have hundreds of patents at the moment. So you could say that innovation is possible to orchestrate, to enforce.
Designers are bad at sharing the process. But from that process, you learn the most. At the Digital Society School, learners need to understand that documentation and sharing are just as necessary as having the skills to actually execute things.
Fighting design waste
What I’m fascinated with is that in the design field or in the creative industry we try to invent stuff all the time. We try to orchestrate that with sessions, and we form strategies around that. But at the same time, I see a lot of things that go to waste. I started to call this phenomenon ‘design waste’. Which describes the fact that in the design field people are not able to share in a proper way. Things are being shared on a prototype level and product level on platforms like Behance and portfolios. But we’re not good at sharing the process. And from that process, you learn the most. You can see that a lot of people put a lot of effort, a lot of hours and invention and innovation power in these kinds of things but it goes to waste for a big part. I don’t know percentages of how much, or if this is really something that is a problem. Because you might also say that designers are not good at it because they are vulnerable an that is a part of being a designer. Being creative means doing things over and over again by yourself. If there is a design method, we always want to have our own design method so we make our own method. It might feel as extra work, but the path is part of the discovery.
What I am looking for now is finding out if this phenomenon is really a problem. The angle that I take at the moment is looking at the Sustainable Development Goals, the global challenges that we face. The UN describes that we need to figure things out before 2030. And I am keen to find out if design waste is a problem to reaching those goals. Here, at the Digital Society School, we try to educate people. We try to have learners who seek to understand how transformation happens and how change can be orchestrated or started. These learners need to understand that documentation, sharing and this part of the culture in the design field are just as necessary as having the skills to actually execute things. So, I’m trying to create space — and this is where I come back to the subject of space — for people to learn how to become a transformation designer, how to fight design waste and how to build upon each other’s work better.
We started a collaboration with the United Nations. We have a Global Jam where everybody works on these global issues from a local perspective. And what we try is to have people share continuously, to re-use the ideas, the processes, the insights from the process from those Jams and from the different locations to see if we can really tackle local issues from a local perspective. That innovation power is something that we can benefit from.
Designers need to be more activistic. We have to force ourselves to have bigger goals in mind when we design. We need to activate the community better, work together and we need to create a culture of sharing.
Build upon each other’s work
Designers need to be more activistic. We have to force ourselves to have these bigger goals in mind when we design. And we need to activate the community better so that we do it together. A second thing that we need to do is to create a culture of sharing. How can we make designers to design more in the open? How can we create a space where it is safe for designers and other creators to be vulnerable and share everything they do? And a third thing that is needed, and that is where we as a school come into play, is to create a community around that. To have a community of learners that is willing to learn and share and build upon each other’s work. How would it work if I share my work and you use that? So when you think about multiple discovery as I discussed before, how does it then work when we orchestrate that when we force people to document in such a way that it makes sense to reuse it? And how does it work then you then create solutions based on that?
Include multiple perspectives
A project that we have running for a while now is called ‘Design across cultures’. There we have different teams of students and professionals working at various locations in the world simultaneously. They share they work continuously, so they work together from a distance. They tackle the same global issues from a local perspective. For example, we have a project around women’s safety in public space. That project was exciting. It involved matters like gender equality and women empowerment amongst other things. And the local context forced them to work together. In India, safety is a real issue, a real problem. In Amsterdam where we had the other team, safety is on a whole different level. What you saw was that they needed to inspire each other in such a way that they would find local solutions to work on a global issue.
Another example that I found even more powerful was around mobile phone usage, to make that more sustainable. We had a team in India, a team in Barcelona and a team in Amsterdam. Those teams quickly found out that why mobile phone usage is not sustainable, the local realities actually influenced the global challenge that we faced. In The Netherlands, they found out that people have many phones at home. I’m also guilty of that. I have a couple of phones that are really old which I don’t use anymore. But you don’t feel secure to throw them away, because you think they are a private part of you. So, then you just put them in a drawer. In America, they found out that there is a billion dollars worth of resources only in iPhones stored in drawers. This is a significant behavioural issue, people keeping their phones in drawers. When we eventually do open the drawers and find out that all those phones are completely useless, we throw them away. Then they end up in a landfill in India. Where children and poor people in harsh conditions take these phones apart. And then we had the perspective of Barcelona, where they looked into what the responsibility of a city is. Each team focussed on a local reality. In Amsterdam, they came with a solution targeted on preventing people to store old phones in their drawers. In Barcelona, they came up with a circular solution on how the city could help what to do when these phones come out of the drawers. And in India, they came up with a solution for when we do throw them away because they are too old and outdated, how to take apart the phones in a sustainable way. We had this circular solution on a global level coming from designing across cultures where people built upon each other’s work. By sharing all of the insights, all of the parts of the process. That is, I think, where we need to go towards when we want to design for global issues from local perspectives. To open up platforms and that culture of sharing. And we have to facilitate it in such a way that we create a community with a sense of openness in the design field as a whole.
What I have seen in the past 15 years are specific patterns in my work. You just mentioned that I have about ten different roles on my LinkedIn profile. But that is, of course, the outside part of me. But when I look inside, I see this red thread, this direction that I take. Which came from an interest in human beings. As a designer, I always found it interesting to use design as a way to uncover and provide interactions between people. What is it that moves people when they use products? What do they feel when they use products? How does it influence the relationship with each other? Or with the product itself? At the same time, I also see this shift now in a world where we get a little bit tired of the focus on the individual. I’m very interested how community plays a role, how society evolves and how we as designers could design for bigger groups, for interaction, social cohesion and social innovation. Then the impact is different, and it can transform society and the things that we do in the world. There is a direction that I already took in the past ten years but now gets its momentum because of things like the Sustainable Development Goals, which is just a different term for something that was already there. It helps me to tell my story and to find purpose in what I am doing, to connect the dots between the things that I do. I think I have to explain that story better on LinkedIn I guess. But I think you can summarise it as going from human-centeredness to humanity-centeredness. That is what currently drives me.
What I want to leave behind for my kids? Of course that they think that I’m a cool dad. I think it is not essential to save the world. That would be handy because they could survive. But at the same time, I believe it is vital to create a shift in culture, in mindset, that we have lost throughout the past decades when technology took over. I think the focus on technology should shift more from the ‘raw’ technology focus on the integration of technology, where we realise that it is just another tool. That needs to be working for us, not the other way around. I want to make them aware of the fact that they are humans, that they are part of humanity and of society. That we have local challenges that relate to global challenges. And that technology is just a means to an end. That they should feel comfortable working with technology, not to be afraid of it now that everybody is scared of artificial intelligence. If we do it right, it is just there, just another tool. I hope they create this openness and that their creativity, knowledge and skills make that they can be part of the development, integration, the process of technology.