Design To Change the World Exhibition   Leave a comment

I’m staring at a ten-foot poster.

On it, is a smattering of Japanese and English that I can’t fully decipher, save the word “design” hidden craftily in Katakana at the foot of the poster.  This image is what intrigued me to visit the exhibition in the first place, a slender piece of metal with a seemingly sinister purpose. In this world of metal, steel, fast food and indie movies, who needs saving?

The exhibit is being held on the fifth floor of the Tokyo Midtown tower, in the center of the Japanese designers association display room. Each exhibit is on a small wooden platform that resemble disassembled wooden milk crates. This setup projects an air of simplicity, making the inventions feel less world-changing than they are purported to be.

In every brainstorming session about saving the world, the leaders usually figure out the same thing, each time. To survive in the future we need to be able to drink water, cook food, see in the dark and send e-mail. The exhibit is a mixed bag of objects that all do one of these things.

The first exhibit is a surface treadle pump used to help irrigate gardens. The device is certainly noteworthy, but reminds me of a toy fire truck because it is painted bright red.

Beside this exhibit is a large blue cylindrical device which is a sort of man-powered centrifuge to clean water. A video is on display nearby, showing a few people sprinting with the device after it has been filled with dirty water. They stop, open a spout and pour clean, fresh water into a bottle. Pretty cool.

This is a great exhibition for the casual browser, but I’ll admit it didn’t feel very inspiring.  The idea of changing the world has always been circumspect because human beings can’t always come to a consensus about anything. The devices felt like this notion. They were cool, but would people really adopt these ideas for their day to day lives? I take a gander at a pair of very interesting self-adjusted glasses that don’t require you to make a pit-stop at your local optician every few years. How comes I’ve never heard of these glasses?

The next set of devices I checked out worked on using light to do everyday tasks. My favourite was the “Moon Light” portable light prototype. To operate this, you slip a strange looking white gown over your head. This gown somehow absorbs moonlight, which is channeled into a spherical glass sitting in the center of your chest. I have no idea how well the device works, but it would be pretty awesome to have my very own “Arc Reactor” chest light a la Iron Man.

From prosethetic legs, solar powered cookers and archaic computers, one can see the evolution of these devices and the role they have played, or have yet to play in shaping the way we function in our lives. I’d seen the images of Bill Gates hundred dollar laptop, and I didn’t understand what the fuss was about. I’ve been using computers for twenty years, and I had no idea how this was much different. Wouldn’t be easier to just give out Ipads en masse instead of little green computers that look like it was designed by an irate ex-Lego employee?

Regardless, I felt the exhibition was a good place to think about the ease with which we live our lives relative to those who needs to think creatively about ways to drink, eat, see in the dark and send e-mail. Not everybody can run to the conbini and grab a bottle of water, or flip out their Iphone to tweet while an earthquake is happening. Depsite the boldness of these devices and their ingenuity, a typo sneaked in to give me a chuckle:

How do we spell "irrigation"? : p

As I left the gallery, I took another look at the poster in the entryway. The “strange looking device” I couldn’t see before was the prosthetic leg in the gallery, shot straight forward, and digitally altered with very high contrast which gave it a grey, metallic tone. I liked the obscurity of the image.  Just like the notion of changing the world with a few devices, it told me that if you look harder, if you can see it,  then maybe it can happen.

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