Designing with the Neighbours in Mind: Unlimited Asia Pacific

Unlimited Asia Pacific is a platform for the Queensland state government to join Victoria as a leading force in Australia’s emergent design economy. While the Victorian State of Design Festival is focused on state-based activity, Unlimited triennial builds on the work of its visual arts sister, the Asia Pacific Triennial, to position design within the wider region. The question is: What does Unlimited add to the APT?

Unlimited offers promising opportunities. The APT deals largely in the cultural reflections in our region, questioning stereotypes and familiarising ourselves with a contemporary Asia Pacific sensibility. Despite massive audience numbers in Brisbane, participation from the region is likely to be limited to those with the resources to engage in visual arts. Unlimited offers the possibility of partnership beyond the performance of cultural difference—it engages in the everyday life of the region.

Besides its relevance to our dialogue with the Asia Pacific, Unlimited coincides with the birth of the Australian Design Alliance as a lobbying group to promote design as a capacity across government. This design push takes aligns itself with the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council, which has historically supported the crafts. It argues that ‘Australia should keep pace with the rest of the world in generating creative capital through innovative ideas, product differentiation and systems effectiveness.’

From a government perspective, support for design is seen a business-friendly initiative. The focus of the Queensland event reinforces the link to economic growth – the theme of the 2010 Unlimited festival is ‘opportunity’.

Yet the concerns are not purely profit-driven. There is much in the program that focuses on improving social condition in the region. One of the great successes of Unlimited was Bunker Roy, of Barefoot College, who received two standing ovations for his account of the south-south enterprise teaching grandmothers to become solar engineers. Cases studies of ‘Design in Action’ mostly focused on needs of poor communities in the Asia Pacific region.

But sometimes business and development combined uneasily. There’s a growing school of thought, reflected in C.K. Prahalad’s Bottom of the Pyramid, that a win-win scenario for global North and South can be created by harnessing informal economies in poor countries to the efficiencies of global capital. Mark Ingram from Millennium Business Development told the story of a village in the highlands of PNG, where responsible women farmers were contrasted with indulgent men wasting their time in body decoration and spear-sharpening.

While few today would argue for the interests of men above women, MBD can be seen as advocating a missionary approach. This kind of business development isolates the primitive elements of a culture off from its progressive capacities. It’s doubtful that MBD would overtly identify as imperialist, but critical discussion is important to clarify its aims.

Unlimited has some important issues to work through. Given the urgency of poverty, perhaps cultural identity is an unnecessary romance. Conversely, the prioritising of economy above culture may itself be specific to a Western world view that focuses more on the future than the past.

If it were to articulate such issues, Queensland’s Unlimited would not only position the state in this growing region but also play a leading role in a national conversation about our place in the world beyond. Figures like Noel Pearson have alerted us to these issues within Australia, now we are finding resonant voices from our neighbours outside.


The Unlimited Asia Pacific website contains a full range of videos of presentations from the event; a visit is highly recommended.

Australian Design Alliance

Originally published in Artlink vol 30 no 4, 2010

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *