“Contentment and happiness come about, first of all, through the sense of security”, Says EIDD Ambassador Pete Kercher

Pete Kercher, Ambassador for EIDD Design For All Europe, first visited Kaunas in April. He was invited by the Kaunas 2022 team to become a mentor for Designing Happiness workshop called – obviously! – ‘Design for All’. Kercher will be back in Kaunas in May when he’ll take a look at what the workshop participants have come up with in the Diplomatic block of Kaunas and move on to a new location in Vilkija to tackle new problems. During his first visit, we sat down to discuss how happiness can be created and measured – in Kaunas and elsewhere in the world. 

How would you briefly introduce and explain the idea of Design for All?

I would probably use the definition from the Stockholm declaration signed in 1972. Design for all is design for human diversity, social inclusion and equality. Human diversity is the reality of the world we live in. No two human beings are the same. So, in the advanced and sophisticated world, it makes sense to use human diversity as the baseline for a design project, rather than categorising people, classifying them into more or less identifiable groups, where nobody is entirely at home. That’s the old model which was necessary for the industrial production, but these days with advanced technology we can personalise things a lot more. At the same time, we can use human diversity to make base products on which we can apply innovation to personalise products or places. Human diversity also means that humans have different needs and aspirations, and the ways they do things, like changing levels in a building, are different. This is why it’s useful to have both stairs and elevators, for example.

Why social inclusion? Because, in an increasingly densely populated world, it’s the duty of those of us who design for it to think ahead and to try to plan an environment, products, places, services, systems, communications that will diminish the tensions that are in society now. We have to include people who are entitled to the same degree of activity and autonomy whatever their ability and disability, whatever their age or intellectual capabilities. Equality is the target we strive for, and by equality, I don’t mean standardising. Everybody has the equal possibility to have the equivalent sense of achievement in what they want to do, without forcing people to do things.

Of course, Design for All essentially includes people in the design process, which is crucial. It’s the how, not only the what.

Not only thinkers but also economists are joining the discussions about the need to complement or even change the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to Gross Domestic Happiness (GDH). One of the main issues in the agenda of humanity for the coming decades is also happiness. How can Design for All contribute to the happiness of humankind?

GDH breaks the conventional mindset about how we measure the economic success of our society. As I have said on many occasions, our current measure of economic success on GDP means that if you sit on a traffic jam burning up fuel uselessly, it actually adds to our GDP and makes our society look economically more successful. This is apparently complete nonsense.

But how does one measure happiness? Happiness, like beauty, is subjective. We can have a very long philosophical discussion about this, but that’s not what the question is about, right?

So, how can Design for All contribute to the happiness of humankind? I think I answered that partly with the previous answer. You have to involve people in having conversations about what they need, first of all, as well as what they aspire to, what they dream of having. Obviously, we don’t go through interviews asking ‘What is your dream’. With direct questions like that, you tend to qualify or mislead the answers, because people give you the answers they think you might want. So, we have to hold conversations with people, and that takes us a little bit more time and patience, but in the end, that’s what consultation with people is all about.

Contentment is the first level, and I think it’s already a significant achievement if we can have a contented society. At the moment, it’s very discontented. In some respects, it’s because it doesn’t manage to have all the material goods it wants to have. But there’s another underlying theme in the discontentment in our society now. One of them is insecurity, because of the sense of fear about what’s going to happen in the future. As we grow older, will our society be able to live securely, economically? Will we have enough money to live a decent life when we’re 70 or 90 years old, which is where we’re going?

A significant source of contentment would be a reassurance that that’s going to be possible. Design for All is focusing to a great extent on the ageing society and how we can change the parameters of our current society so that the older people can live more complete, autonomous and content lives.

At the moment, Lithuania is not one of the countries that rank high on the list of happiest countries. Finland is the happiest! What determines society satisfaction with the place of residence, by the meanings of state, city or the block they live in?

I’ve always been surprised and somewhat dismayed by these rankings! On Facebook, you find these rankings of the most beautiful beaches, for example, and beauty is in the eye of a beholder. We also know that Finland is one of the countries in Europe with the highest levels of suicide. How does that equate with the declaration that it’s the happiest country in the world? These are very subjective rankings.

To answer the second part of the question, again, I think it’s the matter of contentment. Is it really contentment or happiness with the place we live in or is it sort of a social construct that we are influenced by the atmosphere in the area where we live? I know that Italy, where I live, is one of the countries that come lowest on this ranking. And yet the Italians that I know, and of course this is a terrible generalisation, one should never generalise, are very happy people. They have a good quality of life, and they have good social relations, but my god do they love to complain! Part of what makes them happy is the ability to get the complaint off their chest. I think this is a significant factor in many societies around the world. Some communities are more prone to complain, and they’re happier because they can complain. Now, that sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it does tell you why I am primarily rather sceptical about these rankings.

Contentment and happiness come about, first of all, through the sense of security and the sense that if there’s change, we don’t have to be afraid, we can tackle it. It’s a matter of self-confidence. Happiness is also, I believe, the experience that it’s possible to face challenges and come at the other side having succeeded. I think a lot of the fair of rapid change we have now is because change is rapid. Change is much faster than ever used to be. People tend to fear change because it’s the unknown. It’s instinctive and perfectly understandable. People tend to be a bit conservative. The faster change comes about, the more they manifest fear and unhappiness. It’s the constant challenge to tackle things they don’t know. But all this change isn’t necessarily for the worse. It can help us; it can be good, exciting and positive. Maybe that will give us a more positive mindset again.

I often see the discussion about the ageing population being referred to in terms pension system that’s not going to work anymore. Yes, but the alternative is that people die. We should turn the thing upside down and agree this is something to celebrate. Our healthcare system is so good that our infant mortality is very low. We’re living longer lives. We’re healthier. What is negative about that, for god’s sake? The western world is going to be amazingly successful. Instead of that, we moan that we have a pension crisis. We’re never happy. Human beings are never satisfied! We’re only happy we’ve got something to complain about!

What positive features of Kaunas have you noticed during your stay?

The city is in an exciting geographical location on the confluence of two rivers! It has a lovely point where they meet. There’s a lot of potential there. There’s plenty of open space – I saw families, children playing, people taking their dogs out on the first Sunday of spring. I saw a lot of happiness there.

Then you’ve got the old town which is the historical centre that still needs a fair amount of renovation. But you’ve been through hard times! The Soviets wanted to depress and eliminate your heritage and culture instead of renovating it. Luckily there’s still a lot of stuff there. With patience and a little bit of tender loving care, that old city centre can be brought up to a much better quality of the environment. There are, of course, risks involved. You don’t want to make it into a Disneyland. There’s possibly already a slight tendency to suffer that along Vilniaus street, where all the bars are. On the other hands, it’s nice to see people out there. The quality of the urban environment needs a little bit of readjustment to improve the accessibility.

And then you have this rather wonderful heritage of modernist buildings. Again, a lot of them are in a rather weak state. The decay is quite evident, but those buildings have a sort of character about them. Miami is famous for its art deco area, and there’s some fantastic modernist architecture in Los Angeles, as well as in many places in Europe. These areas invite people to come and look and study them, just enjoy having them around. It makes a pleasant atmosphere, a good background for positive thinking. I think Kaunas because it has such an eclectic style of modern architecture – it’s the Lithuanian architects who’d studied all over the world – could be a sort of miniature European modernist example.

I’d like to see more of the outline districts of the city as I haven’t had time to do that. Up on Žaliakalnis, there’s a lot of scope of doing things, and that’s what our workshop is doing now. I’d particularly like to see problem areas – every city has some. I’d like to think what could be done with those.

Looking at the positive side, people are friendly. I feel perfectly safe here. I like the atmosphere along Laisvės alėja. It’s like Champs-Élysées. Its pedestrianised entirely and that’s very good. Children are safe here. You might take it for granted, but believe me, it’s an outstanding value.

How and what places cold Kaunas change or redesign until the tear 2022?

From what I’ve seen, one little gripe I have is in two places. The point where Vilniaus street passes underneath Birštono street is not accessible. You have steps and sort of ramp on the side that is far too steep. That needs to be redone because that underpass is the only reliable and safe point to pass the street. It’s not surprising if you get to the Old Town and you don’t see anybody in a wheelchair. Well, they can’t get there!

The same thing applies to going over to the Nemunas island. The bridge that goes over the river has a slope on one side, and on the other side it has a series of staircases with a ramp, but that one is also too steep.

Maybe you would want to make a few small adjustments in the Confluence park for the same reason, just to make sure it’s seamlessly accessible and you don’t suddenly have 5 meters of gravel.

What things or activities could accelerate the growth of Kaunas as a contemporary city?

The secret is always involvement. Like any Northern city, you have a challenge which consists in how to involve people during the extended winter period. You have to reinvent the participation every spring because people take a while to come out of their houses. So, you need to find models of cohesion and social activity that can take place indoors in the winter months and can also be translated into outdoor spaces in the summer months. That means you need to be able to have places that can host. You need locations, venues, that can host all sorts of activities in the winter and also be available in the summer in different ways. You need transportation facilities, namely public transport, to make those places reachable.

What is a contemporary city? Many cities think that means finding a zone where young people can go and drink and listen to loud music all the time. Then they won’t complain there’s nothing to do for young people. It would alienate older people at the same time, though, and do we really want to zone people into age groups like that?

What a city can do is to provide enabling factors and then see what society does spontaneously. I think the important thing for the city authorities is to take a calm look at all their commercial activity regulations. Why not try to make it as easy as possible for open up commercial activity that may be temporary, maybe just for the season? Very often young people have the ideas of pop-up places. It’s not a bad idea to make allowance for that in your commercial regulations. Let’s not insist on things being too rigid and too complicated. It may take the entrepreneurial spirit away from people. Let’s enable them to do things.

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