Gold Medalist Ken Maher has charged the design profession with a pivotal role in bringing about the social revolution needed for the world cope with the challenges presented by climate change, urbanization and the global economic crisis.

Delivering his AS Hook Memorial Address in Sydney last night, the final event in his national tour, Maher spoke of a “new way of designing” he termed ‘deep design’. This new movement, embodying ecology of design and unselfish creative expression, could both raise public awareness and provide a practical response to climate change, he said.

Architecture had the potential to provoke a “new urban responsibility”, one that is collective rather than egocentric, Maher said.

“The challenge for the design professions is to turn attitudes around by advocacy and demonstration, so the real value of design is better understood by our communities and our politicians.”

As cultures and economies shift to focus on cities, and populations swell, there is an opportunity to remedy past failures, the HASSELL chair said.

Recent times have seen a retreat from public values in the built environment, the commoditization of architecture and the privatization of public space. Architects and designers now have a responsibility to think in a joined-up way about the natural and built environments, he said.

“Cities demand the investment of creativity and passion in their making, and a greater level of engagement in this process by our community and political leaders. If we don’t get the design and reality of our cities right, then not only will our communities and our societies fail, but so might life on our planet.”

While some reforms, such as energy policy, transportation strategies, housing plans, carbon tax and carbon trading, demand political change, some are specifically about how Australian cities arrange spaces and buildings in a more responsive and inventive way, Maher said.

“I believe that architects and designers have a significant role to play in recapturing the spirit more recently lost from our cities — not only through the quality of our own work but also through raising public awareness of the possibilities for a better, more ecological city that also sustains the human spirit.”

Image © The Australian Institute of Architects