A transparent attempt at social engineering

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The initiative to re-design pub glasses to stop them being used as weapons overhypes the problem and the solution.

When I was a student in Falmouth, Cornwall, there was always one pub that would guarantee a fight as part of a night out. The Pirate Inn (now sadly defunct) was notorious; drinking there would regularly mean hiding under a table to avoid flying glassware.

A few years later, the Pirate Inn got a makeover. New management renovated the venue, professionalised the bar staff and promoted it as Cornwall’s premier live venue for new bands. Surprisingly enough, there was no more fighting; the drinkers were too busy listening to great live music.

The example of the Pirate Inn remains a useful lesson of how a problem, like dealing with drunken customers, can be solved by taking direct responsibility and implementing some practical, commonsense solutions.

All which is seems a far cry from a recent, highly publicized joint effort between leading designers and the UK government, which also aims to deal with violence in pubs and, in particular, the nasty occurrence of one person being attacked by another with a glass.

The problem of ‘glassing’ has remained a difficult one to deal with. The innovative intervention of the ‘design police’ is to make the glasses themselves safer. The aim is to make them unbreakable or at least to ensure that any shards of broken glass splinter into blunt pieces, rather like a car windscreen.

On one level, this should be a welcome piece of design, making glasses harder for anyone to use in a violent manner. But the truth is that this initiative is based on exaggerating the problem, overhyping the proposed solution, and promoting a dim view of drinkers.

There are no clear figures on the actual numbers of violent incidents taking place in pubs. In 2001, one MP quoted the British Crime Survey to suggest that there were some 80,000 incidents taking place each year. However, the Home Office’s own figures suggested a different number: between 3,400 and 5,000 (1).  Another review of alcohol-related violence produced last year by the Institute of Alcohol Studies also suggested a far lower figure of around 5,000 glassing incidents taking place each year. A British Crime Survey report from 2003 suggested that 10 per cent of alcohol-related assaults involved the threatened use of a drinking glass or bottle, but the report noted that ‘no incidents were reported where the victim was actually hit with a weapon’ (2).

In contrast, researchers at InnovationRCA (involved in the new glass-design project) put the number at a far higher level, 47,000 incidents (3). The ambiguity surrounding glassing incidents is not helpful and certainly does not add any weight to the case that we are facing a major problem.

Indeed, as a very useful 2006 study on factors around alcohol-related violence found, more often than not, glass was involved unintentionally. Dr Belinda Winder of Nottingham University, author of the research, instead suggested that deliberate glassings were ‘the exception to the norm and incidences were deemed rare’ (4). Furthermore, her research suggested that ‘[g]lass was seen more often to be used as a threat rather than an actual weapon’ (5). Perhaps it is the difference between threatened use and actual attacks that explains some of the higher figures being banded around.

There are plenty of hazards with the glassware that we use at the moment, but these overwhelmingly relate to accidental injury, such as customers and bar staff stepping on broken glass or cutting themselves while attempting to clear it up. Redesigning glassware to prevent these injuries, overwhelmingly accidental, would be a step forward.

But the design police have gone further by attacking our ‘drinking culture’. Instead of focusing on the common problems related to using glasses, this new initiative has provoked panic-ridden headlines about pubs being under siege from drink-related violence.

First, designers overstate the problem. What could be a neat solution to some common, but minor problems, ends up being justified on the basis that we need safer glasses to avoid serious violence. This is a misunderstanding of both where the problem lies and how to fix it. As Dr Winder’s research confirmed, ‘customers would probably use other objects in a conflict, if they did not have a glass in their hand at that time… If they were replaced with plastic vessels, then the aggressors would replace them with another implement.’ (6) 

It is naive to think that criminal or violent behaviour will stop because we nullify one convenient type of weapon. As is often the case in such heated, spontaneous moments of rage, we use or adapt whatever is at hand to do the job. Some other weapon, perhaps one that is even more dangerous, will merely replace glasses. On this basis, anything not locked down including pool cues, chairs, crockery and spoons would have to be re-designed.

It’s not the boozed-up drinkers that are on the rampage, but a new breed of designer, who believes that most people’s behaviour is unpredictable and uncontrolled, especially when they have had a drink. Thus, with the approval of the government, the designer must go ahead and redesign anything that could be used as a means of violence because you just can never know what people will do.

Despite the fact that the vast majority of us will manage to drink happily and never get into a fight, this better-safe-than-sorry outlook will force us all to drink from these redesigned containers. Design, which should be about making people’s lives better and easier, has become yet another weapon in furthering the governments’ social policy agenda.

In an era where the government is turning against traditional methods of dealing with perennial problems like crime, design presents itself as a new, innovative approach. But, if you dig a little deeper, any enthusiasm behind such initiatives masks a cynical and engineered agenda that turns genuine enthusiasm for solving problems into a stale process where the result is unquestioned.

Hence, when the government asked the Design Council to commission its own Design and Technology Alliance Against Crime unit to research the problem of glassing incidents, the framing of the research itself was nowhere near as objective as you might have hoped. With the help of the prestigious Royal College of Art’s InnovationRCA lab, research was produced that helped define the problem and lead the way to the brief.

The research meant various industry experts, criminologists, representatives from breweries, landlords, bar staff and victims of glassing attacks were all wheeled out in order to have their say. What might appear to be a wide-ranging consultation actually smacks of a solution in search of a problem.

Indeed, the design research may really have been about drawing together a firmer consensus around the idea that glassings were a major problem while displacing responsibility for where the problem might lie away from individuals, businesses and government. Whatever the intention, conducting such research in a climate where drinking has been vilified for causing all kinds of problems from social disobedience to ill health would make it difficult to address the question with an open mind.

Even if the research was unquestioning about the way in which the problem was posed, it is the job of designers to question the brief they are given. But Nick Verebelyi, 3D Branding & Packaging Director for Design Bridge, the company awarded the contract to design the new glasses, described the company’s task as finding ‘creative solutions that increase safety by reducing the opportunity for the vessel to be used as a weapon’.  It would appear that Design Bridge took the problem, and the proposed solution, as given.

It is only by questioning the brief and the assumptions that lie behind it that designers can arrive at a better solution for their clients. If that sounds presumptious, it works because the resulting outcome is far better than the client had imagined in the first place. But in this case, we have the opposite combination of effects: designers have accepted spurious research together with an unprecedented opportunity for pushing the self-aggrandising notion that design can help solve social problems.

The missing element here is the public. But, as Verebelyi said, that doesn’t matter. If we, the drinking public, don’t get it, the Home Office will pile in enough resources to ensure that we do. The job of the designer is simply to make the final product ‘desirable and acceptable and cool’.
Design cannot solve every problem. But if we continue to support this new breed of design police, we may well have to suffer the consequences of their ill-thought-through actions—as seen through the bottom of a plastic glass that spoils the simple pleasure of having a pint. And that is not cool.