Every year, many design conferences, expositions, festivals, and summits are held and promoted as events that cannot be missed. But do these events really have constructive value, or are they simply extravagant gatherings that give academics and professionals a venue to promote their work? When the World Design Summit (WDS) was held in Montreal last month (with over 650 presenters, 500 exhibitors, and 30,000 attendees), its value was evident in the massive number of individuals and international organizations being represented.

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When global organizations like UN-Habitat, UNEP, and UNESCO get involved in a summit and collaborate with design federations from multiple disciplines, it becomes obvious that any self-indulgent perspectives — too often seen at design events — will be taking a back seat to substantive objectives. It’s not enough to celebrate the aesthetics and personalities of new designs. You also have to demonstrate their effectiveness in a troubled world in need of solutions.

World Design Summit 2017

Over the course of the 10-day summit, a 10-year action plan was established to address the ways design could be used to respond to environmental, social, cultural, and economic issues around the world. With any luck, this action plan will be used as a guide by designers and public officials to improve the quality of life for people everywhere. Though the WDS considers itself to be a “design policy and advocacy initiative,” its value is much more than just the creation of an action plan.

When designers begin to see their work as a practical part of people’s lives, it makes them stronger as professionals. From industrial design to architecture, creating something just because it will look good to fellow designers and the media is no longer good enough. People are wise to that now. Instead, they want to see how are designers helping to make the lives of low-income people easier, how are they tackling issues like climate change, and how design can be used to bridge cultural divides. Responding to these global issues is the best way for designers to speed up their professional development and hone their craft.

World Design Summit 2017 - Crowds at the airport

To improve people’s quality of life, designers need to continue transcending silos. This multi-disciplinary approach has been happening for several years, and it needs to keep happening. Events like this one, where design is discussed from many different perspectives, help to show the interconnectedness of different professions. A building can create environmental waste, but so can the packaging of a product. If they can both contribute to the degradation of the environment, then how can they both contribute to its improvement?

World Design Summit 2017 attendees sit on bleachers

The improvement of quality of life by strong designers is only possible if cooperation is present. This is the real value of design events like the WDS. It’s more about networking and building awareness than it is about selling products and making deals. Value comes from professionals uniting their broad range of interests, talents, and personal goals behind even broader objectives.

Global events like the World Design Summit can still serve as places where design is celebrated — not just for aesthetics and personalities, but also for they ways it’s improving our world. As people continue to demand more and more from designers, they will be obliged to think further outside their silos and media mentions, and that’s a valuable outcome.