Futurekind: Design by and for the People by Robert Phillips

Review by Liz Dexter, 17 September 2019

Robert Phillips is a senior tutor on the Design Products course at the Royal College of Art, as well as being an award-winning product designer in his own right.  He researches open design and citizen science and all this means he’s the ideal person to introduce the world to this stable of designs and ideas which are rooted in community and users rather than design agencies and clients.

The Foreword by Yves Béhar, founder of Fuseproject, mentions growing up in the punk era and how the DIY ethos of the music and social movements inspired him, teaching him that “you could be an amateur at whatever you wanted to do, and use your own skills to make anything”. He states, “I believe humanity needs more making, more design and more inventions” and I agree, especially projects like many of these.

After the introduction, of which more later, the book’s projects are split under the headings Civic Empowerment, Health, Environment + Sustainability, Accessible Design, Education, Economic Empowerment, Access to Knowledge and Community Engagement, although by necessity many of them span various topic areas. Each short section details a project, why it was started and for/by whom and then a short interview or notes by the project manager or designer, including lessons learned, so it’s of real practical use to other people who are considering starting similar schemes. Some are replicable as they are and most of them are designed to be open-source and scalable.

In the Introduction Phillips sets out his stall as to what constitutes a Futurekind project:

For the projects included in this book, the pertinent issues are societal impact, community-led insights and contextually appropriate design.

He goes on to talk about how projects need to be considerate of their effects, whether they are social, global, local, human or material, and that the lessons we can draw from them should be able to be applied across the globe. This is true of most of them, although a couple seem a bit woolly and couched in ‘sustainability speak’ and need a bit more work. That’s OK, though – many projects are very much seen as works in progress.

Phillips is insistent that “With access to a swathe of new technologies, our generation has a historic opportunity to make a difference”. In quite a few projects, it looks like 3D printing is a real game changer, whether that’s people in impoverished areas making and selling water filters that can be inserted into plastic bottles to people recycling materials to make the plastic to make those printed items. It’s fascinating to read how this technology has really changed things in terms of offering what is called ‘distributed manufacturing’ which involves shipping out plans and blueprints, not created objects, saving the costs and carbon footprint of transportation.  Similarly, our connected world means that Virtual Doctors can share patient data and records, not producing video conferencing, which is complex to set up, but giving high value added in accessing a wealth of experts for a person in a remote area. And developments in connectivity and sensors mean citizens can provide data on their living spaces very cheaply and easily nowadays: there was quite a lot of information on this area.

I had heard of some of these projects before, which was strangely pleasing – I suppose in that way it leads us from the known to broaden our minds to new and wider opportunities. Fix My Street comes in early, the revolutionary way to report issues with street problems like potholes, broken streetlights etc. through an app or online. The lesson learned from that is “making people feel that they bear equal responsibility for their community and that they have the power to get things changed” and this is just one example of how the lessons are often not from the technology itself, but from the people around it.  The People’s Fridge is a great project which tackles food poverty and which I know from a friend trying to set one up local to her – and again, there, engaging people to take ownership is more important than policing users, it turns out. Library of Things is even something people are trying to develop in my own neighbourhood, so it was fascinating to read how this project started and is being rolled out (community-based lending of low-repeated-use items, but supported by businesses rather than just people contributing lawnmowers).

Other projects were less familiar, but I loved the community based ones and the ones making a recognised difference in their areas. From the Older Women’s Co-Housing Group who designed their living space with an architect, on their terms, to the ColaLife project which first used space in Coca-Cola shipments to ship out anti-diarrhoea kits and now distributes them through local sellers, to the aforementioned Fair Cap which offers water filters for plastic bottles that protect against pathogens, so many projects are making a real difference to communities and provide a positive read to counteract the negativity in the world at the moment. But it’s not all pie in the sky, and lessons are learned and stated and plans rejigged to give a better outcome. For example, a small machine that pumps out food smells to help people living with dementia increase their appetite offers automated care, but it’s important to include humans in care packages still.

The Gravity Light sort of sums up these projects for me – an LED light which, with its lower wattage consumption can be driven by the kinetic energy of a bag of stones gradually dropping from a pulley, with “an extremely tight balance to be struck between cost, performance and longevity” but in general a low investment that will save lives lost from kerosene pollution.  Similarly simple, a folding paper microscope that still has a high-powered lens is “putting the power of making discoveries into audiences beyond professional scientists”. Projects range from Wales to Zambia in location, from those started by a single person to those funded by multinational corporations

A powerful and positive read, technical but also readable, with great illustrations and a clear concept.

Liz Dexter has heard of a few of these projects which take her back to her days working in a New Deal for Communities project office. She blogs about reading and running at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

Robert Phillips, Futurekind: Design by and for the People (Thames & Hudson, 2019). 978-0500519790, 240 pp., col. Ill. Hardback.

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