Justin McGuirk has long been one of my favorite design writers: accessible yet critical, capacious and pointed. He’s someone who always looks at an object — a book, a product, a building, a service, and is able to zoom out to think about the big picture. When he was on show back in 2018, he was a few years into his appointment as the chief curator of the Design Museum in London. Earlier this year, Justin stepped down from that position to devote his full-attention to the Future Observatory, the Design Museum’s national research program to kickstart the green transition, where he now serves as director. I was curious how he was thinking about this new role, the role of museums as a catalyst for change, and what designers can (and can’t do) in regards to climate action. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
What is the Future Observatory? Tell me how it started and the goals behind it? How does it sit within and relate to other initiatives at the Design Museum?
Future Observatory is the UK’s national design research programme for the green transition. It’s an initiative that was proposed by the Design Museum and is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council – so that’s government money. Over the current funding period (2022-25), we will invest £25 million in more than 100 research projects aimed at reducing carbon emissions and waste, and promoting regenerative practice. So that’s a whole generation of design researchers we can support. But fundamentally the aim is to connect academic researchers with industry or local government partners to give the research a real-world context. That’s how you step towards impact.
The beauty of locating an initiative like Future Observatory in the Design Museum is that a museum has tremendous potential for oxygenating that research – be it through displays and exhibitions, through convening talks and roundtable discussions, through publishing and so on. It’s not just a place to bring stakeholders together, it’s a place where you can put ideas in front of a large general public while they are still in formation.