Interview with Richard van der Laken, co-founder and creative director of What Design Can Do

‘To us, design means action’

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Published in WDCD by

Richard van der Laken, creative director of What Design Can Do, looks back on the platform’s achievements to date, and shares his views on the creative community’s contribution to solving the pressing social issues of our time.
by Annemiek Leclaire

‘As the founders of the Designpolitie, Pepijn Zurburg and I were often invited to attend design conferences abroad. We thought it was strange that there wasn’t any such conference here,’ says Richard van der Laken. ‘After all, the Netherlands is a well-developed country when it comes to design, but what we missed was real debate about the relevance of design.’

‘When we launched What Design Can Do in 2011, our aim was to showcase the many ways that design could be relevant. Design isn’t limited to chairs and candleholders. Design can make a difference in addressing major social questions. I still have tremendous respect for the Benetton campaigns of the 1990s. Photographer Oliviero Toscani, a keynote speaker at the first WDCD conference, used his photographic campaigns to highlight issues like racism and Aids. I remember thinking how fantastic it was that a commercial enterprise like Benetton understood the power it possessed. They realized that the advertising space they occupy gave them a huge platform, just like the New York Times. That’s the power of the media.’


Oliviero Toscani’s photographic campaign for Benetton

Design makes things tangible

‘With our platform and annual conferences in Amsterdam, in São Paulo since three years and from March 2019 in Mexico City too, we want to showcase that same impact. Over the years we’ve provided a stage for designers who address major themes such as press freedom, poverty, emancipation and sustainability. To us, design means action. Design can make things tangible, visible, understandable.

‘A good example of that is the work of Brazilian chef Alex Atala, who has raised the profile of Brazilian cuisine internationally. Instead of serving pricey delicacies flown in from far, he turned to the cultural potential of traditional foodstuffs closer to home. He travels to the Amazon with scientists and indigenous tribes to source his ingredients. He’s a campaigner for the preservation of the Amazon region, for its rich culture, for the rights of native peoples. He’s a genuine ambassador of Brazilian identity. Moreover, his restaurant ranks 16th on the list of the world’s best restaurants. That’s also the impact of design, this time in the domain of food.’

‘This year, we’ll have another top chef from Latin America on stage, Elena Reygadas from Mexico City, a young woman with a comparable approach to her local culture. I’m very much looking forward to her contribution.’

Refugee Challenge

‘The most important change came when, after five years, we launched our first design challenge. That honoured a promise that WDCD had carried from the start. Now we could show what contribution we, the design community, could make in addressing urgent social issues. We started with the Refugee Challenge, the focus of so much attention in 2016. We worked on it with the UNHCR and IKEA Foundation.’

‘With such a subject you first have to carry out really thorough research. If you simply say ‘we’re going to solve the refugee problem’ and you haven’t investigated the matter in detail to find out where you can and cannot make a difference, then you’re finished. It’s such a vast and sensitive subject.’

‘That’s why we teamed up with design research office STBY to produce thorough briefs that highlighted the problems faced by refugees in cities. This way of working, with a problem owner and knowledge expert, in this case UNHCR, and a sponsor, IKEA Foundation, and a research method, helped us lay a solid foundation for the challenge we then set. Three projects that came out of this challenge now are successful start-ups.’

Climate action

‘Last year, we launched the Climate Action Challenge, the final result of which we will see at WDCD Live in May when the 13 winners will present their developed projects and business plans. Because, and this is important to mention, what discerns our challenges from other competitions is that we offer the winners an extensive acceleration programme to help them turn their ideas into viable business cases. For this, we’ve worked together with Social Enterprise NL and they have done a great job.’

‘Now we are planning a second climate action challenge, this time focused specifically on energy issues in the city. Preluding this challenge, we’ll organize an international Design Jam during WDCD Live happening simultaneously in Amsterdam, Nairobi, São Paulo and Mexico City. The results of this will help us in focussing the briefings for the challenge which is due to be launched in September.

‘Next to this, we’ll launch yet another, invitation-only challenge in collaboration with the Dutch Public Prosecutor’s Office about the serious and important topic of sexual exploitation of young, under-aged people. We’ll kick-off this challenge on 24 May at WDCD with a series of lectures and discussions and an intense workshop.

Collaboration with powerful bodies

‘The fact that we’ve managed to develop secure relationships with such powerful bodies as the UNHCR or the Public Prosecutor’s Office, is in my view a huge endorsement of our ambition to get involved. The UNFCCC, the UN’s climate change agency also is a partner of ours. Patricia Espinosa, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, attended our event in São Paulo and is a member of the jury for the Climate Action Challenge. Espinosa said: “An organization like WDCD can help us step out of the climate bubble of endlessly drafting and discussing reports. They can make those abstract climatological and social issues more tangible.’

‘If we, as a creative organization, can zoom in on the difficult subjects that these bodies are grappling with, and if we can show that we’ve an ambitious agenda and can achieve things quickly, then everything can move fast.’

IKEA Foundation

‘Just as important is the support we’ve got from IKEA Foundation since they teamed up with us for the Refugee Challenge. The Foundation is the first sponsor that acts as a real partner. With the IKEA Foundation we share a mission: to deploy design for a better world. For them it really is about keeping our organization healthy so that we are capable of putting the spotlight on humanitarian issues in a creative way. Awareness and inspiration are two crucial cornerstones of WDCD. But provoking people into action, bringing designers and other parties together, ensuring that the encounters result in proposals that you hope will make a difference in the world: that is the ultimate prize we are after.’

WDCD Live Amsterdam

‘So, this year at WDCD Live on 24 & 25 May our focus is both on action and encounters. We’re not only organizing the international Design Jam and the workshop on sexual exploitation of children, really aimed at activating designers to think of solutions for pressing problems. We’ve also made design activism somewhat of a theme for the conference. In Nairobi I met with Sunny Dolat, one of the founding members of The Nest Collective. This energetic group of creative people uses film and fashion projects for the emancipation of the LGBT community, which is in Kenya not as easy as in our part of the world. I’m very happy Dolat agreed to come to Amsterdam.

‘We’ll also have Daniel Freitag, co-founder of the recycled bag brand Freitag, who will tell us how he and his brother managed to combine design and sustainability into a brand with international economic success. That’s a huge example to many, both from the design and the business communities. But, to be honest, it feels a bit unfair to name only these two while we have so many great speakers.’

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