A Redesigned Nation: What If Manila Weren’t at the Center?
Field notes from the 2019 International Design Conference
The thing about design talks is that they make you ridiculously hopeful.
Being surrounded by bright minds, hearing about the latest (sort of) world-saving developments, seeing brilliant ideas come to life—it’s infectious. This is exactly what happened last September 21, while I was sitting in a crowd of designers and design enthusiasts discussing at the 2019 International Design Conference (IDC 2019). I found myself overflowing with hope. Hope for a future I had mostly resigned to giving up on—a future, in general. Hope for a country that’s felt pretty hopeless for a while now.
While the entire conference covered a broad range of topics under the umbrella theme of “Design Futures,” I found myself latching onto the talks under the second plenary. They all focused on the future of cities, of places, of spaces. They presented design-centered initiatives that offer sustainable models of development and discussed plans and propositions for further modernizing urban areas.
And, well, who wouldn’t be daydreaming of a well-designed city after such a talk? We’ve seen how prioritizing design has helped cities all over the world—Singapore, Copenhagen, Bilbao, and Zurich, among others. These cities showcase how properly designed urban development can elevate the quality of living in any given area. So—of course, you all saw this coming—the question is: when and how will Manila become such a city? Or, better yet: when and how can the Philippines become a well-designed country?
Designing with humans in mind means designing with the planet in mind
Where we are now, in terms of design, is quite unique. We’re at a point where we’ve come to realize that focusing solely on technological advancement isn’t exactly ideal. That said, impressive strides have been taken all over the world to prioritize human-centered design. IDC 2019 alone was peppered with such narratives and products.
There’s the brilliant l’Artisan Électronique project by Unfold Belgium, which was discussed by Claire Warnier via video presentation. Seen as a way of adapting to the latest wave of the industrial revolution (4.0, if we are to believe the media), the aim of the project was to define the role of the maker in a highly digitized and automated process of production. The creation of a new tool—a virtual pottery wheel connected to an actual 3D ceramic printer—allowed the design team to challenge the idea of uniformity in digital design. They gathered samples of the same template from makers around the world with the only difference being the type of clay used to create the ceramics. The results vastly varied and proved that there is a way to inject context and story-telling into automated production.
Unspun, another presenter at IDC 2019, presented a very human-centered ethos. Co-founder Kevin Martin shared how the custom denim brand actually started from wanting to turn the traditional ready-to-wear business model on its head. The idea was to start with the customer instead of the product because no two bodies are truly alike. With that key insight, he, along with co-founders Walden Lam and Beth Esponnette, built a brand centered on digital customization with the mission to reduce global carbon emissions by at least 1% through automated, localized and intentional manufacturing.
The Mills Fabrica was also impressive with how it mapped out a space that preserves history just as well as it incubates fresh ideas. Co-Director Alexander Chang shared the company’s process of turning an old textile factory in the heart of Hong Kong into something relevant and useful for an urban community. The result was a co-working space cum tech lab with an experiential retail floor, a space that combined old and new with respect for heritage and encouragement for innovation. At the heart of it all, though, was the community that The Mills Fabrica wanted to foster. With the needs of small tech-based businesses at the forefront, the space is home to a slew of start-ups.
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In line with design being more human-centered in a myriad of ways, another thing that was stressed at IDC 2019 was that sustainability isn’t important. Designing with humans in mind means designing with the planet in mind. Form is now just as important as function but not in a way where “pretty” is the end-all, be-all of design. Andrew Dent of Material ConneXion and Justino Arboleda of Coco Technologies Corporation made this clear through their respective presentations on using unconventional textiles for the sake of circular, sustainable design. From localized resources such as piña, kapok, and coconut husks, to biofabrication (things like bacterial paint and mushroom leather)—the possibilities when it comes to material design in this day and age seem limitless.
These ideas, in all fairness, seem to be at the heart of recent urban developments here in the Philippines as well. Aileen Zosa of the Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA) also spoke at IDC 2019. Her agenda? Presenting New Clark City (NCC).
The BCDA is known for re-imagining cities through a public-private business model. They’re best known for putting Bonifacio Global City (BGC) together—the only properly gridded, wire-free city in the Metro. With NCC, the task before BCDA is to turn about 10,000 hectares of land into a modern urban hub that will help decongest Metro Manila. The vision is a smart, green metropolis focused on providing an elevated quality of living for people working in innovation and knowledge-based industries. Taking learning cues from BGC, the BCDA plans on creating generous public parks in NCC and making seemingly small design decisions with big impact—five-meter sidewalks, for example! The BCDA also promises efficient transportation in and out of NCC. Highways that promise a 45-minute to an hour-long drive and trains that will bring you from NCC to Manila in a jiffy—expectations have been set pretty high. Add to that the promise of mixed income housing and renewable energy efforts and you’ve got a seemingly utopian ideal. Why wouldn’t anyone want to move from dusty, crusty Metro Manila into a clean, modern city?
While the plans presented so far are great, there are improvements to be made and other angles to consider. Unanswered questions thrown at Zosa during the conference included: what would happen to the indigenous people of the area? How can the BCDA avoid gentrification that kills small to medium local enterprises? Will an influx of big, moneyed, foreign companies be at the center of these developments just like BGC and Newport City (another BCDA project)?
The solution to such problems could very well lie in another talk during IDC 2019—a quick 5-minute video speech from Tomas Diez of Fab Lab Barcelona. Modern cities, he claims, should be built with self-sustainability as the main goal. Less imports (and exports!) mean less carbon emissions, smaller taxes, more jobs. Closing the gap between production and consumption could improve the quality––not to mention the longevity––of life drastically.
That said, it makes sense to be hopeful.
There is a chance that these principles and ideals will be applied to more and more cities outside of the Metro as time passes. NCC is just one city but, hey, it’s a start. It shows that this kind of development is possible in the Philippines. It shows that someday we could have a whole web of urban hubs that will allow people to remain in the comfort of their respective provinces without having to forego any economic opportunities.
Can you imagine this designed future? A future where Manila—or if we’re really aiming high, life abroad—is no longer every Filipinos dream, but rather just another option.
Words Mags Ocampo
Art Alexandra Lara