“By the People: Designing a Better America”
A Museum’s Call to Catalyze Cultures of Inclusion by Design
Co-authored by Maren Maier, Dr. Mary McBride and Leslie Kirschenbaum
Cynthia E. Smith, Curator of Socially Responsible Design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum shares her thoughts on the role of design and inclusion in transforming America.
“By the People: Designing a Better America” was on view September 30, 2016 through February. 26, 2017; the third exhibition in a series about the important role design can play in addressing critical issues, such as poverty and inequity around the world. Since 2005, Cynthia E. Smith, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s Curator of Socially Responsible Design has traveled the globe exploring the evolution of the design process in shaping more equitable and regenerative communities, cities and nations. Shortly before the exhibition closed, Cynthia shared her thoughts on the body of groundbreaking work featured in “Design for the Other 90%”, “Design with the Other 90%: CITIES,” and “By the People,” as well as on the power of inclusive design to address our increasingly turbulent times.
Dr. Mary McBride and Maren Maier of our Catalyst team sat down with Cynthia to discuss what she uncovered on her latest journey with “By the People”, and the role she sees designers can play to help us collectively shape cultures of inclusion and a new century of shared prosperity.
REBEL NELL | Design: Amy Peterson and Diana Russell. Location: Detroit, Michigan. Years: 2013–present. | Left: Two creative designers at a workstation in the Detroit studio. | Top: Polished pieces prior to attaching chains. | Bottom: Searching for fallen graffiti pieces in the Dequindre Cut. | Inset: Scrap pieces of graffiti are turned into wearable designs. Photos © Rebel Nell.
“Defiant jewelry with a purpose,” Rebel Nell’s pieces are made from locally “harvested” fallen Detroit graffiti. The jewelry—necklaces, earrings, rings, cuff links, and bracelets—are designed and made by women transitioning from a shelter to an independent life. The Rebel Nell team works directly with local homeless shelter caseworkers to hire women as “creative designers.” With a primary goal to restore confidence, Rebel Nell also provides financial literacy and entrepreneurship classes and offers regular meetings with financial and empowerment advisors.
Maren: Thank you Cynthia for taking the time to speak with us today. You have a Bachelor of Science degree in Industrial Design, a Masters degree in Public Administration and spent years leading multidisciplinary planning projects for cultural institutions. At what point in your career did you realize you wanted to span the boundaries of your disciplines and focus on becoming an ambassador for socially responsible design?
Cynthia: Even as a working designer in New York I was involved in human and civil rights and was active politically at the local, state and national level. Looking for a way to combine those two worlds, I returned to school. I attended the Mid-Career program in Public Administration at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government that brings together people from all over the world who are in the middle of their careers. We were an international cohort that included heads of nonprofits, diplomats, filmmakers, architects, lawyers, military officers—over 200 individuals who were all interested in the public good. Conversations about social entrepreneurship were just beginning, while I was also introduced to MIT’s D-Lab and Design that Matters’ innovative work designing low-cost tools for underserved populations.
Back in New York, I met Cooper Hewitt’s Curatorial Director at the time, who had been introduced to Paul Polak, the founder of International Development Enterprises(IDE). I came on board to curate an exhibition, “Design for the Other 90%” that was inspired by IDE’s micro-irrigation tools that were designed to help farmers –who were living on a dollar a day— emerge out of poverty. Paul may not have considered himself a designer, yet he epitomized this growing area of socially responsible design.
Left: Cooper Hewitt’s 2007 “Design for the Other 90%” exhibition catalog cover. | LifeStraw® China and Switzerland (current version), 2005. Photo © 2005 Vestergaard Franssen. | Right: Installation views of “Design for the Other 90%”, May 4, 2007 – September 23, 2007. Photo by Andrew Garn © Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
Left: “Design with the Other 90%: CITIES” exhibition catalog cover. | Center: Integral Urban Project, Caracas Mejoramiento de Barrios. San Rafael-Barrio Unido sector, La Vega settlement, Caracas, Venezuela, 1999–present. Photo © PROYECTOS ARQUI 5 C.A. | Right: “Design with the Other 90%: CITIES” installation view at the United Nations. October 17, 2011 – January 9, 2012. Photo by Matt Flynn © Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian National Design Museum.
Maren: “By the People: Designing a Better America” is the third in a series of exhibitions you have organized for Cooper Hewitt. Can you explain the thinking and progression behind the trilogy?
Cynthia: The first exhibition, “Design for the Other 90%” was a provocation to the design world. Historically, professional designers only focus on a small percentage of the world’s population, but that is changing in the new millennium. Designers are collaborating across sectors developing low cost solutions to meet the needs of under-served communities around the world. The exhibition, though small in size—it only included thirty-four low-cost devices—explored the critical global issue of extreme poverty and created an international conversation about the importance of design. Installed outside in the museum’s garden, it proved to be a perfect venue, juxtaposing poverty statistics and design responses along well-trafficked Fifth Avenue. Many visitors did not realize so many people were living in extreme poverty.
In 2011, “Design with the Other 90%: CITIES” followed, which focused on rapid growth of informal settlements in the global south. According to UN-Habitat, close to 1 billion people are living in informal settlements, commonly known as favelas, slums, or squatter communities, and that number is projected to double by 2030. The Rockefeller Foundation funded my research, which enabled me to travel to sixteen different cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America, meeting with people and organizations who were living and working within the informal settlements.
“CITIES” was conceived to exchange design strategies, approaches and adaptations taking place in the informal settlements as broadly as possible. Since Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum was under renovation at the time we installed the exhibition at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, attracting an international audience that included UN agencies to show the important role design can play in addressing this rapid urban expansion.
While the first two exhibitions were international, the third “By the People” focuses primarily on the United States. We saw compelling reasons to investigate the ways design could play a role in addressing poverty and inequality across the country, particularly in light of events that led to the U.S. foreclosure crisis, recession and a record number of people living below the poverty line.
Maren: There is a spirit of inclusion underlying this entire exhibition series. Many of the designs highlighted in “By the People” are not only designs that address issues of inclusion, but they use inclusivity and co-creation in the design process itself. What is fueling this desire for inclusivity in process?
Cynthia: Design is a process. Part of that process is understanding and working with communities and end users. “Design for the Other 90%” highlights innovations that emerge locally and are developed in co-creation. “By the People,” with the U.S. in the midst of a massive transformation as we shift away from an extraction-based to an innovation-based economy during a period of increased climate challenge, communities, along with a whole range of stakeholders including designers, architects, engineers, policy-makers and philanthropists are seeking alternative strategies with a renewed sense of urgency.
Many of these innovative approaches are deeply democratic and regenerative, including community land trusts stabilize neighborhoods, worker-owned enterprises help build assets, and productive landscapes can catalyze social, economic and environment transformation.
FARM HACK TOOLS | Founders: Greenhorns, GreenStart, National Young Farmers Coalition and online: 400,000 farmhack.net users. Location: United States, Canada and United Kingdom. Years: 2010–present | Left: Installation view from “By the People: Designing a Better America.” Photo by Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution | Right: Farm Hack Tools, © Photo by Farm Hack licensed under CC by 4.0.
A group of farmers, designers, makers, and hackers banded together and determined that the best way to address mounting challenges and radically improve agriculture for a more adaptive, open, and resilient food system is through greater knowledge sharing. Farm Hack is an open platform for community-based sharing and collaborative research, documenting, developing, and designing more than 150 open-source agricultural tools. Offline, the community convenes meet-ups, workshops, and build events to advance farm-tool prototypes and the best ideas and practices for a climate-ready agriculture.
BELT LINE ATLANTA Concept | Design: Ryan Gravel. Location: Atlanta, Georgia. Year: 1999-present. | Left: Aerial rendering of the twenty-two-mile, multimodal corridor, a model for how landscape infrastructure can create positive, long-term environmental, economic, and social change. | Center and Right: Rendering (and before construction) of the BeltLine north from Allene Avenue, adjacent to the old State Farmer’s Market. Photos by Perkins+Will © Perkins+Will.
The Belt Line Atlanta design concept by Georgia Tech student Ryan Gravel proposes reusing four abandoned freight railroad segments to create a 22-mile, light-rail transportation loop connecting more than 40 neighborhoods. The catalyst infrastructure is designed to shift Atlanta from a sprawling edge city to a denser center city, from a divided city to a connected equitable city. Renamed Atlanta Belt Line, it includes new greenways, parks, affordable housing, and future transit. A land trust collaborative formed to combat displacement caused by increased property values.
Maren: How were you able to narrow down the list of projects selected for the exhibition, and what informed its structure around the six categories?
Cynthia: I start with a working thesis for the exhibition, exploring the intersection of poverty, prosperity, innovation and design. I throw a wide net meeting and speaking with many individuals and organizations working on innovative approaches and reviewing work in the field. I collected roughly three hundred different possible projects with an eye toward showing a broad range of approaches that mirrored the diversity of the country in terms of demographics, climate, economies, geography, and issue areas. Often during my field research, when I explained the exhibition the communities I was meeting with were curious about what other communities were doing around the country. This was an important point and one of the criteria I used in narrowing the final selection.
The exhibition is organized along six themes—Act, Learn, Live, Make, Save, and Share—which express the range of ways designers are engaging the public in efforts to revitalize their communities and improve opportunities. These orienting categories help the museum visitor navigate and explore the exhibition content.
Maren: You’ve logged thousands of miles traveling across the country speaking to people in numerous sectors and various geographies. What have you learned about how design is practiced today versus even since your last exhibition, “Design with the Other 90%: CITIES”?
Cynthia: Designers and design educators are exploring broader systems when approaching these sorts of challenges. They are considering long-term impacts and placing local community expertise at the center.
When I asked a local community architect who worked with residents to transform informal settlement in Bangkok into a thriving and vibrant neighborhood which skill he thought was most needed for his work, he responded, “listening”.It is so simple. I’m told a requirement for Paul Polak’s development team, is to sit with the farmer in India or Bangladesh who is living on a dollar a day and listen for a minimum of 1,000 hours over the span of a year to better understand their needs.
Left: Cynthia walking along Bangkok, Thailand, Bang Bau Canal.| Right: Cynthia visits with a Dhaka, Bangladesh, Korail settlement BRAC, women’s saving group. Photos © Cynthia E. Smith, Smithsonian Institution
Maren: Did you meet people along the way who maybe didn’t think of themselves as designers but gained a new appreciation for their work as an act of design after speaking with you?
Cynthia: Sometimes when I invited organizations to participate in the exhibition they would be surprised that I considered their work to be design.
Many of these innovators see a problem or a situation, and though they might not have been professionally trained as designers, they unknowingly engage in the design process to provide a solution. One good example is Humane Borders Water Stations. A group of volunteers noticed that people migrating north from Mexico were dying in the Arizona desert from dehydration. Partnering with the local medical examiner they plotted the location of every migrant death onto an area map. Clusters of where the most deaths were occurring helped them determine where to place water stations. Marked “Agua”, the stations are designed for visibility, blue—the universal color for water—barrels of water are sited with a blue flag 30 feet into the air.
On the side of each water station barrel, Humane Borders places a sticker with the image of the Virgin Mary. Migrants often travel with religious icons as protection, and when they arrive at the stations in the middle of the desert, the image inherently conveys the water is clean and safe to drink. It is a simple design decision that saves lives.
HUMANE BORDERS WATER STATIONS. | Design: Robin Hoover, Tim HOLT, Doug Roupp, Joel Smith, and Humane Borders. Location: Southern Arizona-Mexico border. Year: 2000–present. | Left: Installation view of “By the People: Designing a Better America”. Photo by Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution. | Right: One of the earliest Water Stations, Kim Johnson Station on the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by George Kimmerling. © 2001 George Kimmerling
Responding to migrant deaths along the Arizona-Mexico border due to dehydration, Humane Borders designed a system for placing water in the desert. More than 100 water stations, small tanks painted blue—the universal color of water—and tagged “AGUA” with a 30-foot-high pole and flag to increase visibility, have been deployed throughout southern Arizona, dispensing more than 100,000 gallons of water since 2001. A poster outlining the dangers of migrating on foot through the desert is distributed in shelters south of the border.
Mary: You use the word design so often, and you sprinkle it into everything you say. Even in our program, which consists of designers and creatives, the word design rarely gets used. It amazes me. Designers don’t really use it until they sit down to do something. We say to them – how do you expect anyone else to know what you do if you don’t own the word? So we ask them to throw out the words “make, shape and create”, and exclusively use the word “design”.
Everything is designed, but design largely remains invisible.
Cynthia: That is very interesting. I agree, and a goal of this exhibition series is to help make design visible to a broader audience.
Maren: What is the cultural message you are hoping to shape with “By the People,” and how does this play into the current political moment in the United States and worldwide?
Cynthia: One of the goals for the exhibition is for people to walk away with an understanding that poverty is hidden in America, and all around us. We also want people to recognize that every person living in the U.S. has agency and the ability to make positive changes in their neighborhoods.
As for the entire series, the goal is to show how design can play an important role in addressing critical issues, now more than ever.
FRESH MOVES MOBILE MARKETS | Design: Growing Power, Hammersley Architecture, Architecture for Humanity Chicago, Engaging Philanthropy Inspiring Creatives (EPIC) and Latent Design and created by Tyrue Jones and fabricated by WM Display Group and collaborator: City of Chicago and made for (as the client) Food Desert Action. | Top: Murals by artist Tyrue Jones cover the exterior of Fresh Moves 2.0. | Left: Exterior of Fresh Moves 1.0 mobile market. | Right: Shopping for fruits and vegetables in the one-aisle produce store, interior of Fresh Moves 1.0.
With diabetes and diet-related disease at an all-time high nationwide, Fresh Moves Mobile Markets, decommissioned transit buses converted into mobile farm stands, bring healthy, affordable, locally grown produce to underserved neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West Side. Part of the city’s current effort to eliminate food deserts—neighborhoods with limited access to healthy, fresh food—produce is sourced from local organic farmers, while health and wellness outreach is provided by community partners at the point of sale. The Fresh Moves idea was based on a food desert study conducted by the Umoja Student Development Corporation and Food Desert Action that showed evidence of the need for fresh produce in Chicago’s underserved neighborhoods.
Maren: What strategies or tactics do you want people leading design projects and enterprises to walk away with after seeing the exhibition?
Cynthia: Place people at the center of the design process by engaging and including the community. Strive to bridge divides and create alliances—listening, valuing, and incorporating local expertise—to establish more just and equitable design responses. Build equity into the design process. One way is to hire members of the community as part of the team.
In Olympia, Washington a group of self-governing homeless adults built a temporary encampment called Camp Quixote on a parking lot downtown.Before they could be removed by police, the city’s faith-based community gave them sanctuary, inviting them to camp on the grounds of churches, mosques and temples.
Together with camp residents, these supporters—local residents—raised funds, lobbied for land, and hired an architect to design and build permanent housing. They eventually built thirty single-occupancy cottages and shared community buildings and gardens named Quixote Village. The community-engaged approach challenged and changed local residents’ attitude toward people experiencing homelessness as they overcame a number of important challenges together.
QUIXOTE VILLAGE | Design: Architect, MSGS Architects and collaborator, Panza, Thurston County Commissioners and Camp Quixote residents. Location: Olympia, Washington. Years: 2011–13. | Photos by T.W. Ransom/Panza. | Top: Quixote Village features thirty cottages and a communal building. | Left: Each resident at Quixote Village has a small green space for growing food and flowers. | Right: A resident relaxes on the porch of her cottage.
Quixote Village offers a community-engaged approach to ending homelessness. A self-governing tent city of homeless adults, Camp Quixote, moved 20 times, finding sanctuary on places of worship throughout Olympia, Washington. Together with the local community and nonprofit Panza, camp residents raised funds and lobbied for land to build permanent supportive housing—and in the process changed a community’s perception about people experiencing homelessness. MSGS Architects, with residents, designed the 30 single-occupancy dwellings, common spaces, and site that make up the Village.
Mary: We also can’t forget that at the end of everything design shapes experience. It isn’t just about how people are going to use or interact with any given approach. I am sensitive to our arts and culture audience, who would enhance the conversation by inquiring not only about the so called user experience but also the cultural experience. How does a particular design permeate the larger community culturally, and how will it shape their attitudes, beliefs and values? How does it relate to you? Who you want to be or who you might become? We often focus on the utility value of our culture, and if something doesn’t have a use, we have no use for it. Design needs to go deeper than that and understand there is a level of responsibility around culture shaping as well.
Maren: Related to that, there also seems to be a heaviness to the complexities of the challenges we face today. As we move forward, do you see a role for artists and designers to help us begin to “imagine” a new world from a place of possibility and abundance, of what could be rather than what is? How can we get people to think bigger and sideways a little bit to dream into a new reality instead of incrementally fixing problems with the mindsets that got us here in the first place? Understandably, it is easy to get disheartened and disenchanted in today’s world. Where is the enchantment?
Cynthia: Yes, that is one of the important roles designers, architects and artists play. Design – and to some extent art – brings ideas into form. It provides the necessary tools for people to advocate for their future.
EDCOUCH ELSA FINE ARTS CENTER | Design: Architect, Muñoz and Company and made for (as the client) Edcouch-Elsa Independent School District. Location: Edcouch, Texas. Years: 2005–2007. | A new community gathering place that conveyed the community’s cultural heritage and aspirations. | Designers interpreted the sound patterns of “La Maquina Amarilla” as a multicolor, rhythmic mural that wraps the building. | Right: An early sketch visualized the sound pattern of the local high school’s football corrido—a traditional narrative song—as a multicolor mural. Drawn by Curtis Fish, based on a concept by Henry R. Muñoz III.
Edcouch-Elsa Fine Arts Center is a point of pride for this immigrant community—sited high above the highway, it is visible from all directions. The idea for a civic space emerged from public discussion with students, teachers, folklorists, historians, and artists. Designers drew inspiration from the high school’s fight song or corrido—a narrative musical form used for generations in Latino culture. Brilliant vertical color bands derived from the corrido’s sound-wave pattern envelop the building, echoing the form and colors of the area’s auto shops.
Maren: I’m wondering if a cultural moment has arrived where we have an opportunity re-frame that responsibility. In the 1960s and 1970s, we were building autonomous dwelling machines and flying astronauts to the moon. Can we re-invoke this unbridled sense of possibility about the future? Can artists and designers re-instill wonder and joy, curiosity and optimism to get us to a place that hasn’t been imagined yet? Can they shape visions of where we want the world to be by the 22nd Century?
Mary: This is an important thought because we cannot get there without imagination. Right now, imagination isn’t cultivated. It is important to distinguish between innovation and imagination. Companies today are in some ways still in the extraction mindset even as we move out of the extraction economy. Now instead of natural resources we harvest human resources or so called talent capital to drive us into this new innovation economy. But we are not building the imaginative competency and the full human spirit to help us get there.
Cynthia: It’s interesting. Speaking with two design educators after I sat in on a critique with several of their industrial design students who had presented a range of socially responsible design solutions, they declared, “We have to support the dreamers.”
Maren: How has this incredible body of work informed or influenced where you will focus your efforts next? And if we may ask, what challenges do you see ahead?
Cynthia: We are only limited by our lack of humanity, humility, and curiosity.
TEXT4BABY | Design: Voxiva and collaborators: ZERO TO THREE, greyhealth group, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Health Resources and Services Administration, Wireless Foundation, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition. Location: United States. Year: 2009–present. | Left: Three weekly texts—from over 250 messages that feature the most critical information that experts want pregnant women and new moms to know. | Center: A bus bench ad in a low-income Oklahoma City neighborhood, part of a campaign that led nearly 14,000 Oklahoma moms to sign up. | Right: A New York City Text4baby subway campaign poster by the New York State Department of Health.
To help reduce high infant mortality rates in the United States, the Text4baby free text-messaging service delivers timely tips and expert advice directly to pregnant women and new mothers. Designed for low-income women—who are more likely to be mobile because they cannot afford broadband service at home— the SMS (short message service) provides easy access to critical health and safety topics on prenatal care, labor signs, developmental milestones, and nutrition and offers reminders about appointments and immunizations. Today, the service reaches close to 1 million expectant families.
POLIS STATION | Design: Studio Gang Architects. Location: North Lawndale neighborhood, Chicago, Illinois. Year: 2015–present. | Left: Rendering Policing in the United States has changed from watchmen patrolling their own neighborhoods to squad car patrols covering multiple neighborhoods. In 2015, Chicago architects reimagined police stations as community-centered public assets. | Right: Implementation of the 10th District Polis Station began with the design and construction of a basketball court—a safe, shared outdoor recreation space—on an underutilized police parking lot, the first step toward overlapping the worlds of police officers and neighbors. Photo by Studio Gang.
The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing sought to identify best practices and rebuild trust between police and local communities. In response, Studio Gang’s Polis Station design proposal offers a set of ideas that transform urban police stations into neighborhood investments that strengthen their communities, laying out both physical and programmatic steps to support social interaction. Designed for a specific location—Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood—Polis Station principles can be adapted and applied in neighborhoods throughout the United States.
Poverty is hidden in America, and all around us. Every person living in the U.S. has agency and the ability to design positive changes in their neighborhoods.
STRATEGIES IN ACTION:
people at the center of the design process by engaging and including the community.
to bridge divides and build alliances by listening, valuing and incorporating local expertise.
Encourage deeply democratic, equitable and regenerative design responses.
Cynthia E. Smith, serves as Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s Curator of Socially Responsible Design. After training as an industrial designer and earning her graduate degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School, Smith joined Cooper Hewitt, where she integrates her work experience with her advocacy on human rights and social justice issues. Smith curates the “Design with the Other 90%” exhibition series, including “By the People: Designing a Better America”, and co-curated “Design Triennial: Why Design Now?”. She has served on numerous international design juries and lectured widely on socially responsible design.
Dr. Mary McBride, leader of Pratt Institute’s initiative in Leading Creative Enterprise and Chair and faculty graduate programs in Arts & Cultural Management and Design Management. Partner, Strategies for Planned Change, an international consulting group specializing in strategic leadership of creative industries; visiting professor international universities including Esade, Spain; Koc University, Turkey; ISG, France; European University, Russia; former director, Management Decision Lab, Stern School of Business, New York University.
Maren Maier is a design strategist, consultant and curator who works to catalyze bold new creativity across public life. She is inspired by creative encounters that encourage us to probe societal questions in new ways and re-imagine a world where we live together with greater beauty and dignity. Maren holds a B.A. in Anthropology and Art History from Columbia University and a graduate degree in Design Management from Pratt Institute. She is currently Partner at CoCreative Consulting and lead strategist and editor for Pratt Institute’s Catalyst: Leading Creative Enterprise platform.
Leslie Kirschenbaum is a Design Manager at Mount Sinai Health System in their Marketing Communications department. She helps oversee communication and branding design to be sure that it reflects a dedication to excellence in patient care and treatment of the most serious and complex human diseases. Prior to her current role Leslie was Art Director at Time Warner Inc., Media and Entertainment responsible for designing national brand awareness and corporate social responsibility initiatives. Leslie currently directs creative strategy for Pratt Institute’s Catalyst: Leading Creative Enterprise. She has a graduate degree in Design Management from Pratt Institute and remains passionate about the program and leading as if life matters.
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