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We need a Nobel Prize for design

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The United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are at risk of not being fulfilled by their 2015 deadline, despite a huge community of well-meaning and clever people working tirelessly on hopeful, generous projects. Of all the channels that can support and facilitate the fulfillment of these goals, it is information communication technology that offers the most people the opportunity to help us get there.

We have the people, the technology, and the will. So what is the missing ingredient to make the 2015 deadline? Design thinking. Design is the differentiator with the greatest potential to accelerate the fulfillment of the MDGs (and at the lowest cost), and close the digital divide.

Consider this: smartphone technology has been with us for over 10 years but it took the delightful interface design of the iPhone to inspire the sea of apps that are now revolutionizing small screen device use by non-technologists. Tablet computers have been marketed since the 1990s, but only since the release of the iPad, with its simple one-button instant-on design, have people suddenly embraced what is possible with networked tablets. Most people didn’t “get” mp3 files until Apple changed how we deal with them. And by putting design at the centre of its business processes, Apple Inc. is now worth more financially than Microsoft Inc.

Even Nicolas Negroponte’s OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) initiative to empower the world’s poorest children has encountered hurdles. Not because of the expected challenge of inventing hardware to build a US$100 networked laptop, but rather due to shortcomings of the interface design that would make it truly intuitive and accessible.

I had the privilege of meeting Oh Se-hoon, the mayor of Seoul, a World Design Capital. Korea’s capital city is our planet’s second most populated metropolitan area. Oh Se-hoon introduced me to his right-hand man, who handed me a business card that identified him as the city’s CDO … their “Chief Design Officer.” Seoul recognizes that just as each major public initiative should be vetted by a CEO and a CIO (chief information officer), having an integrated design policy is just as critical to success. This understanding of the role of design is a large part of what has made it possible for Korea to rise so quickly on the international stage, competing with economies far larger and more experienced. (A Canadian example of integrating design thinking into municipal goverment is Montreal.)

States and municipalities can adopt design policies that enhance the fulfillment of quadruple-bottom line solutions, integrating economic sustainability with social, cultural and, of course, environmental sustainability.

Another cornerstone of success is being inclusive. Certainly, an Internet that is designed to not leave anyone behind is a critical aspect of doing good. To have an Internet that is accessible, independent of wealth, literacy, and politics is critical. However, accessibility for people with difficulties and disabilities is a case where designing for the extremes benefits everyone. Time and time again we find innovations developed to compensate for those with extreme disabilities help make technology better for all. Whether it be the transistor developed for hearing aids that eventually took us to the moon, or the punch cards developed to mitigate memory loss that gave us the modern computer, technologies developed for the extremes benefit all.

Governments like Canada’s which have led the world in accessible web design are not just avoiding leaving citizens behind — they are regulating that services must be more accessible to all, driving down the costs of Internet development and maintenance while focusing on more strategic tasks.

There isn’t a problem that faces us today that cannot be tackled by inspired design thinking, as long as there is global recognition of the role that design can play. Design needs that recognition in order to be aware of and fulfill both its power and its responsibility to help create a better world for all of us, rather than simply being used as a tool to advance profits and out-of-control consumerism.

I have three urgent recommendations for enhancing the Internet, through design:

1. Encourage national and regional adoption of public design policies.

2. Agree on minimum international standards amongst national and regional governments for Internet accessibility for people with disabilities and difficulties, be they due to physical, mental, economic, language, literacy, gender, political, social, race, or age differences.

3. Call for the establishment of a Nobel Prize for Design, thus recognizing how design has as substantial a role in our society’s future as do economics, medicine, literature, physics.

Who’d like to work with me on that?

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Reviewed August 1, 2012

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