Paul Judge: Good technological design can make us all happier

From a speech by the chairman of the Royal Society of Arts at its 250th anniversary conference
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The Independent Online

Human history is shaped by ideas. Seventy years ago at Cambridge, Professor Ernest Rutherford first split the atom, clearly one of the most fundamental experiments of the 20th century. He was visited by some American scientists who were amazed at the cramped facilities in which he worked, and the poor quality of the equipment. Rutherford explained that good science did not need plush laboratories. He said, "It is true we don't have much money, so we have to think."

Human history is shaped by ideas. Seventy years ago at Cambridge, Professor Ernest Rutherford first split the atom, clearly one of the most fundamental experiments of the 20th century. He was visited by some American scientists who were amazed at the cramped facilities in which he worked, and the poor quality of the equipment. Rutherford explained that good science did not need plush laboratories. He said, "It is true we don't have much money, so we have to think."

We should therefore consider today's challenges. We are facing a future of unprecedented competition in business and intense pressure to deliver quality public services that meet people's needs. Imagine a world where elderly people are cared for by robots. Replacing human contact with a machine would seem to be an awful idea. But some people have no contact with caregivers at all. If the choice is going to a nursing home or staying at home with a robot, maybe people will choose the robot.

Automation is almost the defining word of the industrial revolution and a dominant theme of IT application. Yet we are still only at the early stages of giving machines the variety of flexibility of action we see in the natural world, such as balancing on two legs or climbing a tree.

New technologies are creating a world where, in developed nations, anything is possible. We have more choice about where we work, where we live and how we live. Design and technology go hand in hand. Design must play a central role in ensuring that people will not be isolated or reduced by the technology revolution. We are moving so fast with technology, but we do not always appreciate or understand the issues it raises.

A famous seminar about design was held at No 10 Downing Street in 1984 and called "design for profit". Now we might talk about "design for people".

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