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Yogi Hendlin

Should this amount to more than lip service and a nice photo opportunity (I did see an event recently sponsored by Dow Chemical1, ouch), EUR could be a real leader in changing the goals of business from shareholder profit and personal gain at any cost, to B-corporations, cooperatives and the circular economy. Dutch thought leaders such as Rutger Bregman chart the course we could take.

EUR’s 2024 Strategic Plan discusses employing ‘design thinking’ in ‘implementation labs’ and establishes a ‘Design Initiative’. In the actual Erasmus Strategy 2024, an entire page is dedicated to ‘Extending our core with design research and education’. So, one could imagine that ‘investing in joint design facilities and initiatives’ might lead to an interdisciplinary centre for design thinking for critically evaluating and adapting all aspects of life and the built environment to be more conducive to how diverse human animals actually use things (a sort of User Experience lab for everything – especially the much coveted topic of digitisation).

When I think of integrating design principles into our physical campus, I imagine round or hexagonal buildings with passive heating and cooling (like London’s Gherkin tower), with plants everywhere, self-powered, rain water collectors, and different atmospheres in each room (a room that is dark for napping; a bright one to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in winter, etc).

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The Gherkin Tower in London. Image credit: Alev Takil

And yet, even if we could build a centre as cool as my imagination’s, it is crucial that we don’t superimpose design or new centres as additional, tacked-on elements to our campus without fundamentally changing the campus little by little on a continual basis to create a design ecosystem. Instead of ‘extending’, we need to be inoculating, trimming and grafting organically, from the macro to the micro.

Otherwise, such a bold vision misses the design point: an entity only acquires its attributes via its context, its environment. Sure, our design initiative will stand out no matter. But where are the inspirational, non-branded murals on the walls of the university buildings we already have, the histories of the downtrodden and darker moments of Dutch history (Diego Rivera style)? Where is the reckoning with existing infrastructure to answer to the calls for diversity (including neurodiversity) and environmental design?

today is a perfect day to be happy

Instead, currently we’re taking the old tack to common issues; that old groove of responding to feelings of threat with the heavy hand of more surveillance. Trying to combat the symptoms of depression and mental illness rather than going to their social and institutional causes, like with the inane ‘smile’ campaign (which psychology tells us is a horribly oppressive and ineffective way of trying to prevent suicides and depression – it’s like the old sexist remark of telling women experiencing public sadness to smile or cheer up). Whichever minister of propaganda came up with that aggressive ‘today is a perfect day to be happy :-)’ campaign should be fired.

There are better ways to shift behaviour than through campaigns of fear or coercion. That’s what design is all about: finding more elegant ways of meeting needs with less violence and harm. To believe the rallying call of ‘forward ho!’ without also sinking our teeth into uncomfortable facts is an ostrich move.

Failing to actively and perpetually learn from our existential vulnerability as humans and the collective mistakes of our cultures, we systematically perpetuate ignorance — the exact opposite of the purported raison d’état of the university. In a recent video meme, actor and sometime rapper Will Smith reminds us that reckoning with our collective history does not mean that the acts are our fault, but they are our responsibility to fix. We have a responsibility to make amends socially and ecologically for the damage that has been done, whether we have actively contributed to it or not.

We, the privileged, at a privileged institution, need better fora for conversations, more transparency in our university governance, more democracy. This is design.

Deliberately overlooking these core elements of design or deploying them tokenistically contorts our best intentions, and will only imperil and debilitate our greater project. If we wish to be taken seriously regarding design, we need to become more sensitive to the everyday assaults to which we institutionally subject members of our community.

An asinine example. In the men’s restrooms in the Paviljoen, there are video screens on the urinals that have been installed some time ago (I don’t know if they exist in the women’s restrooms). No corporation has bought advertisements there (thankfully). The screens are mainly loud colours and bright words. They act as a distraction and nuisance while engaging in perhaps what is the only refuge in modern public society: the bodily necessity of expelling processed food and drink. Co-opting this intimate, private experience and space for advertisement, to attempt to squeeze a few more units of our attention, targets us at our most vulnerable. It is bad design, and demonstrates a lack of polish and civility.

Unless we have some boundaries, some concept of respect, again—no design. Without aesthetic sensibilities, we’re as complicit as an institution of enfeebling our population as the most brazen marketer. Reminding us that we can get a coffee for one euro before 10am is far less important than respecting the autonomy of people in their most private, animal moments. In a cost-benefit analysis of the attention economy, extracting our attention when we’re peeing is not worth it. If EUR wishes to deal with mental health, then giving us some space is basic. (Cheers to The Living Room project for creating a positive example of what this looks like).

While I am in no uncertain terms advocating for less advertisements on campus, this of course is just a symptom of a greater sickness in our society which we can exacerbate or ameliorate. Aesthetics and ethics must be woven into the fabric of our campus community, especially at the level of grounds and operations, the responsibilities of the highest decision-makers. Environmental, social, psychological, bodily, conscious and interspecies ethics and aesthetics as part of our central principles would increase student learning, decrease depression and burnout, and all those other epiphenomena that we’re frantically throwing money at to little avail.

Listening and learning are precisely what the Strategy 2024 was all about in process. But the implementation likewise needs to be guided by an intergenerational, town-gown, environmentally, aesthetically and ethically inflected team—not by ivory tower bureaucrats who won’t even be using the things they’re deciding upon. The ‘how’ of a project is as important as its substance. If we instrumentalise, cut corners, sweep principles and promises under the rug, we’re going to have a very large dust pile obstructing our view.

Alternatively, in conjunction with the digitalisation craze, we could open up decisions and operations to public scrutiny, making good on our promises through public accountability. We could understand the limits of our vision and wisdom through a bit of epistemic humility, as Naomi Oreskes argues in her new book Why Trust Science? If we agree that we are an institution committed to science, especially the science of design of human environments, let us act as if it mattered, by bravely paying more attention to how our arrangements of matter affect us.

In solidarity,

Yogi Hendlin, Assistant Professor, ESPhil & Core Faculty of the Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity Initiative

  1. The sponsorship of Dow Chemical on campus in 2019. ↩︎