Let's design a future worth hoping for

Yes we can! Barack Obama's mantra resonated in the canteen when Rector Elsebeth Gerner Nielsen welcomed students to a new academic year

Something about hope
Welcome back and welcome for almost the first time to all new students. Welcome back from a Danish summer that has been extraordinary, that has given us rejuvenation and energy for our dreams.

Going over my speeches to you from previous years I realize that they have been quite pessimistic. I have spoken about the enormous challenges we face – climate change, environmental challenges, rising inequality, lack of stability, both economic and political. These are ample reasons for pessimism. However, I no longer believe this is the right approach – to fill your ears with how bad things are.

Today I want to talk to you about hope. About why there is reason to hope and why we, when working together, can, indeed, create the future we want.

Obviously I am inspired by Barack Obama and his focus on hope. It’s wonderful that he is going to visit Kolding. When he was elected President of the United States in 2008 it felt as if the world burst open in hope and a belief that anything was possible. At Design School Kolding we celebrated his victory with coffee and cake for everyone, and I jumped up on a table and shouted Yes, we can!

So my speech to you today will be about hope and why there is reason to hope for and believe in the future.

Hope from a personal perspective
Let me start on a very personal level. Here is a picture of my family – taken at a birthday party this summer. At the top is the birthday boy, my son. He is now 30 years old and spent the first couple of years of his life at an orphanage in a former Eastern European country. Fortunately he ended up being a permanent part of our family. He received an education; he has done very well, he even has a mortgage…. He has taken a huge leap forward, because he had the opportunity to attend a very good Danish elementary and secondary school and receive a great higher education. But the country of his birth has also taken a big step forward. A couple of years ago he and I visited that country and the difference between now and when I visited him for the first time is momentous. Children go to school. Roads are in reasonably good condition. Employment is growing, primarily as a result of membership of the European Union and economic and democratic progress.

At the bottom of the picture is my grandfather. He went into service when he was 14 years old after just a few years of schooling. He was lucky to be admitted to a folk high school, where – as he says – he learnt everything he needed to know to take care of himself, in six months. He has been a famer and has done very well for himself. Now he is enjoying life as a senior citizen. He would say that his life has been one long story about progress.

I am in the picture, too. I was the first one in our family to graduate from high school and receive a university education. I was given an opportunity that neither my parents nor my grandparents had, because our welfare state offered free education and state grants. My mother had seven years of schooling, after which she started working. My children have taken it for granted that they had the opportunity – if they wanted – to go to university. One of my boys is doing a PhD at a university in London after finishing his Master’s in Stockholm. My two-year-old grandchild speaks two languages. My preferred language is still the local Vendelbo dialect.

Looking at my family, its history over the last 70 years has been a story of progress and prosperity. The future has meant progress. Each generation (and we have four of them in this photo) has been able to say to the next generation: Life is good, and it looks as if it’s going to get even better. You can look forward to that!

Dear students: That’s what I hope we can continue saying. That’s what I want to work for, that’s what is, well, the meaning of my life: I want this development to continue, I want the future to equal progress.

What I hope to be able to contribute

I want to contribute to the development of:

- A society where few have too much and fewer too little
- A society where the light shines, not only on the educated class
- A society where future generations have a least the same opportunities as we have had
- A society with strong communities
- A world where everyone feels that they can realise their full potential

As I said, looking back at my own family’s history, there is ample reason to be hopeful, to believe that this is possible.

The positive numbers – the global perspective. But there are challenges.
Even seen from a broader perspective there are many reasons to be hopeful:

-In 2002, 115 million children were cheated out of an education; today that number has decreased to 59 million children (mostly girls)
-Globally child mortality has dropped from 22.5 % in 1950 to 4.5% in 2015 (7.7% in 2000). (The most drastic decrease has occurred in Rwanda from 34.9% in 1990 to 5.6% in 2015) to mention just a few of the many positive figures.

The Swedish statistician Hans Rosling was a master at communicating progress in a way that hardly anybody, except designers, can do, namely so that the numbers spoke to the brain as well as the heart. His last book Factfulness has just been published in Danish. But, it goes without saying that there are challenges:

- That are enormously complex
- That cannot be solved with the tools we possess today
- That are not sufficiently addressed by the institutions and leaders who ought to be in charge ….

That’s why I am calling for a new way of being in the world.

What can inspire hope?

1) Nature, first of all. Take a walk in nature, sit near the sea and experience how nature, down to the tiniest leaf or cell reveals the most beautiful universal patterns and exposes solutions that neither humans nor computers can devise. The wonderful library here at Design School Kolding has just acquired Ernst Haeckel’s book Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms of Nature).

During a maritime expedition in 1859 Ernst Haeckel became interested in the single-cell organisms Radiolaria that measure 0.1-0.2 millimetres. Seen through the microscope their mineral skeletons reveal an otherworldly architecture, but for Haeckel they were an expression of the fundamental principles of evolution, the same principles that humanity was subjected to.

2) Secondly, art and culture. Art can create images of the future and what direction we should follow. I want to mention one example, Marit Benthe Norheim’s floating art project, Lifeboats. The three boats are shaped like the different phases of a woman’s life: The young woman, the pregnant woman and the elderly woman. Each boat is loaded with stories about life, about creation and about all the ordinary events, elements that characterise human life, irrespective of all the differences. Imagine the incredible notion that we have all been inside a woman’s womb. Perhaps, if feminine traits would play a larger role in our society, maybe the essentials of life would be valued higher than they are in a world, primarily ruled by men. Art can open our eyes and also make us dream about a different future.

3) But now we have reached something crucial – you, the students who are on your way to becoming designers.

The essence of design is creating meaningful solutions that support humans in realising their full potential, making people and communities think:

Yes we can!

Design for hope
There is so much hope to gain from design. I want to suggest that the headline for all that we are going to do in the coming year should be: Design for Hope. We are going to design solutions that make people grow; that make all of us view the future as an opportunity. In his recent speech celebrating the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth, Barack Obama stated that artificial intelligence and new technology will replace workers in many industries, and that’s why we have to explore ”how we make everybody an entrepreneur at some level.”

Imagine what happens when all transportation is driverless. I definitely understand why many people fear technology and robots.

Our job, your job as designers, is to help make the future worth hoping for, for all humanity, by making everyone entrepreneurial, in one way or another.

Here at Design School Kolding we do it through our three strategic areas: Design for People, Design for Planet and Design for Play. In Design for People we analyse how we can solve the problem that far too many people have no opportunity to participate in society, e.g. because they are sick, unemployed or born in the wrong place. In Design for Planet we investigate how we can generate a more sustainable development; how we can become better at taking care of the natural environment that shares the air we breathe. And in Design for Play we focus on creating the best possible opportunities for people to achieve their full potential, in other words, be creative. Because we know that people who play become more creative.

The Power Point diagram shows how we have structured our programmes. The Bachelor’s level teaches all the techniques and skills related to the design profession. That continues on the Master’s level, but using the challenges I just mentioned − Design for People, Design for Planet and Design for Play − as a starting point.

#designforhope. That’s what it’s all about. Also when for example we collaborate with Parson’s School of Design in New York on projects related to SDG 12 − projects about sustainable consumption. Or when Lea Mose Svensen travels to Hong Kong on Thursday, where she is nominated for the Redress Design Award 2018! Let’s keep our fingers crossed that she wins – with her collection of clothes made from recycled materials and waste. Yes we can!

How to behave in order to promote hope
Finally let me talk a little about what it takes − on a personal level – to be someone who contributes to other people’s hope. It can really be summed up in one sentence: Be kind. Be good. Try not to deprive other people of the light.

Here at the school you must consider your fellow students as colleagues, not competitors. It’s in collaboration with your fellow students that you are going to create a better future, not on your own! Not at the expense of others.

We must help each other to believe in ourselves. The Danish philosopher Grundtvig believed that all people should be authoritative; they should be self-reliant and conscientious. You cannot do that on your own. It happens when you feel that other people are taking you seriously. When you encounter equality and the belief that of course you have certain skills and of course we can learn from each other. That was precisely the spirit that came to permeate the Nordic folk high schools.

In 2016, when Obama spoke to the leaders of the Nordic countries, he emphasised the importance of the folk high school for his predecessors within the American civil rights movement, e.g. Martin Luther King. Indeed, Obama stated that if it was not for the Highlander − the folk high school that was established in the US – he would not have become president.

The institution of the folk high school, its pedagogic methodology and its view of human nature continues to be an important inspiration for us.

It’s my sincere hope that all students and staff find it meaningful and joyful to be part of Design School Kolding, because we are working together to create a very good education and also contribute to giving hope for the future. We are contributing to something that is bigger than ourselves. And that is basically the meaning of life, isn’t it?

Welcome to the new school year.

Let us design for a future that is worth hoping for.

Design for hope.