Neal’s Yard Annual Lecture 2014

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This year the second Neal’s Yard Annual Lecture ‘Rethinking How We Think’ saw Professor Avner Offer, Dr. Henrietta Bowden-Jones and Professor Frances Corner in conversation about behaviour change, myopic thinking and business models amongst other things. We often talk about cross disciplinary collaboration and here we had perspectives from the social sciences psychology and economics alongside art and design thinking, all much valued as we continue the search for creative solutions to Better Lives and sustainability.

In association with Neal’s Yard Remedies the annual lecture series seeks to articulate and define the concerns we have about the world, aiming to promote new ways of thinking about sustainability issues, promoting and cultivating fresh ideas, innovative thinking and sustainable practices that balance environmental, societal and economic issues in order to secure a sustainable future. As CSF’s Prof. Helen Storey says:

“It’s hard to imagine how the role of design in all our lives could be better informed, than by attending this lecture – if you hold any form of creative intentions, which seek to bring anything from products to inspiration into this world, you need to know this stuff before making a single mark!”

This year there is the opportunity for UAL students to respond to the lecture in the form of creating a project in direct response to this year’s lecture. There is the chance to win an award of £1000 from Neal’s Yard Remedies.

This is an unusual opportunity for students to define and articulate your own learning opportunity, by writing the brief you would want both yourself and fellow students, to answer, around the central themes of this year’s lecture. We would also like you to share how you yourself might respond to your personally authored brief and an indication of imagined outcomes. Watch this year’s lecture again (above) for a reminder of the central themes and ideas that were discussed on the evening.

Opening the lecture was Dr. Henrietta Bowden-Jones, a Psychiatrist and neuroscience researcher at Imperial College London, and a specialist in behavioural addictions and decision-making, who outlined the characteristics of oniomania – or the compulsive desire to shop and linked similarities and differences to this and other behavioural addictions like gambling.

For me a couple of interesting points were raised during the outline of these behaviours: the difficulty in measuring this behaviour  being one of them – haven’t we all had moments of seeking reward, feeling relief and followed by unease and dissatisfaction when or after shopping? This is not to belittle real behaviour difficulties and struggles in this area and of course there is a spectrum of severity but there are aspects of this behaviour which cannot be divorced from our political and economic system of consumption, and all that entails – constant advertising encouraging the need for instant gratification for example. Alongside this, changes in our decision making processes mean our decision making is faster which is not to say more impulsive, a nuance which must not be overlooked when considering consumption from this perspective.

The second point of interest was her point that compulsive buying a manifestation of unease or dissatisfaction with current situation – surely a clarion call that it is not through shopping that satisfaction and pleasure can be found (in life as in fashion). As fashion celebrants, it is worth noting that it is only recently that fashion has become so completely synonymous with consumption – yes, there has always been a link, but so too is there a link between personal expression, freedom, choice, skill and the craft of use. There was much of interest in the presentation not least the role of mental health and what mental health might mean when we are faced with a gamut of positive and negative feelings that are all factors from many things

Difficulty with my reading (and many others in similar vein) that it is the economic/political context that is the over arching factor in the challenge of over consumption is the question of agency and the dogma of the rational consumer, which thankfully Professor Avner Offer would go on to challenge by outlining the need for (and erosion of) commitment devices. There is no doubt that the climate of consumption encourages our spending and influences our habits but the balance is a fine one between being part of, yet separate, from our cultural context and therefore able to rationalise and recognise our behaviours.

Professor Avner Offer is a leading authority on social and economic history at the University of Oxford, who talked of how the constant novelty on offer undermines the notion of the rational consumer that would (though this has always been contested) lock the individual into making the ‘right’ choice for society and themselves in the long term. In the past, commitment devices were what prevented myopic thinking and decision making. Examples of commitment devices were formality in terms of language, table manners and formal dress or status and/or price. All of which have interesting and potentially controversial implications for fashion – perhaps an idea worth exploring through the student competition brief!

  • The DEADLINE for submissions is 20th February 2015 by 9.00am via email to Rebecca Doolan: r.doolan@fashion.arts.ac.uk
  • The competition is brief can be found here.
  • And the video of this year’s lecture can be watched again here.
  • If you would like to watch the video from the 2013 lecture ‘Nature V 9billion of us! The cultural and design challenge’ please watch here.