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At the U of M, a confab for designers who want to change the world

The Structures for Inclusion program focused on the presentation of the SEED Awards, which celebrate excellence in social, economic, and environmental design.

Public Interest Design week keynote speaker Krista Donaldson.
Photo by Bill Kelley

What inspires architects and designers to forgo the corporate paycheck to collaborate with diverse stakeholders in the creation of products, processes, and places for impoverished, underserved communities? Particularly in communities like hurricane-battered New Orleans or the global south (India, Sudan, Kenya)?

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Judging from the presentations at the recent 13th annual “Structures for Inclusion” conference at the University of Minnesota, ideas, ideals, initiative, passion and commitment fuel the intersection of design and service. Youthful stamina doesn’t hurt, either.

“Structures of Inclusion” was the headline event of the first-ever Public Interest Design Week, March 19-24, hosted by the College of Design at the U of M. The College, led by Dean Thomas Fisher, has become a national leader in moving design thinking into new areas like agriculture and the delivery of medical care, and linking it with social concerns in new ways.

The week as a whole offered a wide range of addresses, discussions, and workshops, ranging from talks by New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman and California-based designer and consultant Liz Ogbu, a specialist in urban-centric sustainable design, to workshops in design-related storytelling and sneak peeks at two forthcoming documentary films about designing for low-income communities.

Photo by Bill Kelley
State Rep. Raymond Dehn trained as an architect and represents downtown Minneapolis and a section of the North Side.

The Structures for Inclusion program was focused on the presentation of the 13th annual SEED Awards, which celebrate excellence in social, economic, and environmental design. It was led off by an address by State Rep. Raymond Dehn, who was trained as an architect and represents downtown Minneapolis and a section of the North Side. Dean Fisher then addressed the group, as did Bryan Bell of Design Corps and the Public Interest Design Institute, which gives the SEED Awards.

Light therapy and an inexpensive knee

donaldson photo
Photo by Bill Kelley
Krista Donaldson and the Jaipur Knee

The opening keynoter at the event was pioneering public designer Krista Donaldson, PhD, CEO of the San Francisco-based company D-Rev: Design Revolution, who spoke on designing for people who live on less than $4 per day.

She highlighted two D-Rev products now on the market. Brilliance is a high-performance, blue-light phototherapy device that treats newborns with severe jaundice. The product, which uses long-lasting LEDs, meets American Academy of Pediatrics standards for about $400 or approximately half the cost of the lowest-cost comparable device, and a tenth of the cost of comparable devices in industrialized markets.

The other product innovation Donaldson discussed was the JaipurKnee, a high-performance knee joint for developing-world amputees at a price point of about $80. D-Rev’s products, she explained, succeed because they’re “world-class products that perform at or better than other products on the market,” they’re market driven and “economically sustainable on the market by combining value and affordability”; and they feature user-centered design.

She also talked about three lessons learned in product design for social good. One was to “focus on impact” rather than on innovation, and to be ready for the “valley of hard work” in bringing the right product to market. Another was a firm belief that “good design is global, that low-income people deserve good design.” Third, she encouraged the students in the audience to “design for delivery” right from the start; “It can’t be left until the end.”

SEED time

Donaldson’s keynote was followed by presentations by the SEED Award winners in the US:

  • Puyallup Longhouse (Tacoma, WA), a community center with culturally inspired affordable housing for members of the Puyallup Tribe. A natural design strategy of air circulation and daylighting was supplemented by sustainable technologies, and the result was a group of buildings more energy efficient than Washington State’s energy code calls for.
  • The Rosa F. Keller Building (New Orleans, LA), which makes the connection between a place to live and better health. The city’s first supportive housing project addresses the need for mixed-income permanent housing for the city’s most vulnerable homeless and lower-income residents by providing options and vouchers for rent and health care.
  • SAGE: Affordable Green Modular Classrooms of Gervais, Oregon, a project of two architecture professors from Portland State University and their students. The new classrooms—SAGE stands for Smart Academic Green Environment—provide healthy learning environments through construction and materials, and make green design affordable for cash-strapped school districts.

The international award winners were even more compelling.

  • Firm Foundation (Kalimantan, Indonesia) engaged community members in a waterfront renovation plan for a neighborhood in the city of Banjarmasin. The community of low-income families, who rely on the resources of the Andai River, are now receiving a new dock, boardwalk and gathering area for community and economic activities.
  • Maa-Bara (Nyanza, Kenya) is the brainchild of the fast-talking and charismatic Ogheneruno Okiomah. Her project, initially envisioned for her homeland in the Niger Delta, is a sustainable fish and vegetable aquaponics growing system designed to reuse waste nutrients to grow food.
  • The Jalle School (Sudan), currently under construction, is located in South Sudan’s war-torn Jonglei State. The school helps fulfill the community’s need for long-term disaster recovery by creating a permanent structure for education, investing economically in the community, and creating a community-owned gathering place.

Good intentions sometimes misconstrued

During a roundtable discussion, project awardees discussed the need to be fully committed to the communities they choose to work in. They also explained how outsiders’ good intentions are often misconstrued as interference rather than constructive help, and advised idealistic designers to be clear about their reasons for inserting themselves into a challenging community and work process.

A lively panel made up of Jennifer Hughes of the National Endowment for the Arts, Eric Muschler of the McKnight Foundation, Kate Stohr of Architecture for Humanity, and Katie Swenson of Enterprise Community Partners discussed funding issues and other challenges facing designers who wish to work on behalf of the public good. And the day concluded with a heartfelt presentation by William Kamkwamba, author of “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.” The book is the autobiographical story of how he  built an ingenious windmill-and-solar-pump device out of discarded materials to irrigate his mother’s garden and his father’s fields, thus helping to feed his Malawi village during a famine.

pid awards
Photo by Bill Kelley
PID week includes presentation of the SEED awards.

It was clear as the day unfolded that among the many new design paradigms on display, one of the most important was a sense that public-interest designers and the public for whom they are designing are in a new relationship of mutual learning and mutual respect. As Chee Pearlman, another of the day’s speakers and curator of the Curry Stone Design Prize, another award for public-interest design, mentioned in her remarks, “we’re at a tipping point in socially responsible design as more and more social design pioneers develop solutions in partnership with those who need them.”

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.