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What if Lab: how does exclusion feel?

15 October 2020

This year, ABN AMRO, main sponsor of Dutch Design Week for the past ten years, is working with What if Lab on a project about inclusivity. Three enthusiastic design studios are competing for a chance to develop their concept into a product that helps bank employees experience what it feels like to be excluded – and therefore bring the topic of inclusivity into sharp focus.

Dries van Wagenberg is What if Lab’s programme manager. Nicole Böttger is head of diversity and inclusion at ABN AMRO, and is involved in this project on behalf of the bank.

Tell us: what exactly is What if Lab?

Dries: ‘It’s a platform that links clients to designers. We’ve noticed that these two groups sometimes have difficulty working together. They speak different languages, and therefore often lose each other during the process. That causes a lot of frustration. What if Lab actually functions as a bridge: we connect design studios to the projects that come to us. We are also there to guide both parties during the process.’

And what about the collaboration with ABN AMRO?

Nicole: ‘Within the bank, we’ve been working on diversity and inclusion for a long time. In this project, we want to take a different look at the topic, and understand the impact of exclusion. Only when you truly understand someone else’s situation, can you really know what it feels like to be excluded.’

How does What if Lab help with that?

Nicole: ‘By looking at inclusivity in an entirely different way. We offer a lot of workshops about diversity and inclusion, but working with designers is new to us. I am very curious to see the results. It was already difficult to choose three candidates in the first selection process.’

When can we expect the first results?

Dries: ‘In early November, the design studios will present their concepts, and the jury will choose the winner. The selected studio will then develop an end product for ABN AMRO.’

Nicole: ‘And we hope to present the concept early next year! In the first instance, the project is for the bank, of course. But if it turns out to be really valuable, we’d like to share it with a broader audience.’

Mies Loogman (Enlightens) is one of the participating designers. This Eindhoven native has Dutch Design Week in her DNA: she’s been involved in the annual event since 2013: initially with small projects as part of her studies, and since 2017 with her own exhibitions.

Mies, your work makes complex concepts understandable for everyone. Why is this important?

‘I focus primarily on innovative themes, like biotechnology, genetic engineering and synthetic cells. In my designs, I convey this complex subject matter in an accessible way. Not by giving answers, but by providing information and context, so that everyone can join the conversation about the topic.’

How will you use your experience for this project?

‘Unconscious assumptions often form the foundation of exclusion. You can only talk about something when you understand what it is about, when it is tangible for you. Right now, I’m working on the design research. My first step is to find out why existing inclusivity initiatives aren’t having the full, desired effect.’

Colorless Campaign
© ©Mies Loogman

Social designers Dorian Kingma and Myrthe Krepel (SMELT)  – Dutch only site) and social behaviour artist Myrte van der Molen (Dutch only site) are collaborating for the first time for this project. All three are participants in Driving Dutch Design.

Why did you choose to collaborate on this assignment?

Myrte: ‘For me, social rules of conduct are a major source of inspiration. The theme fascinates me. I’ve known Dorian and Myrthe at SMELT for a while, and their subjects fit nicely with my work. They take an investigative approach, and like to engage in conversation about challenging topics.’

What is your approach to this project?

Myrthe: ‘We’re not under the delusion that a single project can solve the complex issue of diversity. So we chose to focus on Banking for Better Days. The concept is five days per year that ABN AMRO employees can take off to spend on social projects. How can their activities help them gain insight into the diversity question?’

How does it work?

Dorian: ‘As three white, highly educated women, we need some help to explore the issue of inclusion. That’s why we particularly want to speak with people from different backgrounds and ethnicities. We’re aware that these discussions can cause some friction and can be uncomfortable. So our design will also need to evoke those kinds of feelings.’

Faux Pas
© ©Smelt

The third design studio is MUZUS. Sanne Kistemaker, general director, explains how the studio’s way of working fits well with the complexity of this topic.

How does the studio approach new projects?

‘We work from a perspective of service design. For our projects, we always investigate why something is a problem, or why something should change. That goes much deeper than just “These are the numbers, something has to change, that’s how we solve it.” We always engage in an intense dialogue with the target audience.’

Any idea yet what the end product will look like?

‘Yes. Different processes are running in parallel, because of the time constraints. In the end, we want you to ask yourself: “How inclusive am I really?”  In that way, we create an experience that enables you to truly think about the subject. This is how we hope to invoke and emphasise empathy.’