2017Eight essential GDA perspectives on design trends
Dominique Chen
Director’s Message

Social Epigenetics

2017.12.31Social Infrastructure

In the program this year, the focused issue under my direction was "Development of Social Infrastructure." We must be especially careful About the word "development." In Japanese, this word also refers to evolution in natural history, but what we mean is the result of random adaptation to random environmental changes, not purposive at all. Given the nature of selective pressure in the market, attempting to gain a comprehensive understanding of industry and design inevitably devolves into the nihilism of "whatever happens, happens." Thus, as the result of natural evolutionary history ourselves, we must be careful About the variable of our "intentionality" when discussing social development. In other words, beyond future predictions accounting for the big-picture view of how society will develop, we must also discuss design-related hopes based on a clear determination of how we wish to develop society.

Today, we can see this kind of discussion beginning to emerge, here and there. We have seen more opportunities around the world to reconsider the social infrastructure of nuclear power since the Tohoku disaster and Fukushima nuclear accident, and interest in renewable energy has grown. So, too, has the ever-worsening problem of exploitative companies stimulated discussion on new ways of working, and as an alternative to the longstanding money-making drive of capitalism, people are also taking a fresh look at social entrepreneurship and NPOs. We are seeing gradual changes in conventional notions of companies and work. In the field of IT as well, Facebook changed their thinking on an attention economy that had gone too far. In January the company announced that they would reduce highly toxic advertising and content and switch to a newsfeed algorithm that emphasizes user well-being.

These cases show that people can change the direction taken in social development through a kind of social genetic engineering. In biology, epigenetics deals with the inheritance of characteristics acquired by the previous generation. Because the stance that the acquired traits of individuals can be inherited violates a central dogma associated with Darwinism, it has long been discounted, but biotechnological advances in recent years have rekindled interest. We might say that on every level of society, from micro to macro, we are building up the methodologies of a design-driven epigenetics that questions past conventions and charts a course to a better future. The issue is whether this will be valuable in ways that make us proud to be human.

Several products among entries from Japan and China (specifically, Hong Kong) that I reviewed seem to respond to these issues. Personally, I was most impressed by an entry in the Hong Kong screenings: a facial recognition system that uses crowd-sourced information About lost children to help parents find them. At a time when people continue to rave About machine learning in profit-driven applications, this system demonstrates how a nonprofit uses advanced technology to address the social issue of missing or abducted children. I hope to see more along these lines in the future. Another entry awarded in Hong Kong was an ultrasonic fetal camera for home use. Instead of needing to go to a clinic, people can appreciate the new life inside expectant mothers from the comfort of home, where husbands who might otherwise feel like outsiders during pregnancy can participate more actively as a parent. Some have pointed out that the device might support sex-selective abortions in China, where a one-child policy was long observed. However, technological enhancements can help prevent this. It is also valuable in Japan, where paternal engagement is generally so inadequate that a new word had to be coined for active fathers.

Amazon Dash buttons, or specifically, their underlying AWS IoT Button technology, is commendable for introducing a means for the masses to design their own programmable HEMS. In food, clothing, and shelter, customizability has been limited to luxury goods and the finer things, but bringing IoT to Amazon Web Services may offer an IT-linked democratization of everyday basics. Muji Hut and the Snow Peak mobile home scale down the concept of ownership, which, along with parallel advances in autonomous vehicles, may transform how people tied to a certain plot of land view housing. A project in Taiwan turns unused areas into parks, showing a new way to encourage the optimization and active public use of these shared land resources. Data visualization efforts by The Nikkei newspaper set a good example in data-driven journalism for gaining a clearer view of social conditions through data and evidence, although I fear that unless others follow this example, current "filter bubble" conditions will not change. As for how we interact with music, Yamaha has taken both computerized and physical approaches in a music education program applying Vocaloid technology and an appealing new wind instrument. Both are wonderful efforts that support development in the sphere of music.

Looking back on this year's entries from the perspective of developing social infrastructure, I was reminded that despite several admirable achievements, too few projects seemed to respond directly to an awareness of these issues. It would be reassuring to expect more projects to introduce the kind of epigenetics that takes society, with its flashes of hope and despair, forward from the level of infrastructure.

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