Western Vs. Asian Designers. Controversy Breaks Out at ICSID in Singapore

One of Singapore's top designers, Feng Zhu, asked a pointed question to a panel of mostly Western designers at the end of the second day of ICSID that got the mostly Asian crowd really buzzing.

One of Singapore’s top designers, Feng Zhu, asked a pointed question to a panel of mostly Western designers at the end of the second day of ICSID that got the mostly Asian crowd really buzzing. “How much does making money drive design and how much does saving things?” he asked. Feng Zhu was reacting to two days of presentations by mostly European and American designers that focussed on saving the planet by cutting back on consumption and the making of things.

Of course, design has traditionally been associated with the making of stuff, often beautiful stuff. This ICSID conference, however, has embraced the design thinking perspective of designing large scale social systems, especially the planet’s systems (such as rising oceans due to global warming, exploding population straining food and water systems, and carbon energy raising the earth’s temperature).

I totally agree with these arguments—but wonder if the audience is really open to the message. After all, it’s one thing for the rich, consumerist West to begun to shift to a post-consumerist, sustainable society and quite another for Asia, which is just beginning to get the wealth to buy nice things to be told to give them up in the name of the planet.

Feng Zhu’s question got to the heart of that issue. The design of more and better is the way Asian designers make a living by serving the rising Asian middle and wealthy classes. These classes are in acquisition mode big-time as incomes rise in China, India and Singapore and they will have to be persuaded to shift to a post-consumerist value system before Asian designers can themselves begin to think of “saving” as a way of making a living.

Feng Zhu is a successful Asian concept designer. He has worked closely with George Lucas on Star Wars, Episode 111 and with James Cameron. He studied architecture at US Berkeley and industrial design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. And he’s built a successful series of companies, including About in Santa Monica, California. It was embarrassing when someone on the stage asked if he was a “student” after Feng Zhu asked his question. All the Singaporeans in the audience recognized him.

Of all the Asian countries that just might be persuaded to make the shift from consumer to post-consumer society, Singapore may actually be the best placed. It is already clearly wealthy, with a high standard of living. Shopping and buying of global brands has been a deep part of the culture for many years. People already have a lot of stuff in their homes. At the same time, awareness of global warming and its impact on Singapore, a small island city-state, is very high. Concern about the vulnerability that comes with importing water, energy and food is also high. A reconfigured economy that is more sustainable and less dependent on the buying of expensive things, mainly foreign stuff, could be appealing to those who manage Singapore’s affairs.

Feng Zhu gets his chance to talk on the third day of the ICSID conference. Let’s see what he has to say.

But it will take a lot of persuasion to ask the growing Indian and Chinese middle and wealthy classes to give up their buying of things. And no one at this ICSID conference has even dared to suggest just how to sell a post-consumerist, sustainable society to an Asia that wants to live like the West, if not better.

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