Colleague and friend Stefan Goellner just got back from his trip to Japan, where he visited the 3rd International Conference for Universal Design in Hamamatsu. His conference report for the DRNetwork is being shared here:
Universal Design – strongly supported by Ron Mace in the 1980s at New York State University – has since then become a well known concept, ranging similar to »inclusive design« and »design for all«. Mainly based on 7 basic principles it is worth questioning how influential the concept is today and which impacts it has for today´s design community. The international conference for Universal Design is a four-yearly event which provides the most prominent event to verify this question.
The 3rd issue of the conference was held in Hamamtsu and thereby took place in Japan for the second time. After a delayed and a little bit obscure review process the conference was organized with great perfection and conducted with japanese the perfection and the routined kindliness that Japan is famous for. Hamatsu considers itself being the first „universal design“ city and thereby emphasizes the japanese aspiration to adopt the concept in large scale. Hence the prominently staffed japanese opening commitee underlined the importance that universal design has gained in Japan for both policy and product development – which are rooted in the impending effects of the „hyper-aging“ society that Japan represents.
The Japanese perspective was later contradicted by the keynote of Prof. S. Sandu (UK) and the statements by Prof. S. Balaram (India) who recalled the limits that the original universal design rules imply with regard to the needs of less prosperous countries. This was illustrated by only one contribution touching India and no contribution concerning Africa in the last issue of the Universal Design Handbook – the most prominent publication within the community. They claimed that the rules lack a certain degree of inclusion itself and touch the problems of a minority of humans at the foremost, while ignoring the basic concerns of the »majority world«. At the same time they highlighted the opportunities that suitable design norms and recommendations could have especially for countries where the discipline still has not been seriously considered as an important factor for enabling economical and societal development.
In the following days the conference contrasted the various expectations and premises that Universal Design offers in a wide ranging scope of presentation originated in 38 participating countries – although the number here is as misleading as the announced 12.000 visitors. Still, the presentations proved that the concept in general gains a high level of acceptance and is relevant for design researchers as well as academics and national policy makers. Scandinavian countries (Norway and Denmark in particular) appeared here to be most advanced, in implementing universal design principles in national regulations. On the other end practioneers like Eiichi Kono or Angela Morelli proved that »universal design« is often equal to »good design«, which always implied good practical knowledge and multi perspective thinking.
The fact that the Universal Design concept can reach beyond issues of disabilities was also presented in the associated Universal Design exhibition: business driven products from major companies were shown in parallel to prototypes from university research and an exhibition regarding life improving products for third world countries designed by IDEO.
The conference revealed that Universal Design could gain even more attention and impact if it motivated a deeper debate about the opportunities and constraints of possible design-transfer among different countries, cultures and people. It turned out that the original demand for equalizing any environment has turned into an obligation to debate the possibilities for this transfer. This not only asks for the adoption of products to different grades of abilities but for a deeper knowledge about regional specifics and localized requirements for product design – here the design research community could enlighten the debate about globalism from a viewpoint that it currently left for big brands and multi national companies. However suitable platforms and exchange formats are still missing. Hopefully the next community event (Oslo 2012) will pick up this gap.