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Designing Global Innovation

Exploring cultural design research exchanges between the Silk Road and Belt and Road Initiative for future innovations

For centuries the silk road acted as a conveyor, carrying information, trade, beliefs, philosophies, goods, religions and cultural influences in a network that spanned much of Europe and Asia between the second century BCE and the fifteenth century CE. The impact of these exchanges alongside the maritime silk road were formative in kick starting globalised trade and later on the industrial revolution. Silk, porcelain, gunpowder, spices, buddhism, zaroastrianism, christianity, paper, gold, glassware and astronomy were but a few of the things exchanged across this network of routes. The changing climate, politics and the reduced cost and speed of sea transport led to the decline of the silk road as a major influencer of cultural exchange and development. However, in 2013 Chinese president Xi Jinping announced the One Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) during visits to Kazakhstan and Indonesia, an ambitious $1 trillion project to create a twenty-first century supercharged win-win global trade infrastructure that would again revive economic benefits and cultural exchanges.

Our collaboration with the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing (CAFA) is a probe project aiming to uncover initial design research questions and themes where strategic design-led innovation can learn lessons from silk road histories. We aim to use these for tackling some of the issues and opportunities that are emerging from the belt and road initiative. Much of the public discussion has been around the economic and infrastructure benefits of the BRI, however as we have learned form the silk road, the longer-term impacts that endure over time may well be cultural change.

Professor Ashley Hall and Shuxin Cheng, along with 23 students from CAFA, travelled during the two-week journey by road and rail over 4,100km from Xi’an in the East of China along the Hexi corridor through the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts to Urumqi in Xinjiang province in the far West. They visited 14 cities in 15 days, including Wuwei, Lanzhou, Zhangye, Jiayuguan, Dunhuang, Turpan and Urumqi, gathering research insights to discover historical cultural exchanges that led to technology evolutions and also visited belt and road transport, energy and infrastructure locations.

Our findings have identified six initial thematic areas including: future city energy, cultural misunderstandings, co-robotics, climate change, food culture and technology transfer that have each be illustrated through design projects disseminated through an exhibition at CAFA, a project book, a book chapter in an upcoming publication on design innovation methods in China and a project documentary. The contrasting experiences moving across the landscape of cultural change verses the depth of historical cultural exchanges will inform our next steps to widen our network of partners and identify specific locations and new future design research routes.