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Barañao: «Our designer's talent is renowned, we must value it and turn it into an asset to boost the economic development of our country»

Lino Barañao, the national Minister of Science and Technology, shares his vision about the new ways of conceiving the discipline and the relevance of “design knowledge”.

Lino Barañao holds a PhD in Chemical Sciences by the University of Buenos Aires (UBA). Among other positions, he has acted as the President of CONICET’s Technology Committee (1999-2000) and Director of the National Agency for Scientific and Technological Promotion (2003-2007). He has led the National Ministry of Science, Technology, and Productive Innovation since its inception in 2007. During his administration, more than a thousand scientists returned to Argentina, the facilities of the Polo Científico Tecnológico were opened, and Tecnópolis, the mega-exhibition of art, science, and technology was inaugurated. Since 2018, he has been the head of the Ministry of Science and Technology, within the orbit of the Ministry of Education. In the “Expert Opinion” section of the Old&Newsletter, Barañao talks about the role of design as a link among different fields of knowledge and society.

–Is there a particular identity or a distinctive feature of “Argentine design”?
–Identity derives from an increased creativity. I remember that, when Spanish chef Ferran Adrià came to Argentina on occasion of a workshop, I asked him to what he associated the country. Creativity was his answer. He said there was probably no other country with so many of creative production and that this feature was a result of perennial crisis, resilience, and our distinctive irreverence due to a lack of respect towards authority. Enrique Zuleta Puceiro used to say that when a person from a low social class argued with someone from a high class in Brazil, the discussion ended when the latter demanded: “Do you know with whom are you speaking?”; in Argentina, however, the former would reply: “I don’t give a damn”. That attitude, not playing by the rules and improvising, translates into creativity… basically, what defines Argentina is the reluctance to stick to established patterns.

–How does design interact with science and technology?
–Historically, those fields were decoupled. At the beginning of the past administration, we claimed design as a discipline of our competence. The reason: design is information applied to an object, it is the interaction between geometry and neuroscience, and it is linked to the shapes that give us pleasure or that have an aesthetic element, features that do not pertain to engineering. I believe that the key characteristic of new objects, such as the Iphone, is that they integrate efficient technology with a design that turns them into a desirable object.
Besides, design currently requires more scientific knowledge, from software to enable the process and the study of new materials to the analysis of biological solutions to solve physical problems. It is not enough for an object to be attractive; it must comply with other requirements. For example, recently I saw the publicity of a pair of shoes made of sea-recycled plastic. In that case, the product required a design adaptation in order to benefit as much as possible from the raw material.
There are also cases like the food industry, where design has gained ground. Today, the consumer looks for more than just nutrition, he or she looks for an aesthetically appealing packaging and even expects the dish itself to be designed. At the International Center for Design Knowledge Tomás Maldonado, supported by the BID funding, we organize food design workshops, a discipline that has great potential in Argentina due to the fact that it combines two of the features that identify us: good quality food and creative design.

–Does the State value design as well as design management and research?
–We believe that design is a field of knowledge that must be supported. For that reason, we have incorporated it to our Ministry –formerly the Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation– and to the Tomás Maldonado Center, one of the main research institutes in the field, through the contest Innovar.
However, we still need to encourage the interaction between design and the hard sciences for the discipline to be more valued by Conicet, institution where the strict scholar guidelines that prevail are critical of the lack of evaluation criteria for design projects. At the same time, much work needs to be done in the area of design thinking, a consolidated subject in many universities worldwide.
In that respect, my projects at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) aim at building connections between the departments of Architecture, Urbanism and Design and the Exact Sciences, a vital but inexistent space of interaction. At the Latin American Center of Interdisciplinary Formation (CELFI), located at the Cero más Infinito building, we intend to integrate designers because, among other areas, the visualization department requires professionals that possess a mind capable of translating into images very abstract science concepts.

–To what extent is national design connected to international production and knowledge hubs?
–At the Tomás Maldonado Center we are promoting its linkage, in particular, to a group of Italian universities and Berlin’s Humboldt University. As it happens with any discipline, connections with other countries are essential not only to showcase our work but also to incorporate new tools and trends. At the same time, each school of Design in the country has its own programs of international cooperation. I consider it important for young students to have such experiences that will later enable them to consolidate global networks.

–Is design socially valued in Argentina?
–According to university statistics, Graphic Design ranks fourth in preference, behind Law, Medicine and Economic Sciences. I don’t know if that implies it is valued or if it’s related to employment options but I do think that creativity is valued in the collective unconscious.
Argentinians, like societies such as the Italian, value products with sophisticated designs. It is also true that, even though design goes beyond the superficial and is essential to the object, people tend to identify it mostly with graphics and garment and not so much with industrial products, a less flexible field that should be considered more. In Argentina, we could easily stand out globally in that area of design both by exporting technology and design services. Today, knowledge is a tradable asset. Israel is a good example of this, since the country is financially supported by the 250 thousand technicians that work in high-tech companies.

–Why are design archives and heritage collections important? Why is it necessary to preserve the memory of design?
–All human facets need to have a historical memory in order to build a timeline that enables us to know where we stand. In the case of Argentina, there is an additional value related to the recovery of pride in our ability to develop creative designs. For that reason we mean to present a retrospective exhibit that will display products that were once in the market and had cultural value for the people, such as the Magiclick, Siam refrigerators, and Noblex televisions. It is crucial to get back some of the past magic now that the Argentine industry is not experiencing its best moment and to remember that its products once were competitive in terms of quality and design.

–Why there are almost no museums that include a space for design in Argentina, in contrast with the rest of the world?
–I think no initiatives or proposals of the sort were presented. The local design sector didn’t think either of this display space to show their work. Traditional museums did not consider design since it is not included in the historical conception of the Fine Arts. At the MoMA, for example, even the aluminum profiles used to build skyscrapers are exhibited and the audience can understand that technical solutions are, simultaneously, visually appealing and innovative for specific uses. It is a pending issue that we must address, that is why, as soon as I told Hernán Lombardi we needed to present an industrial design exhibition, he immediately supported the idea. I even think this endeavor will enhance the discipline’s social appraisal.

–What conditions are required for an institution to achieve this purpose?
–Everything that –I–D–A Foundation already has: curatorial capacity. The only thing missing is a space for public exhibits… that could be Tecnópolis. A near future opportunity is the Expo 20.23 that will take place in Argentina and will be focused on creative industries. A stand related to the history of local design, in all its expressions, needs to be included. The talent of our designers is renowned, therefore, we must appraise it and turn it into an asset to boost the country’s economic development.

–What institutional structures must be built in order to foster local design research, preservation, appraisal, and display? What other actors could be integrated to achieve these aims?
–Professional and business associations, such as the Argentine Industrial Union (UIA), should play an important role and uplift design. There are many Argentine companies with a long history of design production that should contribute to this end, almost as a social commitment.

–What future challenges will the design community face?
–In terms of “design knowledge”, the discipline could become the binding agent in any field. The challenge is to stop conceiving design only as a means to embellish the products of other technologies, but to see it as the core that coordinates different areas and conceives an object that is functionally efficient and aesthetically attractive. In contrast with other professions, designers have the ability to integrate all chains of value based on a holistic, less-analytical perspective. However, in order to do it, designers must be trained not only in traditional aspects but also in material sciences and computing.
Nowadays, all industries require the perspective of design. For example, products demand information that was not needed in the past, since consumers are able to scan a QR code to see the product’s composition or to access the entire productive process through augmented reality apps. That is not technology: it is design. It is to think, from the consumers’ point of view, what will be appealing and how to make it happen. Argentine design must play a much more relevant role than the one it currently plays just because it can transversally cross all fields and can become the one factor that opens demanding markets for the country.