We seem to have a habit of thinking in 10-year cycles. The 1970s are remembered for the oil crisis and stagflation, the ’80s brought us Reagan tax cuts and the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the ’90s saw the invention of the Internet (which we called the “information highway” back in the day) with the resulting dot-com boom (and bust). But what of the first decade of the 21st century? There does not seem to be a convenient nickname for it. The zeros? The aughts? The Os?
Endings are also beginnings. As the inaugural decade of the 21st century is closed out, the curtain rises on the next. A lot of people are relieved to see this one recede into the rear view mirror, as it was difficult on many fronts. We started off with a crisis that failed to materialize: Y2K, which predicted the world-wide crash of computer systems. This was followed in short order by a real but unexpected disaster on Sept. 11, 2001, that marked the beginning of an era in which world-wide terrorism became an undeniable fact of life. Two wars and unprecedented prosperity followed. Then the Great Recession, which, in addition to wiping out homes, jobs, and 401(k)s, shook our collective sense of self confidence to the bone. And let’s not forget the tsunami in Sri Lanka, reminding us all of nature’s incredible destructive power.
Yet despite it all, we are still substantially better off than we were 10 years ago.
Looking back, it seems that the first decade of the 21st century will be remembered most for establishing global connectivity. We now understand that a coal-burning power plant in Shanghai not only pollutes China but also Canada, and it’s painfully clear that a bunch of unpaid mortgages in Detroit and Phoenix can tank a pension fund in Ireland. Cell phones have become ubiquitous and can be loaded with hundreds of “apps,” including cameras, games, texting, twittering, and GPS (allowing us no excuse to get lost anymore). With Google we can find out just about anything we want at any time. And as Tiger Woods knows all too well, real privacy has ceased to exist. All this has happened in an astonishingly short time.
So while life is more complicated, challenging, and dangerous, we can be comforted by the fact that we are all in it together, for good or for ill, which in turn creates a huge incentive for mutual cooperation.
Global connectivity also alters our sense of scale, as things that once seemed far away and relatively unimportant, like a hurricane in Louisiana, now really hit home. Everyone everywhere has become our neighbor, and that may be the biggest revelation of all.
Global connectivity has tremendous implications for the A/E/C industry. The buildings we produce consume huge amounts of natural resources to construct and maintain, and they are responsible for nearly half of all carbon emissions — far more than any other source, including transportation. Wise use of our natural resources is essential if future generations are to survive and thrive.
It’s clear that design is not just about creating objects but also processes. More than ever, society can benefit by adopting the designer’s problem-solving mindset when grappling with issues, be they in health care, education, the economy, or even politics.
This first decade was difficult in many ways, but it also opened new doors. For designers everywhere, it’s a profound leadership opportunity.