I’m an ambassador for Link Festival 2015, a conference combining Design + Technology + Social Change, taking place on 16 & 17 February at Federation Square, Melbourne (and if you’re a connection, get in touch with me for a $100 discount).
And over the past few years I’ve been involved with the Australian Good Design Awards—also a supporter of Link Festival—who will introduce a Social Innovation category for the first time this year.
In my opinion, the timing couldn’t be better.
Take the US President’s 2015 State of the Union address. There’s a section of the transcript that, I think, is worth some careful thought. It’s a section you quite likely missed in last week’s speech, because it’s only in the preamble of the released text:
There is a ritual on State of the Union night in Washington. A little before the address, the White House sends out an embargoed copy of the President’s speech to the press. The reporters then start sending it around town to folks on Capitol Hill to get their reaction, then those people send it to all their friends, and eventually everyone in Washington can read along, but the public remains in the dark. This year we change that. For the first time, the White House is making the full text of the speech available to citizens around the country online.
There, before a word was spoken, was a belated embodiment of the “21st century businesses” and “middle-class economics” that Obama wished to identify with.
To me, there’s one word that brings the various themes together: Access.
Technology has created social access for centuries. In the 1800s, railways transformed London life by giving poorer residents at the outskirts of the city access to opportunities near the centre. Rarely has social change been more dramatic.
Design, in turn, improves access to technology because it prioritises our human experience of the objects and interactions we create. Design draws us in. As Tim Brown writes in his introduction to Change by Design, technology alone wasn’t enough for Brunel in 1835. “He imagined a system that would allow the traveller to board a train at London’s Paddington Station and disembark from a steamship in New York.”
But the 21st century economy—the economy presidents worry about—comes with a caveat. Our digital connections amplify our voices more than ever before, but they also concentrate power amongst those who are digital-savvy, sometimes with winner-takes-all outcomes. I noted this observation from numerous authors internationally throughout 2014.
Over the coming few years, economic change and social change will walk in step. New skills will be needed to once again broaden access: skills such as rapid and open innovation; collaborative practices that challenge hierarchies; and technology mindsets that pervade organisations at all levels.
Link Festival 2015 will feature and demonstrate these skills, signalling the sharp emergence of both the social and economic changes of our times.