Making and Unmaking the Environment - conference report

By Kjetil Fallan.

Poster design by Growlab

The Back to the Sustainable Future team is recuperating from the intensive, yet invigorating work behind organising the project’s largest and most significant public event: a major conference under the banner Making and Unmaking the Environment, taking place on 7-9 September at the University of Oslo.

170 delegates from 30 countries convened in Oslo to discuss how design is both making and unmaking the environment. The overwhelming response to the Call for Papers proves that the topic struck a chord with the international scholarly community, and resulted in 90 judiciously selected papers presented in five parallel strands over six sessions. Probing an impressive range of issues—from the environmental design imaginary of 19thcentury fiction, via the (un-)sustainability of various materials in product development, to the emergence of ecological design in socialist economies—the programme comprises a testimony to the topicality and broad reach of the conference theme.

The event served as the Design History Society Annual Conference 2017, which we are proud to have brought to Scandinavia for the first time on the occasion of its 40th anniversary. Adding to the festive sentiment, this year’s DHS conference also celebrated the 30th anniversary of the society’s journal, the Journal of Design History—a recent special issue of which on the topic of Environmental Histories of Design, co-edited by BaSF PI Kjetil Fallan and affiliate team member Finn Arne Jørgensen, was distributed gratis to conference delegate.

The pre-conference programme included three guided visits and two workshops. The visits took delegates to the Museum of Cultural History’s new permanent exhibition Collapse which explores what can happen when nature defies human expectations; to the Losæter urban farming project, and to the design studio of Flokk office furniture (trading under several established brands, including Håg). The workshops, The Green Museum and Green on Screen, invited delegates to dig deep into the conference theme through the media of museums and films, respectively.

Adding to the main programme’s parallel sessions, keynote speakers Simon Sadler (University of California, Davis), Jennifer Gabrys (Goldsmiths, University of London), and Peder Anker (New York University & University of Oslo) offered rich interventions from distinct angles. Through his comprehensive examination of ‘Design’s Operational Environment’, Sadler opened up many of the big issues to be discussed throughout the conference regarding the potential design has to elicit societal change in the shadow of looming environmental problems. Drawing on her research on how sensing technologies enable new modes of environmental activism by design, Gabrys proposed the ‘Making and Unmaking Citizens through Sensing Environments’. Offering a decidedly fresh perspective on some well-known actors and arenas in the history of design, Anker outlined a trajectory in the early history of ‘Computing Environmental Design’ by focusing on Serge Chermayeff’s little known efforts to bring together nascent computing technology and the emerging field of environmental design.

A hallmark of a successful conference is the seamless integration of scholarly and social exchanges, and the designed environment is crucial to this end. The Oslo Opera House, designed by Snøhetta (completed 2008), served as the perfect venue for the official conference dinner, providing the delegates with ample opportunity to experience and discuss the deeply interrelated nature of design and the environment.

All the visuals and materials for the conference were designed by Growlab, an Oslo-based design studio specialising in design for social and environmental sustainability. Check out their work on www.growlab.no