With experience putting together exhibitions around the world, including the world's largest gathering of student designers at the Global Grad Show in Dubai last week, Brendan McGetrick knows a good idea when he sees one. The curator, author and designer sat down with New Atlas during Dubai Design Week to chat about the problems the designers of the future are looking to solve, the importance of preserving education as a safe space for creative thinking, and the dangers of ever-growing technological powers like Facebook.
McGetrick has served as the director and curator of the Global Grad Show since its inception in 2015. This year's edition saw 150 student design projects selected from more than 1,000 entries, with the students themselves flown to Dubai to present creations ranging from robotic solutions for bee extinction to coffins that accelerate decomposition of the human body.
These projects serve as not just one-off inventions to solve single problems, but as fascinating insights into how the next generation of designers see the world and the kind of future they want to build. We picked McGetrick's brains on how he goes about choosing the projects, how things are changing in the realm of student design, and its role moving forward. Below is a transcript of our conversation, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
How has your approach to selecting the projects evolved over the years?
I would say that I started with more of a curatorial agenda. I was looking for certain kinds of projects, but now I just collect as many as possible and I let them speak to me. I use them to try and understand what the trends are and what the areas of interest are, which is actually a much healthier way to do it and a much more interesting way because by the end you really get a sense of what problems people are worrying about and what technologies they are fascinated by. So I'd say that's how it has evolved, the feel for the zeitgeist kind of tells me what's going and then I just try to structure and organize it.
So that approach gives you a better handle on what issues might be more pressing than others?
Yeah, and there's so many that I personally don't ever think about. For example, this year there are so many projects on dementia, maybe I need to think more about dementia? I wouldn't have been looking for it, ever, but then you just end up with five in one year and you go, 'hmm interesting.'
What trends do you see emerging in the way students around the world are approaching design?
Well, I'd say there are a few. One is there's a lot of work on the reduction of waste in terms of the way things are produced, the way they're shipped and the way they are upcycled or recycled. There are a number of projects that look at technology really critically – I started noticing that last year, but this year it is quite pronounced. People are really trying to complicate and put the brakes on the effects of certain things, particularly things like social media, the effects of the way that we communicate through gadgets, and things like that.
Also, things like AI and the way really important decisions are being put in the hands of an algorithm, basically. I am seeing a lot of projects that are looking at that quite critically, which I think is good and is interesting for me personally.
There's this lazy narrative, which goes like 'all these kids are digital natives and they're just geeks that can't wait for the next disruptive technology to come out.' But I think that this is really wrong and unfair. I think it's interesting that in design and art schools you are seeing pushback and efforts to use design to intervene in the seemingly unstoppable spread of technology, particularly in communications technology and things like that.
So you think that this new generation of students are more conscious of the effects of being constantly connected than a lot of people suspect?
Yeah, I really think so. It is kind of like how our parent's generation is obsessed with 24-hour news, and we know that it's poison and that it is a waste of time. And I think it's the same thing with the generation younger than us, that they realize things like social media and texting are actually really destructive and can drain a lot of quality of life. And you also have to be worried about privacy issues and all that kind of stuff.
I actually think they are much more thoughtful about it than we are, in the same way that when I look the way my older relatives watch CNN and I go 'just turn this off, you are learning nothing, it's stressing you out, it's making you sad, it's totally repetitive. Just stop doing it.'
So they are titillated in a way that we aren't, in the same way that I would say a lot of us are still kind of really using this technology as it comes, and trying to kind of feel out how we can make the most of it for our own purposes. I think the younger generation, they kind of view it differently.
Do you think that this crazy era of hyper-connectedness and the need to be constantly informed through things like social media has forced us to think about its effects in ways we never have?
Yep. And I think the other misreading is that people imagine these millenials can manage it and they're doing fine, but they're not. They are totally struggling with information overload. And there are at least five projects which are explicitly about the question of how do you create some space for peace of mind in this constant barrage of stuff that you're having to deal with? I think they're under a lot of pressure. That's what I feel, and they're searching for ways to edit out things from their life, to kind of almost create meditative spaces, basically, to get away from the constant barrage of information.
Is there a project in this year's show that particularly inspired you?
I mean, honestly there are loads of them, but in terms of what we're talking about right now, there's a really interesting project called "Decompressed" and it's about exactly this. It's actually three devices. One is a smart lamp that cancels all your 3G while you're having a face-to-face conversation. So it knows through audio, for example, that we're having a conversation, and makes it that you don't get any notifications.
It also has a text feature which uses facial recognition, another intervention so you can have a better sense of how the person is responding to your texts and make it closer to a face-to-face conversation. Also, you can't switch out of your text chat to another app at the same time so you have to treat it with the seriousness that we once treated face-to-face interactions.
And there's one that is an alternative to Google Maps, where it doesn't only provide you with the most efficient route, it provides you with the most beautiful route. So it just rethinks these available technologies and how they can be altered slightly so they reinforce the human experience, rather than kind of just making it as efficient and as cold as possible.
You talk about a void between free-market innovation and the progress and well-being of humanity, due to things like the growing powers of Facebook. Where do you see student design fitting into this problem now, and what role can it play in the future?
I think it's a really important question. The role it's playing now is by offering an alternative to the free market. I don't want to overstate that because there are loads and loads of funded projects in design and tech schools, so it's not like they are totally independent from the free market. But there is absolutely no doubt that, if you look at the Global Grad Show, many of the projects are coming from non-market impulses and non-market values.
It's really important to me that education remains an independent sphere of the market. Of course, that's in a way not the case anymore anyway, you have schools like Stanford where there's basically total integration of the university and things like venture capitalists. But generally speaking, I think it's really important that there is a bastion for pure thinking about design and technology that is independent from thinking about investment and things like that.
At the moment that still basically exists. I would say that it exists less than it did 20 years ago, but it still basically exists and I think that needs to be protected.
How can the kind of thinking on display in the Global Grad Show be translated to the real-world?
It's really tough, and it's really unfair. Basically what happens is you're educated to be a designer, so you're interested in design and you acquire the skills, you make a project and you believe in it. But then you graduate and everyone expects you to have a business degree and basically be an entrepreneur, because that's just how the world works now. And none of them are trained in that way. So that transition is really difficult.
And we had that in the Global Grad Show. There are projects that are really interesting and people will come and say 'oh I like it, I'll take 10.' And they don't have the wherewithal to do anything with that opportunity, basically. I think there is some sort of balance that needs to be struck between a relative freedom from the market as you're working on your work, but some sort of basic familiarity with the market when it comes time to professionalize. Because, like it or not, that's the reality we live in. We can be as critical of the market as we want, but at the end of the day you have to make sure that stuff works within that context.
You need to know how the world works. I actually just had a 20-minute lecture with the designers explaining how you need to talk about your project so that people can understand it. Because people don't have a lot of time, and you need to be super direct. I know that many of them haven't been told that before.
In what ways could free market systems be better reconciled with some of the issues explored in the Global Grad Show, long-term problems like climate change or low-cost housing or food security? Are there levers or mechanisms that can help?
What I would say is, I'm not a communist. I understand the free market has value to it. The problem is, and it's the exact same problem with technology, they've been allowed to dictate everything. It's not per se the problem of the market, and its not per se the problem of technology. It's that every other sphere has been lowered in value.
So, the only way to do it is if you really actually have people from science and other spheres having a real impact on what the likes of Exxon can do. At the moment, Exxon can buy politicians, and they do, they can buy marketing companies, and they do, and they can buy scientists, and they do. And that allows them to put forward policies that exacerbate climate change.
And that's kind of what I mean. Its important for education to be independent because its important to have something else besides the market. And politics should, in a perfect world, be independent of money. Just because you're a good businessman doesn't mean you should be able to have political influence, because it's a different territory. And if you can, then ultimately, the political territory just gets taken over by money because money is the thing that drives society.
So, what I would say is that it's not about changing the free market, because I think the free market is what it is. But it's trying to make it so the free market doesn't get carte blanche to do whatever the hell it wants. So it's that. It's that technology and the free market have just been allowed to do whatever the hell they want and that means their priorities determine everything. And rather than saying 'we need to totally get rid of one of these things' it's more about just creating a space where you can do other things and control the influence of that.
Especially in the US. You say that you are a humanities major and people laugh in your face like you're this irresponsible idiot. We need humanities, we need reading. So it's that. There's nothing wrong with tech, there's nothing wrong with science and there's nothing wrong with businessmen. But it's that this is the only thing that matters now. And the fact that that has been allowed to happen is why the world is sort of dysfunctional as it is. So, that's what I would say.
To see our highlights from the Global Grad Show, check out our earlier coverage here.
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