"When you take the definition of design and expand it out to 'human capacity,' it becomes clear what we've become capable of," says Bruce Mau, no stranger to profound pronouncements-in 1995, he collaborated with Rem Koolhaas on the design manifesto S,M,L,XL, and in 2000 he published his own manifesto, Life Style. "There used to be a number of realms that were beyond human intervention-specifically nature-but that's no longer the case. What we see now is that practically anything we want to do is possible; we may not be able to do anything we want to do today, but doing practically anything we want to do is a plausible scenario, so we can get there if we decide to. That demands a new kind of discourse around what we're going to use this capacity to do, both in negative and positive terms. One of the things that [Segway inventor] Dean Kamen pointed out in our discussions with him is that the unattended consequences always outnumber the attended consequences. So, since over the last century we've developed these extraordinary capacities to affect environments, organisms, organizations, structures and objects, we must come to terms with the discourse around those capacities and begin to understand what we're going to apply them to. What are our collective and global ambitions?"
Well, that would depend on whom you ask, and in what government or organization, but politics will only further confuse the matter. One thing for sure, Mau doesn't mean to use "design" and "technology" interchangeably. "Technology is part of design; design isn't necessarily technology," he says. "And in many cases, we're looking at the design of ideas or the design of organizations or systems that may have some technological dimension but are more about ways of living or ways of doing things. They often incorporate technical devices, but they're more about how we live."
So whence the jump from graphic design to seemingly everything? "We began as communication designers, principally in print," Mau recounts. "Twenty years ago, that's what I did. What happened over the intervening years is that with each project, people asked us to do more and more work on not what it looks like but on actually answering the question, What should we do here? So a lot of our work is what we call programming: What are we supposed to be doing as an institution, an organization, a business? Then we look at how it gets communicated. This question, What should we be doing?, is often not so clear these days. For instance, we're in the process of developing a new museum of biodiversity in Panama City. This is a project where they came to us and said, 'We have no idea what that is, so you need to define it and then design it.' "
This of course begs the question, Why would anyone want to build a museum of biodiversity if they don't know what it is? "Such a museum has never been done, so they have a vague concept of what the theme is, but they can't look it up and say, 'This is what we want,' " Mau explains. "A lot of our work now is like that-sort of reinventing institutions, or inventing them altogether. We're also working on a project in New Orleans on a new institution on the science and culture of the Mississippi River-if you were going to find ways for people to learn about this subject, what would you do? Communication is still the core. If you can clearly communicate to yourself what the program, is then you can communicate it to the outside world."