(Waiting for the opening ceremony in the main hall, I chat to Tavs Jorgensen, a smart designer/thinker/teacher/researcher from Autonomatic, at University College Falmouth, UK. He’s researching “3D digital production” i.e. design practice and new forms of fabrication.)
The opening ceremony does not disappoint. Significant dignitaries from the Beijing Municipal Government, the Peoples’ Republic Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Education are the distinguished guests, and line up on stage with the studied repose of the effortlessly powerful, sitting opposite the artfully articulated lectern occupied by Yang Lan, a super-chic Chinese TV personality, entrepreneur, millionaire, 'China's most beautiful woman' ... and our host for the day.
The presence of those senior officials at this opening ceremony is incredibly significant. To Western eyes disaffected by political leaders who'll turn up to the opening of an envelope, it’s important to pause and reflect that this is a quite extraordinary statement of intent from China, and Beijing. Their presence is a tacit approval for a theme that would instantly become clear - that China is interested in augmenting its position as workshop of the world by also becoming creative studio for the world.
Again, to uninformed Western eyes this might seem absurd, for whom the characterisation of China as one gigantic copy-and-paste function has been ludicrously overblown, with entirely dubious motives. Not to say that that particular culture is not present in China — of course it is, but it fails to recognise the vitality, skill and intellect behind existing Chinese creative industries, nor this country’s lengthy and rich history of creative work, nor that its poised to fully recapture and build on that tradition over the next century.
(And at this point, a quick hello to Prof. Shuo Wang, who I met at the conference; an ex-interaction designer at Microsoft, he now works at Beijing Institute for Fashion Technology, and his team recently won the UK Government-funded DreamLab competition. One of the judges was the great designer Michael Johnson of Johnson Banks.)
These themes would be reinforced in the opening speeches (see below), and after this, the conference opens proper, with a series of animations on the vast screen flanking the stage as silk ribbons drop from the balconies. The luminaries cut giant ribbons to polite applause. While hardly Olympian in scale, it’s all very impressive and utterly charming.
The idents for the conference are impeccable, of course, with the sounds of what I think might be a pipa plucking out bluesy, scratchy motifs (the pentatonic scale is the basic scale of Chinese music, so the bluesy feel is not incongruous). These little musical scribbles score out some very nice animated versions of the logo. The collateral around the conference is of the highest calibre.
(The speeches by Chinese speakers are live translations, so please bear that in mind.)
The Mayor of Beijing, Guo Jinlong, talks of the city becoming a ”world city for design” (this is interesting, as Shanghai and Shenzhen are usually the Chinese cities directly associated with design.) He also states that “Beijing is the centre of culture in China”, and describes briefly how they have developed clusters for“cultural and creative activities” (our aforementioned research will include focus on these.)
Interestingly, he puts a price on the “total value for creative industry” as “10% of the total economy” (Low? High? Or actually, is this not near impossible to separate in this way, particularly given that he also suggests “design can be found in every aspect” of the economy and culture. Either way, it’s interesting to see a value placed so explicitly.)
The Mayor closes by saying that he “wants designers from all over world to come here and realise their dreams.”
Don Ryun Chang, the president of Icograda, describes design as “an integral force” (a theme from one of the ancillary exhibitions) and in particular talks about the potential in collaborations between designers, business, government and cultural institution.
Long Yongtu, Secretary-General of Boao Forum for Asia, then gives a fascinating talk given, as he puts it “the dimension of history”. He describes the last 30 years in terms of a “new economy, new development characterised by human venture, giving importance to quality, the environment and the economy”. He describes the “new drivers (in terms of) design and the design industry, which could be an important vehicle for innovation in China.” He sees that the “history of creative industry proves that design is irreversible tide,” just as creative industry is China is.
Then he explicitly mentions this “combination of Made In China and Created in China”. He says “we have become the world’s factory, which is remarkable - but we're not satisfied at being at low end of production chain.” Importantly, he mentions a key aspect of what he calls the “move from Made in China to Created in China - that these are not two separate stages in China's economic development, but inseparable.”
(This is fundamentally important, it seems to me. There is no need for China to jettison manufacturing industries, as the West largely has, in order to also achieve preeminence in knowledge-based creative industries. Making things is not only important in terms of cultural identity, but also in terms of diversified economy (ask the UK); but we can also expect the line between much design and manufacturing to become extremely blurred over time too, due to various fabrication techniques. The idea of ‘moving on from manufacturing to service economies’ will, I think, become to be seen as ludicrously un-strategic mistake, as well as unethical and divisive.)
(There is a long road ahead, however, as Geoff Dyer (not that one) noted in the FT recently. The Chinese government has been running ads recently, about its manufacturing prowess i.e. images of an iPod with “Made in China with software from Silicon Valley” .
While the ads are of course factually correct, they only confirm the idea of China as factory rather than studio. And so reinforce the lower end of the value chain rather than creating a progressive narrative. Dyer notes that that:
“Researchers at the University of California at Irvine examined which countries garnered the economic value from iPod production. The conclusion was that only about 5 per cent of the value is retained in China, with the bulk going to the designers, retailers and suppliers of sophisticated components.”
Shanghaiist reckons the ad was delayed for over a year, and perhaps wouldn’t be made (by DDB) in the same way today? Either way, that long road must also deal with the poor design quality of the majority of products made in China.)
Long talks at length about a possible interface between creative industry and manufacturing. He talks of “using modern technology to convert cultural images - like oriental culture - into widely recognised and universal products which can be recognised by new generation of consumers.” He describes a “redesign of Asian cultural products”. Here, he is clearly moving towards questions of ‘soft power’ - and so directly addresses that. He notes that “people question China's soft power”, but that “developing soft power is more difficult than developing hard power” and “design industries can play important an role to combine the two.”
He says a “country without design industry is a country without initiative spirit, and lacks new business, it lacks strategic capacity.” I couldn’t agree more, but also imagine that he’d suggest the same could be said of manufacturing, and am inspired that his talk outlined how both could be aligned in China.
Next up was David Kester, Chief Executive of the UK's Design Council. I’ve long been interested in the position and function of the Design Council, but I’m afraid I found Kester’s speech (and approach) entirely misplaced. He attempted to engage the audience in a form of lazy, Estuary English-laden banter and hammy ‘crowd-participation’ that might work in Milton Keynes or Gateshead, but was almost certainly inappropriate and culturally insensitive here. (Most sentences ending in the declarative/yearning “yeah?”, to a slightly bemused-looking audience. As in, "So this is partly where MRSA comes from, yeah? You know what MRSA is, yeah?")
He claimed he’d written a speech about UK design, but had been so bowled over in his first few days here, that he’d decided to talk about what an impression Chinese design had made on him. And so he theatrically ripped up a small sheaf of paper - his speech, apparently - and threw it to one side. This not only littered the floor of this pristine space during his speech, but continued to litter the floor during the next speaker’s talk too, requiring Patrick Whitney to step carefully around it.
I’m sure Kester did have some good stories in him - for instance, he talked about meeting the design director at Lenovo who, only few years ago, was elected as first designer at Lenovo, and there are 150 designers working for him now. And I’m sure Kester would have some insights on how the use of such examples might be used to develop strategic capacity. But I’m afraid his on-stage delivery did little to convince. (“Yeah?”)
Ultimately Kester did switch back to his examples from the UK, which are well-known as examples of service and product design (i.e. in UK healthcare, the Design Bugs Out project). He positions the UK as having had a “design policy” for 150 years, with a sponsored school of design that ended up as RCA. He says that in the UK “we know design adds value, drives innovation ...” That ‘knowledge’ is not necessarily as widespread throughout UK business and culture as he’s stating here, and unfortunately, he comes across like a bit of a salesman. And I quote, "This is good for business, good for design, and also saves lives … and just as cheap!"
The last speaker in this opening session is Patrick Whitney, Dean of the Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology. He gives a far stronger talk, with some critique as well as insight.
He starts by noting this “sense in the world that we're shifting from industrial economy to creative economy” and that this “brings opportunity but problems.” By which he means sustainability, as the middle class in China grows, and development shifts to India, China and Brazil.
He contrasts the accepted nature of innovation - “doing new things, quickly, kill your product before your opponents do” - with that of sustainability - “going slower, reuse, recycle.” He suggests that there “can be a third way” however; that “China can be ground zero”.
He then talks about the idea of “Reflection Deficit Disorder” - but my notes fail me here, ironically enough.
Whitney then talks about the particular “inflection point” we’re at, indicating that key players just do not know the way forward; that there’s a sense that the game has changed, but people aren’t quite sure of the new rules, perhaps. He mentions that he’s talked to people in energy infrastructure regarding smart grids. They know how to do smart grid, he says, but they don’t know how people are going to use power in their homes. They know how they use it now, but not what they will want.
Whitney points out that “there was a period where there was similar growth in technology and business models”. What he calls “the second industrial revolution” in the 1930s, which led to the emergence of Fordism as a dominant model.
He now talks about “direct design” by the likes of Apple, who took the existing mp3 player and “abstracted it”, by “looking at the way people enjoy music.”
The nature of design seems to have changed, he says. About 20 years go, a designer would spend a lot of time thinking about the design, but would only get paid for implementing it. Now, perhaps it’s not so much about the implementation but about asking right questions in the first place.
Whitney notes that Apple only used one patent (for DRM) around the iPod and “has just given that one up”. He suggests that they’re protected by the “systemic nature of innovations and by trademarks (leading to a 70% market share and beyond)” (The skirmish over patents between Nokia and Apple is interesting in this respect.)
So he sees this demonstrating the “power of abstraction - the power of design to communicate”. He then rather randomly shows an image of a zeppelin over NYC, before talking about experimenting with balloons for transportation (noting that they’re more flexible than rail, and more efficient than trucks). (While this is interesting - particularly if he’d gone into more detail - it’s almost as if that was a rogue slide in his presentation from another talk, and didn’t feel compelled to skip over it. There clearly could’ve been a connection with his theme, but he didn’t make it explicit.)
Whitney gets back on track by talking about education needs to shift from 'batch processing' of kids, and feels confident “that this shift will happen”. Importantly, he states quite clearly that “senior executives would rather not innovate. They're only interested because TQM and Six Sigma have made the cost side so efficient that the only way they can grow is to innovate.”
This last comment was in line with what was a rather bleak talk at times, but was also a really important insight. It also makes clear the challenge ahead - we have to ‘resist the recovery’ and reinvent culture.
The evening was a whirl of exhibitions and openings, as it became clear that Beijing had gone to town in terms of supporting events. Beijing Design Week had been timed to coincide with the WDC, and so dozens of events ensued. There were at least 25 exhibitions on around the conference alone.
For the rest of the day, however, I had to attend an afternoon-long meetings for the Designing Creative Clusters research project out at the Communication University of China. We were launching the project in Beijing this week (with Shanghai and Qingdao in the following weeks). And so out to Chang'an Avenue, and taxi negotiations.
The taxi out to CUC skimmed past the OMA/Arup-designed CCTV building. No matter how many photographs you’ve seen of it, I can assure you it is an extraordinary sight, even from a freeway at speed, some blocks away. Equally extraordinary is some of the residential architecture along these long freeways out of the centre. A quite distinct Beijing typology is becoming clear already, relating to mass, scale, repetition and a kind of muscular ornamentation.
A series of taxi rides later - taxis are extremely cheap, and although none of the drivers speak English, they seem the best bet on day one - I'm back from CUC in order to rejoin the currents of the conference. I attend the opening of the Beijing Design Service Centre which I think was some kind of managed workspace for creative industries.
Then to the 'Design as Productive Force' exhibition at the the National Art Museum of China, back towards Tiananmen Square. (Mao’s hand, writing the name of the museum, adorns the entrance; hard to imagine a western equivalent of that.)
This is also an exhibition of some scale. After the opening ceremony, we wander through the various halls and rooms, fuelled by drink, canapes, adrenalin, and delighted bewilderment at the scale and form of the exhibits.
A random collection of rooms I can remember: A Zaha Hadid building in model form, contained within a room moulded around the same forms; a room dedicated to an Audi commercial reflected in numerous large mirrored blocks on the floor; a room of infographics about the impact of design (presumably) which featured large images of politicians, including Clinton, Deng Xiaoping and my nemesis, Thatcher; a black room with all facets covered in the word ‘design’; a rather beautiful space full of fabrics and offcuts of the fashion design process.
And of course a room covered with models of Beijing architecture constructed from food, lying on a floor deep with red chillis. The smell (and taste?) in this last room was incredible, an acrid, rich sense of pepper almost overwhelming. (This exhibit was a little like the Baking Architecture exhibition in Melbourne earlier this year.)
All told, a hugely impressive start to the conference, across almost all aspects. Notes on day two and day three in Beijing to follow.