CAN THE CENTRE HOLD?

JOHN HESKETT, CHAIR PROFESSOR HONG KING POLYTECHNIC
In being asked to write an article for the INDEX: anthology I find myself reflecting on the fact that my next birthday will be my 75th and as I grow older my conviction that the world needs radical change becomes more intense.

It seems to me a matter of urgency that we, and by that I mean every living, conscious human being on the planet, recognize that we are engulfed in a huge, growing crisis on multiple levels that will not be easily resolved. In addition to a series of recent natural disasters of uncommon destructiveness, we have to cope, among other things, with widespread economic collapse, a distrust of politicians and political systems, insurrections and riots, civil wars and fundamentalism of many varieties, a flood of weaponry swilling around the world, and dwindling resources to meet the needs of an ageing population. By any standards, these are troubling times.

Surrounded by the bombardment of bad news that is the staple fare of the media, I think often of some frequently quoted lines from a poem, The Second Coming, by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats that remain powerfully appropriate to our situation:

  • Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
  • Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
  • The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
  • The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
  • The best lack all conviction, while the worst
  • Are full of passionate intensity.

It is difficult to maintain a positive stance in the face of all the daunting obstacles that lie ahead, but perhaps the worst dangers are those of feeling helpless and negative about our capacity, not just to survive, but to achieve a life for a greater number of people of sustainable well-being – a phrase coined by colleagues at the TU Delft.

After a lifetime working in the field of design, I am still convinced of its enormous power to beneficially reshape the world of artifice we have created and inhabit. I’ve written elsewhere of my belief that design is a unique characteristic of what defines us as human beings, enabling us to create a world of artifice to meet our needs and give meaning to our lives. It therefore has a long evolution, going deep into the prehistory of humanity, but gradually emerging with an enhanced capacity to create tools and weapons, shelter and apparel, items for storage and transportation. Design, defined in these general terms has moved through many stages since the emergence of homo sapiens, but has been integral to the major stages through which modern life has emerged, such as: nomadism, rural settlement, early urbanization and craft industry, mercantile economies, mechanical industry, electrical industry, and, in our time, electronic industry. In each phase a new paradigm for design has emerged and, I would argue, a new phase is emerging now. Throughout all these phases, the levels of creative genius apparent in objects and structures of all kinds should be a continuing source of profound inspiration for us in the tasks that lie ahead.