EDIT, the Toronto design gathering that concluded on October 8, billed itself as the “Festival of the Future.” But, try as we may have, it was impossible to separate it from the present.
At first glance, an expo dedicated to showcasing ways to solve tomorrow’s issues might seem a little tone deaf. After all, there are so many pressing problems right now. There is Puerto Rico, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria just two days before EDIT: Expo for Design, Innovation + Technology opened, leaving the archipelago without power, water or telecommunications. There is climate change, which is, without exaggeration, the single biggest issue facing the planet. There is the U.S. president trolling nuclear-armed North Korea on Twitter, and the tragic aftermath in Las Vegas, where 59 died and 489 were injured by a lone gunman. We could go on.
Yet EDIT wasn’t tone deaf. It didn’t wallow in the prospect of a Mad Max future. Instead, it found light in the darkness, suggesting that good design can correct whatever damage humans have done to the planet thus far, from finding solutions for universal food distribution to providing life-saving medical supplies to the most remote locations (via drones), or using algae as a natural form of energy and food.
On five floors of a former soap factory — each level was given a central theme: prosperity, urbanism, health, education and food — EDIT made a compelling argument that the future isn’t a foregone conclusion. We are, instead, at a crossroad. We have all the tools, means and brain power needed to fix things. It’s now a matter of will. Do we make the world better, or carry on as usual? Anyone who spent time at the 10-day event, taking in the dozens of talks by leading design thinkers in varying fields, or who explored the interactive installations that show how things can change, would likely leave with a clear picture the future is, potentially, bright.
The event’s location itself illustrated that we are at a timely intersection between past and future. Housed in the old Unilever factory on the banks of Toronto’s Don River, the building is slated to be bulldozed. Its former life as an industrial park is being levelled to make way for a massive development comprised primary of commercial office towers and a major transportation hub (the future home of Elon Musk’s hyperloop perhaps?). Its masterplan was prepared by OMA of Rotterdam and Adamson Associates of Toronto.
EDIT might have declared itself the “Festival of the Future,” but it could have easily been called “Hope for the Future.” Here are the best talks, installations and concepts that articulated its ethos wonderfully.
The fact that 3D printing can fabricate just about anything isn’t new. But a child-size prosthetic arm that fires glitter bombs? Even we didn’t see that one coming. Actually, the appendage-cum-fun-machine, part of an inclusive-design effort dubbed Project Unicorn, consists of a traditional artificial limb outfitted with a 3D printed attachment. The whimsical device is the brainchild of Jordan Reeves, an 11-year-old Missouri girl who was born with a left arm that ends just above the elbow. Reeves collaborated with prosthetist David Rotter and Autodesk specialist Sam Hobish to create the limb, which is intended to demonstrate to children with differences — not to mention the rest of us — that living with disability doesn’t preclude happiness, humour and even a touch of magic. Reeves’ motto (and the name of her nonprofit) is Born Just Right. (Danny Sinopoli)
Bruce Mau’s Prosperity For All
Designer Bruce Mau’s appeal has always been in his ability to visually articulate vast amounts of information into digestible chunks, usually through the power of infographics, giant pull quotes plastered onto walls, and by posing solutions rather than problems to many of the world’s most pressing issues. Prosperity for All was the title of his exhibit and it filled one floor of the factory. One half was devoted to wall-size black-and-white images by Magnum photojournalist Paolo Pellegrin, who has spent years documenting the horrors of war zones and the refugee crisis. The other half of the show presented ideas that address over a dozen solutions to such issues as energy consumption, food distribution, clean water and solar power. Mau, the eternal optimist, left visitors with a real sense that while there are endless reasons to be concerned about the world right now, we are actually better off than we were only decades ago, and we have the tools to make the world even better, if we so choose. (Catherine Osborne)
Daan Roosegaard’s Smog Free Project
One of EDIT’s most anticipated speakers was Dutch artist and designer Daan Roosegaard, whose socially minded projects marry artistry with cutting-edge technology. While Roosegaard acknowledged the many problems facing the world today, he insisted that carping about them is “boring.” His preferred method of tackling seemingly insurmountable obstacles, like air pollution, is direct design action, such as his ongoing Smog Free Project. Efforts on that front have included his Smog Free Tower (which recycles smog into clean air through ionization) and Smog Free Ring (jewellery made of reconstituted pollutants, shown above). At EDIT, Roosegaard made news by announcing that his most recent Smog Free design — a bicycle that turns dirty air into clean air through a vacuum device in its handlebars — is being mass-produced on a trial basis in China by the Beijing bike-sharing company Ofo. (Danny Sinopoli)
The Impossible Burger
When Momofuku’s David Chang tasted the Impossible Burger and declared that “the future is vegan,” we knew the plant-based meat was the real deal. Impossible Foods, a tech company founded by Stanford University biochemist Patrick O. Brown, envisions its burger as a scientific solution to a sustainability problem, and its “meat” uses 95 per cent less water and emits 87 per cent less greenhouse gas than its beefy equivalent — and bleeds like the real thing. How? By using stand-ins — wheat TVP is its “muscle,” coconut oil is its fat, plant-derived heme is its blood — that Impossible proudly displayed in glass bowls. “We had a lot of audience questions around the heme,” says Rebekah Moses, Impossible’s sustainability and agriculture manager. “It’s the key ingredient, a protein similar to myoglobin found in blood cells, but occurring naturally in the plant kingdom.” So is it any good? We wouldn’t know — despite halving their supply of 180 sliders, the demo kitchen ran out in hours. (Mark Teo)
We Are The Bear was slightly hidden from the main exhibition areas, so many visitors walked right past it. That, in itself, was apropros of the many political messages this poignant installation was making, including the idea that when we follow the herd we are often blind to what is right in front of us. At the centre of a shallow pool of what looked like crude oil, architect Stefano Pujatti (along with architects Kregg Fordyce and Chris Kubbinga) placed a near life-size polar bear carved out of porous marble. During the course of 10-day expo, the “oil” slowly seeped into the marble, turning the white bear black. Well, not entirely black, but enough to picture the fossil fuel’s slow invasion of the white stone. The message of climate change (along with the fact that polar bear populations are expected to drop by as much as a third by 2050) was both subtle and loud and clear. We Are The Bear was one of the most understated exhibits yet it projected the strongest voice of activism. (Catherine Osborne)
Letters to the Mayor
More people should write letters to city mayors. And, if you did, what would you tell her? That is the idea behind an ongoing project initiated in 2014 by Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, where 100 or so local architects in a given city are invited to express their thoughts and ideas of their mayor. Those letters are then presented in a public form, as a way to engage elected officials with visionaries and with the public at large. For the Toronto edition of the project, letters that gave advice and pointers to Mayor John Tory (who apparently loved the show) were mounted to a tabletop that elegantly traversed one large room along the floor and walls, circling around and up and across like a meandering stream. Curated and designed by local firm Partisans, the exhibit created an atmosphere that put public discourse, open dialogue and engagement at the forefront of good city building. (Catherine Osborne)
Scrubber by T B A
Sure, tropical rainforests produce 40 per cent of Earth’s oxygen, but plants aren’t the only thing that can convert CO2. Algae can provide fresh air, too, and it’s central to Scrubber, a gorgeous (if eerie) installation by Montreal multidisciplinary agency T B A. Srubber’s “algae reactor” circulated air through vessels of algae culture suspended over fluorescent tubes — causing a photosynthetic reaction — which in turn “scrubbed” the air clean, producing enough oxygen for a family of four. Along with purifying the air, Scrubber — an installation helmed by Thomas Balaban, Jennifer Thorogood, Julia Manaças, Maxime Lefebvre and Mikaele Fol — offered yet another benefit, namely, that its algae could also be dried and eaten as, in T B A’s words, “a not-so-tasty superfood.” Now that’s what we call a solution. (Mark Teo)
Expiry Dates by Dennis Kavelman
If you were told you had one day left to live, what would you do with the time remaining? How about if you had 21,214 days left? Or 18,963? Those latter numbers were among the individual reckonings faced by EDIT visitors who took part in artist Dennis Kavelman’s interactive video installation Expiry Dates, which saw willing participants fill out a lifestyle questionnaire, have their images captured in a video booth and then watch as their partially pixelated faces materialized on a screen next to the number of days they purportedly had left on Earth. According to Kavelman, the work was designed to remind participants that, while they might not perish tomorrow, their time on this planet was indeed finite, a realization that might modify destructive behaviour, inspire better living or – if the number was especially low – avoid such stock-taking in the future. (Danny Sinopoli)
Save Our Souls by Achilleas Souras
Few projects articulated EDIT’s ethos — and eye for positive transformation — more succinctly than 16-year-old Achilleas Souras’ Save Our Souls, which we’ve admired in the past. In the summer of 2016, thousands of Syrian refugees landed on the island of Lesbos, Greece, leaving an estimated 45,000 lifejackets behind. Rather than send them to the landfill, Souras repurposed the vests into an emergency waterproof shelter, strapping the lifejackets around six structural poles with velcro. The thinking? Each vest has saved lives before — and they’ll do it again. (Mark Teo)