The eternal optimist
Is solving humanity's most urgent problems simply a matter of good design? Jeremy Freed talks to Bruce Mau about curating an upcoming expo that explores that question on a grand scale
Consider this radical thought: There has never been a better time to be alive than this very moment. Forget the conflict and famine, warming oceans and terrorism, refugee crises and the erosion of human rights endlessly filling your newsfeeds. Not only is the world not spinning out of control, towards an uncertain and, possibly, apocalyptic future, it's actually getting better all the time. Wishful thinking, right? Welcome to the strange, wonderfully boundless mind of Bruce Mau, where anything is possible and design can save us from ourselves.
"The reality is that design is winning," says Mau over the phone from Chicago, where he serves as chief design officer of the Massive Change Network, which he co-founded, and Freeman, an international events company. "More people are richer, more people have access to possibility, more people have mobility than at any time before in history. If you can tell me a time that you would prefer to go back to, I'll tell you what's going on there and you'll hustle yourself back to today."
Mau is – obviously – an optimist, but he insists the way he sees the world is primarily shaped by the innovation taking place all around him. Yes, there are too many people suffering as a result of war and natural disasters, he says, but to focus on these is to miss the bigger picture: Humanity is healthier, wealthier and better equipped to face its challenges than ever before. "We haven't failed to the state we're in, we've succeeded," Mau says. "And we have a new class of problems because we've succeeded so often." To Mau, meeting the needs of the largest population of humans ever to occupy the planet (seven billion and counting) is not a problem, it's an opportunity for design to make a difference.
From Sept. 28 to Oct. 8, Mau and a group of leading thinkers, makers and innovators will confront that opportunity head-on at the Expo for Design Innovation and Technology (EDIT). Under the theme "Prosperity for All" (and in partnership with the United Nations), EDIT will be a 10-day immersive event organized by Design Exchange in the former Lever Bros. soap factory, a sprawling 150,000-square-foot industrial space adjacent to Toronto's Port Lands. British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, Italian architect Carlo Ratti and Canadian scientist Julielynn Wong have signed up to demonstrate plans for self-sustaining cities, 3D-printed, drone-delivered medical supplies, and insect-based foods that taste as good as any cheeseburger. It's curated to show attendees what will be possible in the future, as well as what is actually happening right now, internalizing the power of design through a multi-sensory experience. "Museums are no longer a one-way form of communication," says Shauna Levy, president and CEO of Design Exchange and a longtime admirer of Mau's work. "It's not just about going in and reading didactic panels. It's about having this interactive immersive experience and doing something with it."
For Mau, EDIT is the latest milestone in a career spent pushing the boundaries of design, which has lately become focused on creating a future for humanity that makes good on the promises of the present. Born in Sudbury, Ont., he attended the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University) before moving to London to work with the prestigious design firm, Pentagram. In the mid-1980s, he opened his own studio, co-creating the influential Zone Book series, collaborating with Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry, and serving as the creative director of I-D magazine. His work has subsequently included precedent-setting projects with big-name corporate clients such as Coca Cola and MTV, as well as ambitious personal undertakings like the 2004 exhibit Massive Change.
Beginning its run at the Vancouver Art Gallery and finishing at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Massive Change presented a look into the future of global design, from electric cars to genetically modified chickens. "Instead of being about the world of design, it would be about the design of the world," wrote Mau of the show.
While Massive Change was mostly praised, the show still earned criticism for overreaching: It's one thing to put on a show about redesigning the world, and another to actually do it. It wasn't the first time that Mau's penchant for hype and bold pronouncements have drawn fire, but the exhibition marked a shift for the designer. His career has since become increasingly focused on the sorts of potentially world-changing design challenges Massive Change addressed. In 2010, Mau and his partner Bisi Williams formed the Massive Change Network, a consultancy devoted to just this sort of project.
The utopian ambitions and boundless optimism of Massive Change made Mau a perfect fit for EDIT. "That was very much the kind of thinking we were trying to accomplish," says Levy, who worked with Mau on an installation called What is Wealth? when she served as vice president of Toronto's Interior Design Show. Mau's response to this question was to cover an entire room – walls, floor, furniture – in pictures of his family and friends. "We sat down and started talking about EDIT and his face just lit up. He said, 'this is exactly the next step for Massive Change.' It was a very passionate discussion."
Invited to contribute his own interpretation on EDIT's theme, Mau chose to collaborate with Paolo Pellegrin, a Magnum photographer who specializes in conflict zones. While the rest of EDIT is designed to show off the best of human achievement, he wanted visitors to understand the context in which such advances are necessary. "I wanted to do something where you would really feel, in a powerful way, the opposite of design; the opposite of 'Prosperity for All,'" he says of Pellegrin's haunting black-and-white photos of refugees and war zones. "We're not immune from it, we're not disconnected from it, we're part of this world."
One of the key principles that guides Mau's work with Massive Change, Freeman and now EDIT, is the understanding that design is creating functional objects and spaces, but also experiences. He sees design everywhere – in communication, in perception, in human interaction – and in that the opportunity to improve human experience as a whole. To Mau, things like climate change and the rise of nationalism are not so much threats to human existence, but design challenges. "I like to say that designers don't have the luxury of cynicism," he says. "We wake up in the morning and we have to think, 'What is possible?'"
Photography by Shalan and Paul. Grooming by Taylor Savage for M.A.C Cosmetics. Prop styling by Jim Reiger for P1M.ca.
Visit tgam.ca/newsletters to sign up for the Globe Style e-newsletter, your weekly digital guide to the players and trends influencing fashion, design and entertaining, plus shopping tips and inspiration for living well. And follow Globe Style on Instagram @globestyle.