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Book review: Glimmer by Warren Berger (the power of design)

Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Your Life, Your Business, and Maybe Even the World

By Warren Berger

Random House Canada: $35

Dean Kamen goes to the mall on a rainy afternoon. On his way in, he sees a young guy trying without any luck to get his wheelchair up and over a curb. Dean lends a hand.

Kamen's walking past a store when he sees the same guy struggling to get something off a shelf. When Kamen goes to the food court, there's the guy in the wheelchair again, waiting to get served, but he's blocked from view and can't make eye contact with the cashier behind the counter.

And then Kamen sees a glimmer of possibility. "I'm looking at all this thinking, what a pathetic lack of progress. I mean, seriously — with all the incredible things we're doing with technology, what are we doing to improve this 200-year-old wheelchair?" asks Kamen.

So Kamen spends the next few years designing a wheelchair for the 21st century, incorporating dynamic stabilization issues, solid-state gyroscopes, sensors and microprocessors. He designs the iBOT wheelchair. The iBOT climbs stairs and curbs and raises occupants up to a standing position.

Marianne Cusato goes to Biloxi, Miss., after hurricane Katrina hits. She learns that the most pressing need is an alternative to the too-small and depressing FEMA trailers, standard-issue temporary housing provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Trouble is, the trailers aren't temporary for a whole lot of families.

And like Kamen, Cusato sees that same glimmer of possibility. Cusato asks: "can you design temporary housing that is decent and dignified enough to work in the long term?" and comes up with an award-winning answer.

She builds a cottage instead of a trailer for aesthetic and practical reasons. The cottages are designed to be added to with renovations or turned into a guest house or rental unit when a permanent home gets rebuilt.

Cusato builds a 300-square-foot home with a three-metre ceiling, tall vertical windows and a large attached porch, blending the style of a 17th-century cottage with touches of Southern architecture. And she does it all for just $35,000 US.

The U.S. Senate approves $1 billion to build Katrina Cottages all along the Gulf Coast. Cusato wins the 2006 People's Design Award from the Smithsonian Institution, beating out the Apple iPod. And then builders start asking about turning Katrina Cottages into lakefront cottages. "If you have a situation where disaster housing is exactly the same as the housing that rich people choose to vacation in — well, that's a good thing isn't it?" asks Cusato.

These are two of many solutions that highlight how thinking like a designer can solve some big challenges facing business and our communities.

"Design thinking opens up new avenues of progress, suggesting fresh answers to old and difficult questions," says author and award-winning journalist Warren Berger. "It is about infinite possibilities. And, perhaps more than anything else, it's about optimism."

Berger spells out 10 design principles grouped into four categories — universal, business, social and personal.

Ask stupid questions, jump fences and make hope visible are the three universal design principles that anyone can apply to solve pretty much any problem. Asking stupid questions challenges and reframes assumptions in such fundamental ways that you can sound naive for asking.

Making hope visible is about picturing possibilities and drawing conclusions. You're giving shape to an idea and turning it into something real that others can get their heads on.

"Design is really a way of looking at the world with an eye toward changing it," says Berger. "To do that, a designer must be able to see not just what is, but what might be. They take that faint glimmer of possibility and make it visible and real to others."

So let's take a good, long look at our community. Get out of the car. Walk around. Talk with people. Think like a designer. Catch a glimmer of what's possible. And let's start having a conversation about how we can reboot, rebuild and redesign an even better, more resilient and vibrant city.

(This review appeared in the Oct. 26 edition of the Hamilton Spectator)