Can design cut crime?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Government attempts to ‘design out’ crime by sticking anti-theft, noise-emitting devices around the country will make us feel less secure. 

Can design reduce crime? Local councils around the UK certainly seem to think so. Starting today, they will all be using a new M-shaped bike stand called the ‘caMden’, in the hope that it will deter thieves from stealing bicycles. It’s a simple idea: the main feature of the caMden is that it has more bends than your average bike stand, meaning there are more places to lock a bicycle against it.

Update Read Lorraine Gamman, director of the Design Against Crime Centre'svitriolic response, also on  spiked. Wonder if I touched a raw nerve?

 

The caMden is one of many new designs by students at the Design Against Crime centre at Central St Martin’s College of Art and Design in London (1). They have also produced a Karrysafe bag that emits a loud noise if someone tries to pull it from your shoulder, and a hook for hanging bags securely on to pub stools.

All of these new design ideas no doubt make committing crimes that bit more difficult – and that is no doubt a good thing. But let’s be clear: the caMden bike stand won’t stop crime altogether. It will simply make it harder to unpick a bike’s lock, which will mean criminals will have to learn some new tricks or they will commit their crimes elsewhere, in as-yet caMden-free zones.

Yet these new anti-crime designs do raise some important questions about the role of design today, and the kind of public space our designers and political leaders are creating.

Since 2001, bodies such as the Design Council have been researching anti-crime ideas. Now, many more designers are jumping on the bandwagon, encouraged by government officials who believe there are simple technical solutions to the problem of crime.

Designers are speedily getting into bed with our crime-obsessed government. Last year, Professor Lorraine Gamman, director of Design Against Crime, joined other designers on the newly formed government initiative, the Design and Technology Alliance (2). Many of the UK’s leading designers are members of the alliance, including leading product designer Sebastian Conran; Sir John Sorrell, chair of the London Design Festival and chair of Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE); David Kester, chief executive of the Design Council; and Jeremy Myerson, professor of design studies at the Royal College of Art in London.

These designers seem keen to imbue design with a wider sense of purpose and moral worth. In recent years, elements in the design world have come under attack for producing too much unnecessary (and over-packaged) stuff - bags, boxes, cars, badly designed food labels that apparently are responsible for making British people fat and unhealthy. In response to these attacks, the design establishment has not mounted a defence of design for its own sake, as a good in itself that can make the world a pleasant place to live in; instead they have tried to make design a government-approved force for stability and morality.

So at the launch of the caMden and the anti-crime design drive, Professor Lorraine Gamman said design should be celebrated because it can help ‘reduce crime’ and also encourage more sustainability: ‘Crime-proof designs make products more sustainable’, she said, arguing that ‘design should be more ethics than aesthetics… the world [has] lots of other issues that need to be addressed, such as climate change and criminality.’ (3) How creative – or free – can designers really be when they are expected to meet government targets and conform to an ethical rather than aesthetic agenda?

The way that the government is using design should be of concern to all of us. Government officials argue that a ‘designed approach’ to cutting crime should be at the heart of every product we buy, service we use and the way we interact with the environment we live and work in. Yet surely a society designed to keep criminals at bay will only heighten fear and anxiety about crime, rather than make us safer and more comfortable?

In Cutting Crime: A New Partnership 2008-2011, the government set out its ‘new national approach to designing out crime’, promising ‘the inclusion of crime prevention in the professional training of scientists and designers’ (4). What will be the result of this anti-crime design frenzy? That wherever we are, whatever we are doing, anti-crime ‘design measures’ will be watching over us, securing us and keeping us awake at night thinking about crime, crime, crime.

Of course, design and technical innovation has helped to cut crime – when it is applied discretely and to a specific task. Car locks, protected stereos, window locks, house security alarms, mobile phones that block access by ‘unwanted’ new owners – all of these developments have hindered criminals and afforded people some peace of mind. Yet it is one thing to have ‘well-designed security’ – it is another thing entirely to kickstart a campaign to ‘design out crime’ and put anti-crime design measures at the heart of everything we consume and use.

Today’s zealous anti-crime designing will do little to address the social and economic underpinnings of crime. Making it physically more difficult to nick a bike or grab a bag brings to mind Karl Marx’s response to Louis Bonaparte’s legal edict banning beggars from the streets of Paris more than 150 years ago: Marx pointed out that Bonaparte forgot to make poverty illegal, too. Yet if anti-crime design won’t fix the problem of crime, it will help to make our society feel more stifling, insecure and less free.

Introducing anti-crime measures everywhere we live and in everything we buy will make people feel helpless and vulnerable, and ‘looked after’ by the benign, faceless authorities. In the real world, petty crime on a day-to-day basis is normally thwarted when people take a commonsense approach to potential threats against their person and their property. We lock our doors, keep an eye out for our friends and neighbours, intervene if someone seems to be in danger. Yet in the Brave New World being created by the government and its design lackeys, machines and new bits of technology will seek to take the place of common sense, disempowering people from taking action themselves. A society designed around the threat of crime and violence will probably not be a very pleasant place to live.