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Issue Overview

Design is a powerful agent for change. Through a process that involves problem-solving and an in-depth understanding of human wants and needs, present and future, designers bring technological, scientific and social revolutions to life. They do so by translating innovation into objects, interfaces and systems that people can understand and use.

If innovation is the catalyst for creative response, design is what transforms innovation into progress. It naturally provides an interdisciplinary platform to improve existing conditions and the quality of life for all. The Global Agenda Council on Design Innovation is, therefore, committed to inventing and delivering creative solutions by using design and innovation to identify and analyse systemic problems.

In 2008, during the Council’s first year, Members identified six design principles:

  • Clarity: Complex problems require simple, clear and honest solutions
  • Inspiration: Successful solutions will move people by satisfying their needs, giving meaning to their lives and raising their hopes and expectations
  • Transformation: Exceptional problems demand exceptional solutions that may be radical and even disruptive
  • Participation: Effective solutions will be collaborative, inclusive and developed with the people who will use them
  • Context: No solution should be developed or delivered in isolation but should recognize its context in terms of time, place and culture
  • Sustainability: Every solution needs to be robust, responsible and designed with regard to its long-term impact on the environment and society

When following these principles, design becomes a capacity-building tool. It informs and educates and, once it is made accessible, can become a democratic method in which voluntary processes start to formulate a common value system.

In this report, the Council highlights five of the projects it initiated during the past year:

  1. Design Innovation Policy:Aims to create a new value system in the global community where all of the Council’s principles can be applied to create a standard that could become a universal policy.
  2. Visualizing Complex Systems: Creates tools to inform society through transparency and participation.
  3. Reciprocal Index: Offers an alternative value system in society through transparency and participation within a specific context for a sustainable future.
  4. Environmental Index: Creates a shared information system that can alter resource consumption models to offer a larger context for participation and awareness.
  5. Safe Water Project: Entails the design of an inexpensive, hand-held filtration product that works as part of a large-scale, systemic response to the need for drinking water in environmentally challenged and under-served communities.

The idea for the Safe Water Project grew naturally out of dialogues between Members of the Global Agenda Councils on Water Security and on Design Innovation. It has proved to be the perfect catalyst for sparking new ideas and conversations with other Councils. Such cross-pollination is a model for how all Global Agenda Councils could work.

Project One

Design Innovation Policy

Although the working group behind this proposition has established itself externally, it reports to the Council. The core team is firmly rooted in the field of design on a strategic and operational level. Its Members are mostly from leading Danish design institutions, which benefit from their extensive, internationally-recognized expertise in bringing politicians to the field of design innovation.

Design is increasingly seen as a means of enabling innovation within and across disciplines. It is a tool to facilitate the projection of knowledge and expertize from any number of fields into form and solutions. Design provides an effective and holistic framework for facilitating communications between individuals, institutions, NGOs, public and private sectors and communities.

Despite the growing awareness of the benefits of allowing design to transcend borders, there is a danger that national design policies could end up pitted against each other in a competitive zero-sum game. The potential of design thinking to facilitate solutions and reframe global challenges seems too important, at least to this Council, to be left to chance or to the secondary effects of national efforts.

As no established initiative exists to create an international design policy, the Council has created this working group to prepare a framework to advance international design policy-making from within and without the World Economic Forum, and ultimately, to offer this framework at the United Nations level.

The purpose of international design policy is to promote a broader view of the potentials of design policy. With such a policy, design can be recognized as a tool to combine forces and find new ways to address grand challenges. And though grand challenges cannot be reduced to design problems, design approaches can help communicate between disciplines and stakeholders. And thus, translate knowledge into human-centred solutions.

The Council’s working group aims for implementation on two levels: (1) Top-down policy-making would access key players at the executive level, and (2) a bottom-up concept linked to crowdsourcing would create a nexus of networks, which would form an outstanding knowledge hub for activating citizens and players, and sharing best practices – thus aiding decision-makers in creating better solutions for the good of the world.

The next steps will be: (1) To collaborate with other organizations on an international level to gain new insights and legitimacy, (2) to map affiliations and networks and to explore avenues for showcasing the potential in design as a driver for growth and innovation at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2012, in Tianjin, 11-13 September, (3) to compare different regions and explore best practices. Tianjin represents a valuable opportunity to test the initiative’s resonance with an entrepreneurial audience.

Project Two

Visualising Complex Systems

As the complexity of the global agenda becomes more apparent, and the need for new tools to navigate this complexity more critical, the Complex Systems Initiative is focused on the role design can play to help negotiate that complexity and facilitate systemic decision-making by the Forum community.

During 2011, a broad range of Global Agenda Councils were consulted on the issue of complexity. Response to the Council’s work on data visualization was positive, with strong demand to incorporate this branch of design into various workstreams. The way in which this capability will be instituted has yet to be determined.

The Council is actively supporting a Young Global Leaders (YGL) initiative to map the world as a complex system. This undertaking was begun at the Annual Meeting 2012, in Davos-Klosters, and resulted in the YGL community designing various maps that illustrate the inter-connectedness and inter-dependencies of issues on the global agenda. As a follow-up, the Council’s Vice-Chair is leading an initiative to turn these maps into an interactive data visualization. This will allow the YGL community and then the broader Forum community to gain a common view of complexity, and collaboratively plot various interventions. Council Members beta-tested the application before an initial release at the World Economic Forum on Latin America 2012 and YGL Annual Summit in Mexico in April.

The Complex Systems Initiative will also work to provide design tools and best practices for the wider network of Global Agenda Councils to help reveal new systemic insights and discover intervention opportunities around complexity.

Project Three

Reciprocal Index

At the Forum’s Summit on the Global Agenda 2011, in Abu Dhabi, the Council expressed its support for a Reciprocal Design Index (RDI), which would rate the urban design of cities according to the criteria of holistic sustainability. The RDI would strive for a balanced approach to establish, document and incentivize sustainable design. It would also offer an objective accreditation system of reciprocity indices that can be monitored, compared, and recognized.

Accordingly, the Council recommended:

  • Establishing attributes for the holistic urban design of cities
  • Establishing benchmarks for the attributes
  • Establishing a metric by which cities can be measured for holistic sustainability
  • Computing the RDI of any city
  • Ranking the RDI of a city globally

Dealing with the complex environmental issues that relate to urban sustainability will require special efforts. Global and local environmental issues are intermeshed. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, adopted in Durban in 2011, states that Members “should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities”.

The 2010 Convention on Biological Diversity, in Nagoya, reminds decision-makers that natural resources are not infinite, and it sets out a philosophy of sustainable use of ecosystems, species and genes for the benefit of humans in a way and at a rate that does not lead to the long-term decline of biological diversity.

While both these key conventions revolve around issues of holistic sustainability, synthetic indicators that can evaluate progress and promote public awareness are lacking. Social indicators covering a wide range of policy areas are compiled by the United Nations Secretariat and from many national and international sources. The Secretariat’s minimum list, contained in the Report of the Expert Group on the Statistical Implications of Recent Major United Nations Conferenceshas been proposed as the basis for following up and monitoring implementation of important UN conference resolutions on children, population and development, social development and women.

Complementary to this, the significant indicators for urban design would include: enforcement of development rules, density and land use, open space use, transportation and connectivity, permeability, infrastructure resources, waste disposal and handling pollution, security and safety, and risk mitigation.

The proposed RDI would be a synthesis of social indicators and urban design indicators. Cities of the world, as categorized according to the World Bank’s measure of Gross National Income (GNI) per capita, become comparable. Moreover, the social and urban design indicators of a given city can be compared with the country’s indicators and/or to that of the segment of countries to which a particular city belongs.

Ultimately, the RDI would facilitate a common language of comparability across policy domains, cities and countries.

Project Four
Environmental Index

In 2011, ideas from the Council’s Environmental Index for rescue and relief efforts were implemented in Japan after the 11 March earthquake and tsunami. Shortly after the nuclear reactors that supplied metropolitan Tokyo with 30% of its electricity were disabled, it became apparent that something needed to be done at the grassroots level to prevent widespread blackouts during the summer. A Council Member led a Power Application Project initiated specifically to help prevent such blackouts.

The success of the project hinged on the level of citizen involvement in preventing shortages of resources and energy. The original idea of the Environmental Index was to monitor energy use and carbon emissions and use this data to inform people about their energy consumption and encourage them to voluntarily conserve it. A social networking platform was proposed to create a feedback system that connected daily consumption with its consequences.

The system included preventive measures that encouraged behavioural changes to reduce resource and energy consumption. It could also be used to monitor any resource use –including electricity, carbon emissions, energy, water and food. The system had three proposed functions: (1) a simple systems monitor in normal time; (2) an alert system that warns of shortages and encourages collective action; and (3) a metric connected to Twitter and Facebook that records acts of conservation and shows consequences – allowing the population to collectively “own” each action. In the future, this system can be coupled with a gaming device to give awards and incentives. This portal was put in place for 100 days to encourage new habits of sustainability among the citizens of Tokyo and the surrounding area, and to prevent energy blackouts in July and August 2011.

The Council’s mobile application, created by elephant design in collaboration with the social media company, already has 800,000 users. Twitter agreed to host the alarm operation, and Tokyo Electric Power Company agreed to provide data every 15 minutes on the area’s total energy consumption. The data showed that if 1,000,000 households (5% of all households in Tokyo) turned off their air-conditioning, a power outage could be avoided.

Japan is the only developed country where household energy consumption is higher than industrial and commercial use. During summer 2011, Tokyo was able to avoid blackouts by reducing electricity use by 22%. Voluntary energy reductions by residential customers accounted for 7% of the decrease. The other 15% came from temporary regulations on business. In short, collective actions undertaken by citizens circumvented a huge risk to the society.

Design systems at the grassroots level can be the most effective means of promoting security, empowerment and resilience. For example, the Council’s visual presentation, “Confronting Comfort: Visual Systems”, sets forth a design model to categorize urban resources along with micro-communities to confront shared environmental challenges and encourage a collective strategic resilience. These resources are often taken for granted as a necessity for urban comfort, but once they are in jeopardy, as was the case in Tokyo, a general collective action needs to occur. One could also apply a similar alert system for storms, floods, hurricanes, and even traffic jams, accidents and acts of terror. These systems enable a cohesive community to be prepared and ready to act in the event of a major or minor catastrophe.

The Global Agenda Council on Design Innovation can work with other Councils for further implementation within developing regions such as Africa, India, Latin America and South-East Asia. Further refinements of this design system could also be useful to the Global Agenda Councils on Benchmarking Progress, Catastrophic Risks, Climate Change, Energy Security, Social Innovation, Social Networks, Sustainable Consumption and Water Security.

In order to adapt the Environmental Index project’s “Risk Resilience Strategy” to a new model, a grassroots, bottom-up approach to voluntary citizen involvement is necessary. This design system is the beginning of a democratic new model that gauges the impact of citizen participation in the creation of a more sustainable and productive society.

Project Five

Safe Water Project

After working together on a successful two-year global education initiative, Members of the Global Agenda Councils on Design Innovation and on Water Security decided to explore other collaborative ideas during 2011. Out of that dialogue, a new potentially life-saving project has emerged:

The goal: to develop a hand-held water purification device that could be used by disaster relief and humanitarian aid organizations.

The Councils’ mission: to provide clean water for all.

Together, the Councils have produced an affordable water filtration system that is superior to current models. This device will put the capability of a high-tech water filtration plant inside a water bottle. The water-bottle filter should be able to purify water from virtually any source – a tap, a polluted river or a stagnant pond.

To this end, a purification filter is being refined that fits inside a half-litre bottle. The filters are currently capable of reducing up to 99.99% of aesthetic, biological, chemical and dissolved solid contaminants – including radioactive particles identified in some Japanese water supplies after the tsunami.

This technology is being validated using the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Science Foundation International (NSF) protocols. To date, the technology meets and exceeds EPA and American National Standards Institute (ANSI) protocols. It also passes NSF Standards 42 and 53, dealing with both health and aesthetic effects.

What the Council is proposing, in NSF language, is: “a Point-of-Use (POU) and Point-of-Entry (POE) system designed to reduce or eliminate specific health-related contaminants, such as Cryptosporidium, Giardia, lead, volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether), that may be present in public or private drinking water”.

A prototype of the water-bottle filter was presented at the Summit on the Global Agenda 2011, in Abu Dhabi. Members of the Global Agenda Councils on Water Security, Healthcare and Catastrophic Risks have expressed their support for the project. Some saw the water bottle not only as a useful tool, but also as a new way of thinking about how to respond to disasters with design innovation. In the aftermath of a natural disaster, it’s obviously much more efficient to deliver reusable water bottles than to airlift or truck in thousands of heavy and expensive disposable plastic water bottles.

With the help of the Forum, Council Members are engaging with the Global Agenda Councils on Disaster Management and Catastrophic Risks to seek their guidance and support.


The opinions expressed here are those of the individual Members of the Council and not of the World Economic Forum or any institutions to which they are affiliated.