The Future Through Design: Reflecting on KODW 2020

(Right) Carlo Ratti, Director of MIT Senseable City Lab and Founding Partner of Carlo Ratti Associati and (Left) Betty Ng, Founder & Director, COLLECTIVE (HK). Image courtesy of Knowledge of Design Week.
Image courtesy of Knowledge of Design Week
scenarioDNA co-founder Tim Stock. Image courtesy of Knowledge of Design Week.
SK Lam, founder of Hong Kong-based creative studio AllRightsReserved (ARR). Image courtesy of Knowledge of Design Week.
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A virtual iteration of Knowledge of Design Week brought together movers and shakers across industries to explore the role of technology and human-centric design in a post-pandemic world.

TEXT: Denise Tsui
IMAGES: Courtesy of Knowledge of Design Week

 

(Right) Carlo Ratti, Director of MIT Senseable City Lab and Founding Partner of Carlo Ratti Associati and (Left) Betty Ng, Founder & Director, COLLECTIVE (HK). Image courtesy of Knowledge of Design Week.
Image courtesy of Knowledge of Design Week

 

Some weeks ago, at the very end of August, I took the plunge and immersed myself in Knowledge of Design Week (KODW), one of Hong Kong Design Centre’s (HKDC) key annual events. KODW 2020, titled “Designing Digital Futures”, presented 15 sessions ranging from keynote presentations, panel discussions to moderated talks from more than 40 speakers across four days, which were complemented by various workshops—all virtual of course, in light of our current moment. The central underlying theme of KODW 2020 was to consider how design could shape the changing digital landscape through technology and a human-centred design philosophy that has empathy, creativity and resilience—with particular emphasis on the post-pandemic near future.

It’s quite a mouthful, especially for a design novice such as myself who has always been far more interested in theorizing the what, why and how of art than the practicalities of function and design. I believe art can be a tool for human process and expression, and culture is not indulgent but is, in fact, a necessity in the world at large. Nonetheless, I still perceive art to have a closer affinity to the fictional world of literature—which shares similar traits of expression and escapism—than with scientific breakthroughs changing society’s future way of life. To grapple with the terminologies of design, the requisite knowledge and analytical mindset was as enticing to my curiosity to learn, as it was daunting to my artistically led frame of mind. In all, I tuned in on eight of the 15 sessions, taking in as much as my human brain could dizzyingly comprehend in the span of a few days. It was a speedy crash course that stimulated new thoughts and widened my definition of design—if I may be so cliché.

Prof. Eric Yim, JP, Chairman of HKDC, summed it up succinctly in his opening remarks: “[The] COVID-19 pandemic forces business and society to reset, rethink and reinvent. As we increasingly rely on technology to carry on with our business and everyday lives, we are being accelerated into an unknown digital future.” This sentiment was really at the heart of every discussion of KODW 2020, covering an array of topics including hospital and medical care of the future, the manner of existence for luxury stores and retail spaces in a post-pandemic environment, the considerations of office design in this new normal as well as the proliferating impact of e-commerce and possible reimagining of content curation.

Dwelling further on the subjects of ghost trends and e-commerce respectively, I spoke by email to Tim Stock, co-founder of scenarioDNA, a New York-based innovation consultancy and specialist of cultural trends; and SK Lam, founder of Hong Kong-based creative studio, AllRightsReserved.

 

scenarioDNA co-founder Tim Stock. Image courtesy of Knowledge of Design Week.

 

The New Normal seen through Ghost Trends

 In his session, “Ghost Trends 2020: Making Sense of an Elusive World,” Stock puts forward the question of how to put design to better use, emphasising that there is a need to think of the long-term consequences of what we are building. When asked what vital change he perceives emerging from this new normal, Stock says, “… a proclivity toward long-term thinking versus the pre-COVID-19 penchant for hustle culture and immediate returns.” He adds, “Short-term planning is not sustainable. Each short-term step needs to work toward a long-term ideal.”

“Ghost trends are the consequences of the lack of long-term planning. When we think of a ghost story, why do the ghosts appear? They are harbingers. The technology reactions we see now are the actions taken to recover from ending up on the wrong path or the path getting ahead of planning. The tech is clunky because it has not been planned for. We are figuring things out on the fly. Our businesses are not as agile as they’d like to think they are,” says Stock. “Responding to ghost trends in a forward-thinking manner brings the human back into the equation, allowing us to move through a fast-paced world focusing on the realities that matter—like other human beings. In past decades, pandemics and devastation led to major innovations. We need to refocus and not stand still.”

Without question, the talk of late has been about what the future looks like and how might we better prepare to be so-called pandemic proof. According to Stock, culture mapping as a tool to see how people are reacting to change can provide clues. “I think one of the most fundamental changes we will see is the ability for companies to be adaptive and flexible,” says Stock. “During the early months of COVID-19, we saw manufactories shift from shoes to masks; from cars to face shields; from empty real estate to mobile kitchens. And we saw restaurant kitchens license their recipes in order to expand their operations and locally serve patrons while supporting a wider community of restaurant peers.”

“To build resilience requires knowledge and understanding of context—of who and what we are, as people, as companies and so on,” says Stock. He suggests not only do we question our own place in the world, on every level, but seek answers and understanding of the consequences of our actions, including potential for negative impact. “We need to know what we are taking away, and take necessary steps to not lose critical human essence.”

 

Business Adaptation in a Time of E-Commerce

Transformation comes with its own set of risks, especially for businesses with investment capital at stake. But without growth in a quickly evolving retail and cultural landscape, businesses are also not doing themselves any favour staying stagnant. According to Lam from AllRightsReserved (ARR), “It’s just a process of trial and error. If you don’t try, you will never figure out the problem.” He adds, “There is always no standard and boundary for creative projects. We have to customise for each work and spend a lot of time thinking and building. Nothing is impossible, just challenging.”

 

SK Lam, founder of Hong Kong-based creative studio AllRightsReserved (ARR). Image courtesy of Knowledge of Design Week.

 

In his talk titled “From Content Curation to e-Commerce: New Future of Contents”, Lam shared case studies, strategies and the various transformations of ARR since he founded the business in 2003. From idea curation, to product design, manufacturing, and finally, marketing, ARR and DDTStore are designed to work with artists on the full process.

Lam shed light on what it means to be adaptable and willing to take risks in a creative industry that is ever evolving, from a pre-pandemic time to now, when e-Commerce has but accelerated at lightning speeds as people are forced to spend more time at home than before. Lam explained how over the past decade, the company went from producing exhibitions, books and campaigns for the entertainment industry, to many more large-scale public art projects, including famously bringing an inflatable KAWS—with whom ARR has a long-term partnership—to Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour in 2019.

Over the past few years, as e-Commerce and social media platforms thrived, Lam identified this need for a shift towards a new business model, one situated in branding rather than servicing. “In the past few years, the world keeps changing in different ways. Some sunset industries have failed to fully develop and lack business-to-business development. At this time, transformation is needed.” Lam noted that the decision to start up their e-Commerce platform and distribution channel, DDTStore, involved noticing what was working and what wasn’t, recognising consumer trends, and observing a lack of sustainability in their one-off projects, which required substantial resources and commitment but ultimately no continuation. Lam focused on brand and merchandise development, adopting the stance of creating brand exposure as being of equal importance to the drive of sales. “We hope that the epidemic will not stop us moving forward and we could continue the business in a new model.”

 

 
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