Quarantined: The role of design research in measuring urgency and reimagine agency.

In response to the global shift towards social isolation, our Spring 2020 colloquium will adapt to a ‘symposium-as-publication’ to replace the traditional means of conversation of an in-person conference format. 

Our contribution:

AGENCY: What role does design research have in times of crisis, and for whom?

Design, for me, is an agency and a form of activism. It is a public act that aims at making visible realities that often remain hidden from our public, collective, or individual awareness. Design research is an epitome of our overall relations with the built environment, our understanding of how it came into being, how it translates institutional and political agendas into a living world, and constructs new realities. As such, architecture, urban planning, and design should be regarded as public acts and as powerful instruments that profoundly impact our livelihood.

In times of crisis, the consequences of our designs are made more evident. Take, for example, the current global pandemic, and look at our communities, whether situated in cities or in rural areas. Their capacity to endure a public health crisis is contingent on past and present investments in public infrastructure and access to resources. We live within the legacies of our designs. These can either improve or impair our ability to cope with the pandemic. Marginalized communities, impoverished neighborhoods, with densely populated households and limited access to primary resources like running clean water have been systemically deprived of the ability to protect themselves. They cannot self-isolate nor wash their hands. 

As designers, we have an ethical choice to make ­– to be complicit and enable the continuation of the unjust spatial design apparatus, or to counter it. We can use design not only to understand better the relationship between power and the organization of the built environment, but we can disseminate this knowledge and engage broader publics, individuals, and institutions in a collective struggle, and to promote change. Our artistic production can show just, non-extractive, and regenerative living environments. It can conceive alternative imaginaries of spaces and places, conscientious relations with our surroundings (social, cultural, natural), and, new subjectivities. As such, it can challenge and empower our collective imagination and institutions with new perceptions, where change is a way forward, rather than a threat. 

At FAST, our projects are at the intersection of architecture, urban planning and human rights. They focus on conflict- and crisis-affected regions. We research. We engage with various publics, individuals, communities, and institutions. We make visible the politics of space and the consequences of systemic segregation on the quality of the built environment and people’s living conditions. We develop alternative designs and policies to show that other realities are possible. We empower collectives, individuals, and institutions by developing tools for change through designs, workshops, and policy recommendations. We advocate and disseminate our research and designs with public exhibitions, installations, and publications. 

Don’t let a good crisis go to waste. The pandemic can strengthen extractive corporate agendas and national isolationism – following what Naomi Klein calls ‘The Shock Doctrine’-, or it can be used as a catalyst for change. As our institutions are transitioning and restructuring to address this global crisis. It is our responsibility, as practitioners, designers, and researchers, to use this moment to promote and support the right change and to strengthen the struggle for social and climate justice. 

Malkit Shoshan. May 4, 2020