Until recently, trends were orchestrated by designers, marketers, magazine editors, TV directors, ad agency chiefs, and others. What will be the next hot topic? What are the trendsetters contriving to do? Anticipating such matters proved lucrative to them.
Times have changed. We are flooded with information, from social media and elsewhere, which has given us the freedom to choose for ourselves what is trending. As a result, we now see the will of the people on a smaller scale.
Sometimes this small-scale consensus is exclusive, and at other times, it is controversial. It brings us together and tears us apart, rocking the world. On the other hand, it has expanded our perspective. We can now appreciate that opinions on beauty, usability, or other qualities may vary widely.
Small-scale consensus and a middle ground
In this environment, it has become quite hard to orchestrate trends that are universally appealing. Paradoxically, it is harder to find silver-bullet solutions that resonate nationwide.
When considering the matter of cultivating local communities, we can distill the concept of locality down to things that set an area apart. It is deceptively difficult to cultivate or extend this distinctiveness, which consists in the small-scale consensus of local groups, is intertwined with local economic interests, and is in a constant state of flux.
Surveying examples of design in the award program from this perspective, we can discern a few key concepts. One is a middle ground, whether between beauty and diversity, business and volunteering, public and private, and so on. This middle ground brings together aspects of what we want and what actually exists in the everyday world. Specifically, a significant theme is how well design work integrates and reflects the will of the people on a small scale.
However, this middle ground does not involve compromise (as accepted by many in Japan) or splitting the difference. Instead, there is a process of new creation, which is the focus of creative work.
Another key concept, when this middle ground is addressed in creative work, is respecting memory.
One Gold Award this year was given to the renovation of an outdoor shopping arcade in Fukuyama, Hiroshima. Here, we admired how the planners intentionally kept the original pillars in the new arcade, preserving a memory. In this way, the project stands in the middle ground between past and present, between beauty and diversity. Despite this intermediate stance, the work is not moderate—it is quite distinctive.
An award-winning community center in Hakusan, Ishikawa, shows insight on local and social matters, and the new balance it strikes sets a good example for other communities. Here, a cluster of buildings serves various purposes including senior day care, disabled nursing care, and nursery school care, but those without disabilities also visit for the hot spring, restaurant, and other facilities. This jumble of roles brings together people of all kinds. On reflection, we realize that this kind of mingling used to be common, both in extended families and rural villages. Thus, we see how respect for memory has inspired something new.
We can also observe how respect for a diverse city has inspired new creation in Ota, Gunma, in the form of a museum and library . In urban development, we can take the view that planned scenery should itself be beautiful, or we can believe that the greater the mix of new and old, the more organic a place will be. Not only is this site visually striking outside, walking around inside convinces us that the uniform convenience we once thought convenient actually discouraged new discoveries and experiences and obstructs reconciliation and understanding.
On this note, many people are still under the misconception that design is all About how concepts are expressed visually or in tangible output. Of course, it is true that one aspect of design is seeking formal qualities that appeal to our senses, as seen in graphic design or product design. But if we look only for superficial trends, we misjudge more substantive developments.
For example, some design work may fall under the category of renovation. Many renovation projects have been awarded in recent years, such as a Gold Award-winning suburban apartment complex in Kanagawa in 2016. But it would be too shallow to think that the era of renovation is over simply because no projects among the Best 100 happened to be described this way.
I prefer to consider design as a problem-solving process. The three award winners mentioned clearly all attempt to solve or alleviate social issues, and they can be described in similar ways. From this perspective, there are clear reasons to commend other highly original award winners that are more conceptual (as in process-making) than physical, such as a culinary event in Hakodate or a drop-in center addressing the everyday concerns of seniors.
The depth of human resourcefulness
As the Tokyo Olympics draws near and inbound tourism continues to surge, big cities in Japan are so economically dynamic that we tend to overlook chronic social issues there. But the fact remains that problems are piling up in suburbs, rural cities, and farming villages.
Problem-solving from a human perspective Advances in AI will herald an era where we can look for a middle road with greater accuracy, and more easily find a satisfying sense of direction. Still, solutions requiring creativity and innovation remain beyond the reach of AI, which also lacks a human respect for memory.
Outstanding design and creative work relies on human resourcefulness, and all of us can appreciate the depth of this work. In this way, the epitome of design thinking is problem-solving with human creativity.