On this broad topic, we will restrict the scope of this essay to social harmony. To explore how effective design can help toward this end, we can classify notable winners this year into three approaches they take.
Bridging gaps between outsiders and current social systems
Assuming that society consists of majorities and minorities, there will always be some individuals who are excluded from social systems, which are generally designed for the majority. One way to bridge this gap is with inclusive design.
Among the winners in this year's program, we noticed work that bridges the gap between social systems and those who are disadvantaged in some way, whether by ability, age, nationality, access to shopping, or other factors. These entries took many forms. Some are award-winning products, such as Panasonic Let's Remo-con AD/ST TV remote controls for those who have upper limb disabilities or are receiving high-level care. Others are services, such as the Mieru-Denwa speech-to-text service that displays on a smartphone what other parties say during calls. Still others are programs, such as an employment arrangement with shorter working hours for those with mental or developmental disabilities. Regardless of their category, all were much more than an elegant product or fitting project. They showed good design across a series of processes, from how problems were identified to how solutions were provided.
Learning About others
From the perspective of the majority, these gaps are easy to overlook. But if they are leaving minorities to fend for themselves, we will have a longer road to social harmony. Instead, the kind of inclusive design cited above alters majority perceptions and helps build this society.
Labeling others as somehow unsettling or pitiable imposes a distance between us. This denies the possibility of smooth social relations. With life in a slightly clearer focus, however, we can often appreciate diversity and develop a regard for others' welfare. One may wonder why visiting designers at Feemue, a lifestyle brand based in the Thai slum of Klong Toey, spend time in such a troubled place, but they are drawn to the charms of this environment, where their bags and fashion accessories are made by locals. Once in the hands of buyers, the products are admired as "cool" or "beautiful," overturning preconceptions About unsettling or pitiable conditions. This design brings us a step closer to social harmony.
Similarly, disaster zones should not merely arouse sympathy but should also be recognized as places that once held their own charm. Beyond sympathizing with those affected, we can find fun, stylishness, and culinary pleasures in several disaster recovery projects, such as Kumamoto Castle papercraft kits, bags made of used blue emergency tarp, or the morning market on the rebuilt Yuriage wharf. This design refrains from singling out disaster areas for pity and instead encourages social harmony.
Normalizing social harmony with others
In reality, there are no firm boundaries between majorities and minorities. We may easily find ourselves on either side. Everyone is different, after all. Before praising the ties between us, then, we should recognize the simple fact of social diversity and accept that many others differ from us in ability or preferences. Although some cities or regions have historically shown tolerance by welcoming a diverse mix of people, applying good design to express this inherent disposition seems to be difficult. The difficulty may arise because design often serves a single role well, to the exclusion of others.
However, one award winner this year shows the potential of a pluralistic approach. This community center serves a "jumble" of roles and people, in the words of the architects. It welcomes people regardless of age, ability, or state of health. Loosely clustered around a courtyard, various buildings provide adult day care for seniors, nursing care for those who are disabled, education at a nursery school, medical care, and more. Visitors can have a meal, soak in a hot spring, exercise at a gym, and even browse at a flower shop. The center as a whole also provides employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Just as public spaces have traditionally brought people together, the social welfare corporation that manages the center is demonstrating what social harmony looks like.
In our lives, we may find it hard to relate to some things, and this may become stressful. The more convenient life seems to become, as innovative technology or systems enter everyday life, the more we may try to avoid stress and surround ourselves with our preferred things or information. Social media shows only articles or photos that resonate with us. Recommended books or news are easy to relate to, and events bring together only like-minded people. In time, we may see a world where no one is different from us. And then, as our imagination fades, it will be a desolate world indeed. Establishing social harmony is essential not for the sake of specific people but because it is where social prosperity must lie.
This constructive work will falter with the kind of design that serves only the short-sighted convenience of individuals. The community center is just one hopeful example of design that brings people great pleasure, but now that we seem intent on dismantling social harmony, it is time to appreciate what this constructive design can do.