Designing in Troubling Times

Our current social ecosystem is spiraling in loops of dark and ominous events, making it challenging to remain optimistic. COVID-19 pandemic and public health crisis, climate emergency, global migration, resurgent nationalism, deepening wealth disparities, white supremacy and patriarchy, university funding scandals and moral bankruptcies fueled by big tech – incessant bad news and predictions of looming catastrophic futures remind us of our collective failure as humankind. In these complex and complicated times, it is difficult to feel that we have any agency to nurture positive change and design anything good.

Such skepticism is further reinforced by the many failures of ‘innovative’ design projects and agendas: from techno-utopian narratives of better futures exhausted by techno-solutionism to the commercial appropriation of critical and speculative design mindsets. Many pages have been spent critiquing such efforts and picking up the naivety, biases, and dangers of designing to make the world a better place. Design is often seen as intrinsically a part or even a cause of our societal problems, intensifying inequalities and accumulating power in the hands of the privileged few. Designerly speculations about desirable futures are dismissed for sitting outside of actual structural problems, predestined to end up filling corporate flipcharts.

While acknowledging such critiques, we can’t afford to accept that ‘designing for better worlds’ is futile and impossible. In the times of looping crises, we can’t fall into the trap of passive skepticism and lethargy. Deeply aware of the privileges and biases hindering our perspectives of what such worlds could and should be, we are calling out the Uroboros: the ancient serpent eating its own tail that aptly captures our current global conditions as well as our attempts at finding productive responses. Rather than aiming to untangle the serpent and solve any of the problems it encircles, we wish to explore and challenge the social, political, technological, and epistemological circumstances scaffolding its pathways. Summoning the Uroboros collectively and carefully, we hope to better understand its dark loopings and engage in productive speculations on how things could actually – not just in principle – be different.

The 2020 Uroboros festival presented participatory works by art/design researchers and practitioners of diverse backgrounds that engage critically, experimentally, and materially with our troubling global conditions, aiming to actuate a positive change.