Being Nice at the Innovation4All Conference in Oslo

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Energy was high at the Innovation For All conference in Oslo last week. The event is a co-production of the Norwegian Council for Design and Architecture and The Helen Hamlyn Centre at the Royal College of Art in London. Held every two years, the conference focuses on designing products, services and environments to accommodate people who may have physical or cognitive challenges that would restrict them from easily using public spaces, services or products.

If there was an underlying theme to the conference this year it was “being nice.” Even if no one said those words outright, there was a sense of evenness in the attitudes of the speakers and the attendees, with a realization that design can have the effect of unifying us all. Inclusive design entails understanding and respecting the differences among us – at the same time, understanding and respecting the elements that make us the same. It wasn’t very long ago we were discussing the fact that we should be inclusive. The question is no longer about should, it’s about how.

In past years gender would have been an odd topic to bring up at a conference on inclusive design. Unto itself, it’s not a disability. In reality however we have designed the world from a male point of view, a fact that continues to affect females.

Where females don’t feel safe, public spaces favor males. When females can’t properly use tools designed for male bodies, they are prevented from accomplishing tasks – even prevented from entering professions that males take for granted. In a world filled with products and environments designed for males, females can be more susceptible to injury in some cases, death in extreme cases.

Male biases continue to prevent a sense of true equality. The bias in design not necessarily intentional, just that the needs of females are often misunderstood.

However the goal is not simply to accommodate females simply because it’s a “nice” thing to do. As Agnete Enga pointed out in her talk, an ability to bond with females presents an enormous financial opportunity. Females are the world’s largest economy.

Therefore discussions on design and gender can run the spectrum – on one hand there exists a huge financial opportunity for companies to click with females. A whole lot of companies are trying to get better at it. On the other hand the plight of women in many parts of the world is a troubling reality. It’s a wide spectrum. Gender is one of many important inclusive topics. But from what I noticed at the conference, the gender issue was welcome – and for some attendees, an “inclusive” topic they may not have previously considered.

- dan formosa

yvonne lin