The new new. An opportunity or wishful thinking? Stephan Ott, Director of the Institute for Design Research and Appliance, spoke about this topic at the Kunstverein Familie Montez gallery in Frankfurt am Main for Frankfurt World Industrial Design Day 2020. Referencing three phenomena, he explored the question: what is needed for “the new new” in a design context?


By Stephan Ott.

As I was preparing this, I spent a long time considering what I should picture after asking about the theme of this evening’s event: The new new. An opportunity or wishful thinking? The longer I thought about it, the more often three specific phenomena came into my mind. While these phenomena are not fundamentally new, they struck me as relevant for the new – for assessing it as well as for designing it.

1. Every system is governed by a structure

We are currently experiencing how a tiny structural organism named coronavirus is exposing the boundaries of almost all systems that play a role in our everyday lives. It went, and is going, so far that we must define essential sectors within healthcare, transport and the economy that require protection and support so that they do not immediately collapse.

The fact that we humans even have a chance at survival is so far owed less to systems and much more to the fact that our bodies are able to react to viruses in a structural way. If we were actually equipped with an immune system, as we so often call it, we would have died out generations ago. Alongside our body’s immune responses which function structurally, we are also managing the current situation with relatively less complex infrastructure measures including physical distancing, washing hands, airing out indoor spaces and wearing masks.

It is frequently crises – accidents, diseases, natural catastrophes – that parade the inadequacies of systems. Crises are the moments when systems expose the discrepancy with the relevant structure underlying them due to their own tendency towards self-preservation. At these moments we are prone to talking about a structural crisis; however, what we are primarily dealing with is a systems crisis.

One person who very intensively studied the relationship between structures and systems was philosopher Heinrich Rombach. In Ontology of Structure, he writes, “The accumulation of specific mishaps at one place in a system proves that the system does not fit its covert structure at that place (the ›traffic flow‹). The mishap does not rectify the system, though it does provide reason and information for a potential rectification of the system.” (Heinrich Rombach, Ontology of Structure – A Phenomenology of Freedom, Freiburg, Munich, 1988, p. 170)

The fact that we humans even have a chance at survival is so far owed less to systems and much more to the fact that our bodies are able to react to viruses in a structural way.

A good example of the post-accident rectification discussed by Rombach is Germany’s (final) departure from nuclear energy directly after the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe in 2011. What is interesting is that the withdrawal was done because of a political decision. This decision had been called for by environmental activists for decades, yet is still today heavily criticised by people with purely technical arguments as well as by corporate representatives with purely economic interests.

In my opinion, it is critical that innovations earn their title by serving all people – those alive today and those to come in the future – instead of being based on mono-disciplinary decisions or benefiting a select group of people, as difficult as this may be. The aim of innovation – and this would be my first proposal for the new new – should first and foremost not be fixation by monocultural systems – in the form of rules, laws, standardisation, interpretations, etc. – and should instead first always be the penetration of the underlying structure.

Let me clarify this with my second point.

2. Technology continues to become more accessible

Since the very beginning, the history of human development has been shaped by technological progress and its consequences. The things that have changed massively are the pace of innovation and, even more importantly in my view, the subsequent increased frequency at which people must take decisions about innovation. On top of that is the fact that even highly complex technology has continually become more available and easier to operate over recent decades.

The results of this phenomenon include specialised companies frequently being overtaken by start-ups from outside the industry, if you would allow me the metaphor. The prime example of this is the automotive industry which is presently being turned completely on its head. While this country still discusses insufficient ranges and a lack of charging infrastructure and rails on about the physical gap between a car’s parts, you have already been able to drive an electric Tesla from Hammerfest to Syracuse for several years now. Mind you, I do not believe at all that electric vehicles are the solution to everything. The unmanaged impacts from them, such as the resource consumption during production, during operation and at the end of their life cycle, are too great and will remain too great.

Let me make a comparison to illustrate these impacts.

The invention of the spear about 300,000 years ago formed the basis for technological slaughter from a distance, which was then perfected over time. Not a single person 12,000 generations ago could have had even a clue of the cultural, psychological and societal consequences that would result. Germany’s federal company for radioactive waste disposal (BGE) announced potential sites for the country’s long-term radioactive waste disposal on 28 September 2020. The number connected to this disposal is staggering: they are looking for a storage site that will be safe for one million years. They must therefore make a decision that ought to be kept and be humane for roughly 40,000 generations. With all due respect to the potential held by contemporary science, this is a feat that no human can achieve. In other words, the decision that is made – whatever it may be – can only be one that is inhuman in all aspects.

With any technical innovation comes the question of its consequences. While this of course may not always be on the same scale as with nuclear energy, each of these decisions about innovation exercises an influence substantively, temporally, socially and especially naturally, which means they extend far beyond purely technical aspects. When it comes to the new new, I therefore believe it is critical not only to view technology as the science and teaching of the relevant possible technology, but also to incorporate the potential consequences into the innovation process. Otherwise, we should rather stop speaking of innovation altogether.

With any technical innovation comes the question of its consequences. While this of course may not always be on the same scale as with nuclear energy, each of these decisions about innovation exercises an influence substantively, temporally, socially and especially naturally, which means they extend far beyond purely technical aspects

This brings me to my third and final point.

3. The present day is disappearing

All of us deal with the future in different ways, personally and professionally, every day: with the future of our work, transport, climate, design and so on. We also focus our attention to the past, in exhibitions, publications and even in fiction, through films and TV series. Both of these times – the future and the past – share a speculative moment, as no one knows specifically what the future will bring or what it will look like. And the further back we go into the past, the more details are lost; they are forgotten, and sometimes they are also intentionally appropriated, forged or collaged.

In an era of rapidly expiring Instagram stories, it is remarkable that the present day, that is, the time that we can very tangibly deal with based on our own experience and not speculation, is something that we wish to keep hold of for shorter and shorter. This phenomenon even extends so far that we wish to completely eliminate certain moments, like when customers are delivered their product before ordering, illnesses treated before they break out or stock market transactions performed microseconds before an upswing or crash. I call this phenomenon a jump back, and I believe that this jump back that we keep getting closer to thanks to technology has long since replaced the jump forwards from technology. This slip away from the present day puts enormous challenges in front of us because, despite everything, it still does not relieve us of having to understand what the present day is. “That which is, is always simultaneously the entire history of its becoming and potential to become,” is how poet and philosopher Dieter Leisegang phrased it.

Unlike planned obsolescence, where the lifetime of an object is artificially made shorter – which Günther Anders brilliantly analyses in The Outdatedness of Human Beings – the lifetime of the present day is made shorter with the jump back. That inevitably means that a decreasing number of objects find their due place in our present day. A displacement competition is in turn created, which leaves businesses facing major challenges and also confronts designers in all industries day for day. What’s more, the result so far has not been that fewer things are produced. Rather, the frequencies here are also increasing, which means that we consumers are kept in a state of constant stimulation which has fewer and fewer points of contact with our present day as humans.

In an era of rapidly expiring Instagram stories, it is remarkable that the present day, that is, the time that we can very tangibly deal with based on our own experience and not speculation, is something that we wish to keep hold of for shorter and shorter.

I am now reaching my conclusion and would like to summarise:

What is needed for “the new new”?

When we ask ourselves this evening about the new new, the answer – or at least the approach for a solution – should, in my opinion, be sought in three fields:

For a design that is fair for all people, we need a thorough, fundamental structural analysis (1). Systems with mono-disciplinary motivation and fixation cannot meet the complex challenges of the future.

We should not leave the research and transfer of technical expertise solely to technology, but instead put by its side a techno(philo)sophy (2), that is, a research and teaching of technology rooted in the humanities. That has previously happened too rarely, if at all.

We urgently need competent authorities on the present day (3), in addition to those who study the past and the future. Relevant future predictions and a resistance to attempts at historiographical subterfuge can succeed only when based on a clear structural analysis of (and in) the present day.

Designers have access to conditions that are not at all bad for contributing to all three fields, thanks to their work that is based on people’s needs, their transdisciplinary approach and their activities that have an effect on and during the present day. However, many people seem to be unaware of this. That is why I argue that structural analysis, techno(philo)sophy and expertise in the present day be integrated into the curriculum of every programme of study, not just for design.

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