When you think of design what comes to mind? What are the results? Although well intentioned, design has become a pure and contained process separated from the problems we seek to address. Trained as an architect, I was always frustrated by the lack of capacity to create lasting impact in a community. Though we may design intricacies to stimulate an experience or address a narrow and unique problem, rarely do our projects touch the communities that are most in need. The process in which we work in does not allow for it. There is a good degree of separation between the investor and the eventual tenant in this process. The investor allocates the funds for the developer, the developer purchases the land, performs the financial studies, and hires the design team. The design team delivers a product, and the product is sold to an eventual tenant to recoup investments. What does this mean for the tenant? Generic, expensive and static spaces that offer temporary residence and usefulness. Designers are limited by the economics of this system, inhibiting their ability to enact change, and at times unintentionally, extending inequitable solutions. Architecture is a piece of the system. Its priority has evolved to complete an economic equation, not a human one.
If we look at let’s say a mixed use building as an example. We can envision the process. A closed-door conference room with the architect, neatly dressed for the occasion, calmly writing notes and sketching as their client explains the project. No future tenants in the room, no neighbors. Yet without either can the project be a success? The design process is contained and built on the assumptions of what the architect considers great living space minus the funding restrictions. Our ownership ends with the design and any future evolution of the space is left to the will of the property owner. If we look at recent history in Fort Worth with the IBM Solana, designed by Ricardo Legoretta, the previous glamour of the flamboyant colors has been erased. What once stood as a modern example of Mexican architecture has now faded into the blur of travelling down 114. This brings into question how sustainable a designer’s good intentions for a project really are.
Furthermore, if we are to talk about environmental sustainability, no career engaged in the industrial system can support this in their business model. Screw makers must make screws, car makers must make cars, and architects must make buildings. Without the next product to sell, each business fails. Imagine a restaurant let’s say in South Fort Worth. Elegantly designed and launched with a plethora of menu options. Over two years the restaurant fails, and a new tenant takes over. It is likely the architect will be on the forefront of helping to remake the place, tearing down existing finishes, equipment, and millwork to meet their client’s need and fuel their own business.
How can we be practitioners of sustainability when a large requirement of our profession’s success is destruction? Let me be clear in saying it is not a sole failure of the architect. They are doing what the system requires them to do to sustain their business and support themselves. It is failure of the system designers work in. It is incapable of allowing any other solutions in its current state. So, with climate change and other pressing world issues, how do we prioritize equity and wellbeing? How do we ensure a better future not only for our communities but our profession?
People are the DNA of cities. It is what drives our economy, our innovations, and the things that make home, home. Within cities are webs of diverse systems that keep industries on the move and affect our lifestyles. Although there are great marvels to cheer for, there are also many issues that inhibit equity. Many of these issues have been imbedded for so long that they are second nature. I am sure we have all heard “well that is just the way things are”. I often find the better statement is “why and, what can we do to change it”?
The major issues we face are ambiguous, ambitious, and immense. Due to the complexity of addressing these challenges, a collective approach that emphasizes broad stakeholder involvement is more necessary that ever. This requires a new design method that prioritizes collaboration and connecting with those most affected to incorporate them as part of the process. It requires experienced problems solvers able to address both the most urgent and the most daunting of challenges. It requires us to remove ourselves from the nuance of capitalizing from product to product, or building to building, and reinvent our profession to fully utilize our creative capital. We need practitioners that can look deeper into the underlying causes of today’s challenges and effectively execute solutions.
Pressed for time and resources, most organizations will not have the capacity to independently address the perplexing and complicated hurtles to enact systems wide change. If we look at the North Texas area as a case example there are almost 30,000 registered non-profits in the region with over 75% providing some form of social service . Yet despite the abundance of resources, one in five children living in poverty resides in Dallas . What does this state about the effectiveness of our resources or the condition of our economy? If we look deeper we find each non-profit works to address a specific challenge and competes with the same funding and talent to enact their programs.
As resources become limited and the challenges ever more difficult to solve, most non-profits limit their focus to addressing a symptom of a problem rather than the cause. The reasoning is not ill minded, but it is the result of working independently with fixed and often very limited resources. For volunteer non-profits, this becomes exponentially more difficult as time and resources are extremely finite. If you take homelessness for example, it is more than just not having a place to stay. There are a multitude of factors that contribute to this such as lack of transportation, lack of income, lack of food, and lack of employment to name just a few. These underlying issues, similar to homelessness, also require an intense focus and a commitment of resources to engage properly. Many of these specific elements also have their own contributing factors as well, making the challenge even more difficult.
Considering the complications to addressing some of these issues, it is easy to see why many non-profits opt for an easier and much more achievable option. Looking at it from a business perspective we start to find similarities to the example on architects. As a non-profit you’re in the business of helping address those in need. Without people in need you cannot justify being in business. How comfortable are we putting non-profits on a timeline where the completion of their mission results in a shutdown? Should be more intentional with planning an organizations closure. Or is it more practical to evolve these organizations so they can provide a stable profession adept at solving the multitude of challenges we face today and tomorrow?
I have been ever curious about trying to answer these questions. Unable to find the answer here locally I embarked on a series of global trips to understand the vessels used to enact change and address pressing issues. I participated in multiple global conferences on urban innovation and embedded myself in the subject, learning off thought leaders and contributing heavily to the conversations.
After many trips and research I found my answer to systems change in the innovation lab model. Able to develop and facilitate the toolkits necessary, the innovation lab works at multiple scales to engage the whole system and align grassroots innovation with government and institutional priorities. This platform enables organizations, community champions, and innovators to work together to accelerate impact while localizing solutions. The concept is not completely new, but there are opportunities to evolve its core framework based on lessons learned, local conditions, and advances in technology.
The Local Economic Development (LED) Lab in Vancouver is a great example on how this platform can be used to support community driven social innovations. Pressed with a growing homeless population in Down Town East Side (DTES), the LED Lab was able to develop (11x) social enterprises to create a more vibrant and inclusive local economy, creating multiple opportunities for entrepreneurship and employment. By partnering with Simon Fraser University (SFU), they were able to recruit student interns and project coordinators to aid in implementing the projects. Their success resulted in the LED Lab being fully absorbed by SFU and now they operate as part of a network of (4x) innovation labs working on a multitude of local and global challenges.
Locally, Clean Slate, a social enterprise through Presbyterian Night Shelter offers those experiencing homelessness a pathway to employment. By partnering with the City of Fort Worth, they have secured stable janitorial jobs for those in need while providing an essential service to municipal facilities.
Design in this platform becomes a framework that develops solutions by involving the human perspective in all steps of the problem-solving process. Technology becomes an extension to this, helping to accelerate results and foster effective collaboration. The lab functions as a dot connector by gaining a full understanding of the challenge, it subsets, and the opportunities available locally. When new prototypes are needed, it offers a haven to rapidly experiment with concepts and stimulate grass roots innovation. When an issue requires urgency, resources can be allocated online via crowdsourcing and crowdfunding, offering quick results. It’s a framework that can focus on the singular issues that encompass a challenge while being able to look at the bigger picture and phase resources appropriately towards an end goal.
So, what does this look like? It starts with a series of community conversations around food and drinks, discussing in depth topics that are relevant to each challenge. The audience is composed of diverse participants from different disciplines, perspectives, and backgrounds. These conversations help each stakeholder become comfortable not only their similarities but their differences as well. It is essential to have different points of view to discover solutions. It helps to spark creative thinking and a shared language for the group to navigate the ups and downs of complex challenges. Roundtables and interactive design exercises help each of the stakeholder’s gain clarity not only on the complexities of the challenge, but also where opportunities lie. As momentum develops, phasing and mobilizing action between the collective groups becomes key.
Looking back on the previous example of addressing homelessness, no one organization can tackle everything alone, but together they can build a strategy to achieve a common shared goal. As the challenge becomes clear, potential solutions arise from the network of partners, fueling short term changes and aiding in the long-term policy and economic changes that will be needed resolve the issue in full.
Looking into preparing the future for these challenges, what role do educational institutions play? How do they best position themselves and their students to tackle these daunting task? The university has an opportunity to be an active partner in not just teaching the skill sets but implementing the solutions as well. By developing pathways to social entrepreneurship, colleges can be on the front seat of change. Students could be recruited from multiple degree paths, like the LED Lab’s model to work on projects while completing their degree. This could position students not only to graduate with a degree, but a social enterprise aimed at addressing a problem.
For architecture students, the lab could foster radical new approaches to design, construction, and problem solving by encouraging the use of unconventional materials such as plastic or cardboard. Once the students master the materials, they could be launched as a team to address a critical housing or infrastructure need in a third world country. More importantly by bringing in other college programs to collaborate with the architecture students, new radical solutions could be created as the students step outside of their professional bubble and learn to look at problems through a collective lens. Curriculum could be scripted to focus on problem solving and evolving the design practice to better prepare students for the challenges they face. Additional opportunities for co-curricular credit would also be available through volunteering offering the students ample opportunities to engage. The research gained from each project will be an asset to teaching the next generation of problem solvers and providing practical toolkits for anyone looking to enact change.
Back on the designer, it puts them in a position to transition from creating products to developing process frameworks and executing solutions. It also makes us think of the design process in totality. Critics, for example are a key part of vetting the project’s success and looking at the nuance details of a building. Yet they are active only after the building is completed leaving little that can be done. The project is completed, and for better or worse the building is there to stay. This new design process would bring a diverse mindset to the forefront early and would ensure human equity and environmental preservation is part of the conversation throughout the project lifecycle. This framework could ensure that professions like the critic have sustained purpose in any project.
Under this new mindset what unique journeys would be able to embark on professionally? Through this framework could we develop a truly sustainable model as we take greater ownership of the projects? What amazing things could we embark on if our creative capital was not restricted to just buildings? Time will tell. The big question till then is, what role do we want to play?