Designing a Better Tomorrow

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It was an audacious idea from the beginning. In a world where dime-a-dozen design competitions take place every month, usually grabbing attention only within the cozy confines of the professional design community, an ambitious group of Danes set out three years ago to do something radically different. Their dream: To launch an awards program with global impact, analogous to the Nobel prizes or the Cannes Film Festival.

To achieve such visibility and relevance, the creators of the first INDEX: Awards, handed out Sept. 23 in Copenhagen, took some unusual steps. They decided to offer rich cash prizes of 100,000 euros (about $121,000) to each of five winners. They made a pitch to the public, including mounting free displays of the winners and runners-up for six weeks around Copenhagen. They linked the awards with other events, including a student program and a three-day brainstorming session attended by a diverse group of 25 leading thinkers.

Most important, they widened the standard definition of "design" well beyond aesthetics and functionality to encompass programs and processes whose conceptualization spoke of imagination, clear thinking, and problem solving.


  The results are now in, and INDEX: looks to be off to a fast start. Hundreds of guests packed into the black-tie awards ceremony at Copenhagen's city hall, where dignitaries from Denmark's crown prince to the mayor of the city were on hand to lend buzz. The five public kiosks containing top candidates were thronged with curious members of the public all weekend long.

Best of all, the five winning designs managed to encapsulate the thinking-outside-the-box INDEX: philosophy. Though several, such as Apple's (AAPL) iPod and iTunes, were typically cool-looking, well-functioning products, most were far more unusual. The INDEX: judges, for instance, recognized a successful program that helps Latin American craftspeople produce better products and sell them more successfully around the world. They even selected an as-yet-unrealized program to build soccer fields in southern Africa whose clubhouses will double as local HIV/AIDS counseling and treatment centers.

With such selections, INDEX: has taken an enormous step away from the rarified, even elitist, world of traditional design competitions, instead highlighting the idea that good design is something that has a direct and immediate impact on improving life.


  The awards program was originally inspired by Danish graphic designer Johan Adam Linneballe, who proposed a project to the Danish government in 2000 to highlight the country's position as a design hot spot. Linneballe wanted to draw global attention back to the place that gave the world Georg Jensen silverware, Lego building blocks, and Bang & Olufsen hi-fi's -- not to mention Jorn Utzen, the designer of the Sydney Opera House; architect Arne Jacobsen, who created the ubiquitous "Ant" chair; and influential furniture designer Poul Kjaerholm.

Linneballe's idea bounced around for two years until a group of public agencies set up the INDEX: foundation in 2002. The foundation hired two dynamic women -- visual artist Kigge Hvid and fashion designer Wickie Meier -- to launch a program, and they set out on a trip around the world to solicit ideas from artists and academics.

Arnold Wasserman, chairman of consultancy The Idea Factory, based in San Francisco and Singapore, vividly remembers his first meeting with Hvid and Meier. "I told them the world didn't need another design competition," Wasserman recalls. Not long after, impressed with the direction INDEX: was heading, Wasserman signed on to advise the program and eventually served as the chairman of the awards committee.


  What changed his mind? For one thing, Hvid and Meier were willing to throw out all the rules. Most competitions group entries into strict types -- such as product design, environmental design, and communications design -- or they narrow them down according to industries such as consumer goods, capital goods, and so forth. INDEX: decided to do away with all such classifications.

Furthermore, in most professional competitions, nominations are submitted by the artists themselves, usually accompanied by turgid writeups explaining the brilliance of the work. "These essays are full of a lot of critical-theory jargon that makes you want to cringe," Wasserman says. INDEX, by contrast, solicited entries from third parties, whose writeups were intended to explain how the nominated product or service had improved their lives or helped change the world.

In the end, that was the critical difference that attracted big-name participants such as Wasserman, Robert Blaich, and Museum of Modern Art curator Paula Antonelli to sit on the INDEX: jury. "We had to ask ourselves whether the point of design is just to sell more stuff or whether it has a higher purpose to provide a social good," says Wasserman.


  The organizers had no idea how many entries would be submitted, nor what level of quality and seriousness they would exhibit. With such open-ended criteria, organizers weren't sure how they would organize or evaluate the nominees. And there was always the chance that the earnest, socially conscious purpose of INDEX: would provoke snickers in the more cynical corners of the design profession.

Yet at the same time, Wasserman and others were convinced that INDEX: was on the right track in elevating design to a higher level. "Design doesn't exist for its own sake," Wasserman says. "It's creativity applied to a purpose." Indeed, especially in the era of product commoditization and Asian outsourcing, quality design has become more important than ever as a way of differentiating good from great -- whether it's a shaver, online service, business network, or international development program.

When it came time for the 12-member jury to review the submissions, INDEX: had received some 538 from 43 countries, which they divided into five categories: Body, Home, Work, Play, and Community. Last spring, the jury narrowed the list to 118 finalists, including such familiar yet diverse items as the Google (GOOG) search engine, the Skype Internet telephony service, a new Dyson vacuum cleaner, and an extra-long set of Fiskars pruning sheers.


  Perhaps the most compelling submissions were dozens of practical ideas for improving life in the developing world, including a rolling tank that lets African women transport up to 90 liters of water over long distances, a solar-powered milk pasteurizer, and two proposals for mobile medical clinics. What excited the members of the jury was that, unlike in traditional design contests, most the entries and designers were previously unknown to them.

The INDEX: awards ceremony served merely as the beginning of a five-week public event. The organizers have erected five pavilions in squares around Copenhagen to display winners and finalists in each of the categories. INDEX: is also linking up with seven design schools around the world for a program called Future Scenarios that will challenge students to create design solutions for people living in 2010.

Perhaps the most ambitious part of the program is the three-day "Views" conference in Copenhagen, during which 25 leading thinkers from various fields are being asked to split up in five groups and devise on-the-spot proposals for the same five categories in which INDEX: handed out awards.

While it may not produce immediate, workable solutions, says organizer Lars Jannick Johansen, Views could serve an inspiration for world leaders to aim higher. Design taken to a higher level -- that's an ambition anyone can get behind.

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