Last week's column posited the idea that one way to respond to Covid-19 was by design. In a nation of consumers, it is important at times of stress to look at the other side, designing and making things to be consumed.
The response was three-fold. Many of the 12 ideas identified are already under way or were being explored. Some were seen as positive, but for the future. And some responses despaired that Australia had the capacity to recover. Taking each one in turn.
Design ideas under way
Spatial distancing (not social distancing) became the norm, although the less precise term of physical distancing seems more popular. One upside of the painted and taped crosses on floors and footpaths is for people with a little idea of space to get a better sense of scale.
Norman Swan, and the ABC, is the prime source of accuracy and truth, to push back against the underbelly of fake news on social media, although the latter now seems overwhelmed by black humour and entertainment. Digital is replacing spatial, for exercise in particular.
Low Costa Gardens had already taken off by the time the column was published, without government encouragement. Vegetable seeds and seedlings sold out in nurseries as people stocked up for the oncoming bleak winter. Whether the newly minted green thumbs work remains to be seen.
If we make it, they will come came true: more alcohol for sanitisers, more masks, more gowns and ventilators and equipment that we need to overcome the pandemic. Many industries creatively converted their production to the ‘war effort’.
The Condo Clutter Corps swung into action, as people threw out the unwanted furniture and goods from their apartments (and houses). Sadly, it was not recycled, rather it was tipped by the garbage collectors, thankfully still at work. It gave us evidence if any was ever needed, that we are a nation addicted to a disposable throwaway society.
Whilst Australia demonstrated its selfishness with the egregious buying goods prepping for the looming ‘viral Armageddon’, it also showed resourcefulness and creativity – the ultimate DIY nation. Last Sunday was Bunnings biggest ever day of trading as people purchased goods for home renovations, hopefully design improvements.
Design ideas for the future
It's too soon to see if the suggestions for major changes could be taken up. We are yet to see more nerds for the NBN, a prefab industry for emergency housing and the Burn Units for indigenous hazard reduction.
My encouragement for state governments to actively purchase in the oncoming downturn in housing prices to create pepper and salt social housing in our suburbs was repudiated. Creeping or creepy socialism it was called.
But a $300bn intervention by our feds means we are all Keynesians now (thanks Richard Nixon), if not socialists now (thanks 1880’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir William Harcourt).
Do we have a design future?
The design community is ever one of optimism but the third response to these proposals could burst that design bubble. Essentially Australia is deeply design (and manufacturing) ignorant.
For this assertion I take as evidence an article by the Guardian economics reporter Greg Jericho. Or rather the commentators ‘below the line’. The article was titled “Think when Coronavirus is over, Australia's economy will snap back into place. Good luck with that”.
Jericho painted a bleak outlook for the economy, pointing out that between the first and second world wars GDP per capita was much more volatile than it has been over the more stable last 50 years, almost uniformly one of growth. The recipe at the heart of it was “Keynes has already written his General Theory, so we know that fiscal expansion, not austerity is the best response”.
The outlook is dire, summed up in the observation that “the global economy is only as strong as the weakest link. And right now, the US led by Donald Trump is in a pitiful state. Jericho painted a bleak picture, but not without hope.
The kicker for me was in the comments, where so many despaired of Australia's ability to make anything, with comments like “we don't manufacture anything anymore”, “we stopped making things because it was cheaper to buy of the sweat factories of Asia”, “we have become almost solely dependent on mineral and meat exports”, “we don't make a fridge or a stove or washing machine or electrical goods or even a car”.
Their summary: Australians got used to cheaper goods, that you could consume and throw away. A society obsessed with quantity over quality.
All true, but only in part. We do design and make things, mostly of quality not quantity. One anecdotal example will have to serve as a rebuttal.
Three years ago, an entrepreneur wanted to offer an experience in a National Parks for physically and / or mentally disabled. He envisaged using a series of lightweight individual vehicles that could transport them in a safe and controlled manner on routes through the park in SW WA.
The designer / engineer / manufacturer converted 12 new petrol driven off road quad bikes to electric motors, so they were quiet and non-polluting to meet national park requirements. He also wrote a software program so the leader could control the other bikes in the convoy. If anyone started to muck up, the electric motor could be immediately switched off.
The original quad bikes were made in Asia, but the conversion, which cost as much as the original bikes, were made in two sheds in suburban Sydney. Just one of hundreds of thousands of small initiatives taken throughout the country, this one borne of our experience making vehicles.
Even at the height of car manufacturing Australia, there were always more mechanics and car workers outside the Holden, Ford and Toyota factories than inside. They made specialist vehicles such as the Bushmaster, converted vehicles into limousines or specialist vehicles as golf buggies, and now electric vehicles in national parks.
These creatives are all still out there. Designers, makers, engineers, mechanics and workers can create an individual vehicle from scratch, but it requires a demand for quality. We can make things, but they will be niche. In a small population like Australia’s, we won't compete on the mass production, but nor should we.
We should acknowledge the diversity and the individuality we have within our communities and we should design and make for that particular condition. Yes, we are a nation of consumers and yes, we have been a greedy, selfish bunch, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. If we concentrated on the quality of design and the quality of good making, we could find ourselves with a diverse industry that could lead us out of the depression caused by Covid-19.
Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Comments can be addressed to [email protected].