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Design for the Common Good
Design for the Common Good is a ‘network of networks’ that joins together practitioners and educators from around the globe in a shared belief that we can create better environmental, economic and social outcomes for all through the power of design. Sergio Palleroni and Jane Anderson offer a history of the collective effort to establish a global network of social design teachers and practitioners.

Design for the Common Good was originally formed by a union between the SEED Network, the Designbuild Xchange and the Live Projects Network, bringing their respective members together to stimulate discussion and exchange best practices for educators, researchers and practitioners. The Pacific Rim network will be joining later this year.

The group fills a critical gap by creating a global framework by which practitioners can learn from each other and share strategies. It provides technological and digital resources that professors and practitioners can share with each other. Additionally, the group meets regularly at conferences across the globe to advance the mission of public interest design and support each other’s work.

The founding steering committee is composed of Sergio Palleroni, Bryan Bell, Sue Thering, Eric Field, Simon Colwill, Peter Fattinger, Ursula Hartig, Nina Pawlicki, Jane Anderson.

We were able to speak with four of the group’s founders on Social Design Insights. Sergio Palleroni and Jane Anderson (co-founder of the Live Projects Network), Bryan Bell (co-founder of the SEED network) and Ursula Hartig (co-Founder of the Designbuild exchange) all joined us to talk about how this remarkable effort came together, and the kinds of resources that the group has made available to all those interested in social design. Listen to the episode below.

Lorenzo Romito
Lorenzo Romito is a founding member of Stalker, a laboratory of urban art and research, that focuses on the relations between art, architecture, social history, and environmental studies. Over the past two decades Romito’s work has been crucial in terms of investigating the boundaries between our urban environments and citizen’s social engagement.Listen to the episode below.
El Equipo Mazzanti
Founded by Giancarlo Mazzanti, El Equipo Mazzanti is a Colombian architectural firm that blurs the lines between “social design” and a more traditional architectural practice. As Mazzanti said in a 2015 interview, “Any project is a social project; thinking that ‘architecture is social inclusion’ does not make much sense. What interests me is to understand the value of architecture and what it can produce in terms of behavior, relationships, and transformation.”

Through this statement, Mazzanti illustrates that there isn’t necessarily an ‘either/or’ mentality to the practice of architecture. All design can be social, if approached in the right spirit.

El Equipo Mazzanti rose to international prominence as part of the “Medellin Miracle,” a program and period of extensive urban renewal in Medellin, Colombia. Behind the Medellin miracle was a simple concept: put the best buildings in the worst neighborhoods, then tie the city together with culture and infrastructure. Led by Mayor Sergio Fajardo (2002-2007), the movement transformed the city away from a violent, segmented past into a model for contemporary urban development.

Medellin now hosts more than fifty urban and architectural renewal projects characterized by this spirit of rebirth, including one of Mazzanti’s most famous buildings: the Parque Biblioteca Espana. Situated on a hilltop in what was once the most violent and stigmatized part of the city, the library/park not only offers a gathering space and community resource, but is a symbol of pride for the neighborhood. The building can be used on a 24-hour basis and includes a theater, library, and learning workshops. This ‘multiplication of use’ principle is found throughout Mazzanti’s portfolio – the more functions one can draw out of a building, the more diverse its appeal. If all different segments of a community or city are using the building, it gives rise to social cohesion and cooperation.

We had an opportunity to speak with Giancarlo Mazzanti about his thoughts on transforming Medellin on our podcast, Social Design Insights. Listen to the episode below.

Wes Janz
Wes Janz is an architect whose practice and teachings focus on the transformative potential of “leftover spaces,” the informal settlements and refugee camps that house one billion of the world’s poor. He sees these sites as living testaments to human resourcefulness and ingenuity; the shelters built from detritus and recycled materials possess a utilitarian beauty wrought of necessity.

Janz, who holds a PhD in architecture from the University of Michigan, teaches undergraduate design studios and the graduate professional practice class at Ball State University. Janz created one project, an immersive learning seminar and online archive to document projects inspired by the unauthorized dwellings people have constructed using scavenged materials, from packing crates to corrugated steel drums. Houses made from timber pallets in Chihuahua, Mexico, for example, inspired Janz to use the material when constructing a garage on his property — the structure may be the first permanent timber-pallet building to secure a building permit in the US. Janz’s further intention is to offer pallet building as an example of how to improve both new and existing informal settlement dwellings to a collaboration of architects, engineers, and professional builders—as an example, he plans to post a set of pallet garage drawings online.

Much of Janz’s work explores the “fourth world,” or “third world conditions in the first world.” His research project “Deconstructing Flint” sought to create a practical manifesto for tearing down thousands of abandoned houses in the declining Rust Belt city of Flint, Michigan, in ways that reduce landfill waste and salvage as much building material as possible. He continues to take his students on tours of post-industrial cities in transition to identify opportunities for architectural interventions that can potentially improve people’s quality of life.

Transition Network
The Transition Network, founded in 2005, is an international community-led response to global warming and declining oil reserves. The Transition concept first emerged from an ecological design course taught by Rob Hopkins at a college in Ireland. “Transition” Hopkins says, is centered on the idea of building resilience to crisis by “unlocking the collective genius of the community.” It is about local self-sufficiency in food, energy and much more. The group began asking what the future might look like if we get it right, then worked backwards to figure out how to get there.

The first Transition Town was developed in 2006 in Totnes, England, where local residents, led by Hopkins, joined together to grow more local food in community gardens, plan more pedestrian and bike friendly streets, lower their energy use and encourage spending in their local community. This includes creating local currencies— the town of Bristol offers employees the option to take part of their salary in “Bristol Pounds,” to be spent locally, as well as initiatives to get organizations like local hospitals to source food locally.

Since then, Transition Initiatives have sprouted up all over the world from Japan to Brazil to New Zealand to the United States, with thousands of official initiatives in over 34 countries.

The Transition movement is purposefully open-source and decentralized, with each community taking autonomous action but linked to each other through conferences and an online wiki where ideas are exchanged. Individuals send out “pulses of ideas,” which communities then adapt for their own purposes.

Himanshu Parikh
Himanshu Parikh is a Cambridge, UK based Indian engineer who developed of the concept of ‘slum networking.’ This stems from how the infrastructure of cities was traditionally based on natural features such as topography and gravity. Prior to modern technology, gravity was the only thing that could bring water in and carry waste away. For example, in old developed cities like Paris and London, civil systems parallel the natural flow of rivers, estuaries and topographies.

With the advent of modern technology, many civil systems in the developing world (often designed by western engineers) ceased to rely on gravity and instead relied on mechanization: pumps, roads, trucks, etc. As long as these systems work, cities don’t have to rely so heavily on natural topography. However, in the developing world, the systems often don’t work, leaving communities deprived of basic services like water and sewer.

Parikh is best known for the redevelopment of Indore, India, for which Parikh was awarded the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture. It was there that the concept of ‘slum networking’ was first deployed at scale, and it has since been replicated throughout India.

Prior to Parikh’s improvements in Indore, nearly 30 percent of the slum houses were unfit for human habitation. Additionally, the cities’ 1936 sewer system only served 5 percent of the population and 10 percent of the city. All city ­sewage and solid waste was discharged into the Khan and Saraswati rivers—and most of the slum communities were organized on the banks of these two rivers. Parikh proposed a new infrastructure path for services like sewage, storm drainage and water supply utilizing the natural river course. The program involved building gravity-based systems of sewage and storm drainage, the planting of gardens, and the surfacing of roads. In addition, 120 community halls were constructed for health, educational, and training activities.

The provision of these basic services had a profound effect on the city. Incidences of illness decreased noticeably and incomes climbed by a third. Through this work, Parikh has shown a reliable and relatively simple method for improving life in slums.

We had a chance to speak with Himanshu on our podcast, Social Design Insights. Listen to the episode below.

Echeverri & Fajardo
Sergio Fajardo, former Mayor of Medellín, Colombia, and Alejandro Echeverri, former Director of Urban Projects, implemented a bold and ambitious public works program that transformed what was “the world’s deadliest city” into a vibrant, more livable place. Beginning in 2004, Echeverri and Fajardo led teams of local architects, training them to build striking libraries, schools, parks, and science and cultural centers in some of Medellín’s most impoverished neighborhoods. Each project was built in consultation with neighborhood residents, and paired with sweeping social programs, including micro-lending schemes to encourage small businesses.

Their work contributed to a reduction in crime and the emergence of a nascent tourism industry while helping link Medellín’s disenfranchised to the city’s cultural and economic fabric.

A number of these regenerative projects have become landmarks. One of Medellín’s most-visited attractions is the iconic Parque Biblioteca España, perched in the hilltops of Santo Domingo, a barrio once notorious for drug violence. Echeverri and Farjardo also helped extend the city’s modern railway by building a cable car system that connects some of Medellín’s poorest and most isolated neighborhoods to the rest of the city. Today, residents from the sprawling informal settlements on the hillside have more opportunities to take advantage of schools and the growing construction, textile, and tourism economies of the city.

These architectural and urban projects have “changed the skin of the city,” in Farjardo’s words. A guiding principle of these public works projects was “el efecto demostrativo,” or using the “power of example”—in this case, the dramatic symbolism of modern architecture—to instill a sense of pride and possibility in the minds of local residents and beyond.

Antonio Scarponi
Antonio Scarponi uses elements from architecture, multimedia arts, and design to “jam” the conventional social order. His work reflects and interrogates today’s global community by illuminating our shared humanity as well as the sociopolitical lines that divide us. Scarponi strives for a more inclusive depiction of globalization from the point of view of the world’s population—a hive of voices, behaviors, and cultural trends from everyday life.

“Design is a subversive practice, it has the power to imagine reality arranged in a different way and with a different order of values.”

His 2007 interactive project “Dreaming Wall,” installed in an historic Milanese square, was a digitally generated billboard that displayed randomly chosen real-time text messages sent to the projector by people from across the globe. The projector beamed ultraviolet lasers onto the billboard’s phosphorescent, UV-sensitive green panels, which allowed each message to remain visible on the panels for 15 minutes before making way for another “dream.” The dissolving layers of messages produced the “subconsciousness of a city asleep.”

Recently, Scarponi has been investigating ways to assemble cheap, readily available materials into useful, sustainable household items and subverting one of the most recognizable international brands in the process. In his READYKEA exhibition he used plastic IKEA tubs and zip ties to create new IKEA furniture that doesn’t exist. ELIOOO expands on that idea with an instruction booklet on how to turn plastic IKEA containers into six different hydroponic devices that can be used to grow vegetables inside an apartment or office.

Thinkpublic is a London-based social design agency that works with public sector and nonprofit organizations to improve the quality of the services they provide. It was founded in 2004 by then twenty-three-year-old Deborah Szebeko. Szebeko had a background in graphic design and advertising, but the inspiration for Thinkpublic was time she spent volunteering at a children’s hospital. She realized she wanted to put her skills to use for the public good, initially to pinpoint and solve communication failures within Britain’s National Health Service.

Thinkpublic takes a collaborative, “co-design” approach to design services within a range of industries especially healthcare. It taps the expertise of a diverse network of service, graphic and information designers, programmers, marketers, social scientists, positive psychologists and even anthropologists, in order to identify and address problems which may not have been apparent, and then design the best angle of attack.

Recently they launched an app-based co-design tool that captures data from patients, caregivers and healthcare professionals about their experience with healthcare services. Using this tool, they create infographics and reports that help identify key issues to be addressed through a further design process. Recently this was used to engage all stakeholders—both within the hospitals as well as patient’s families, around Altzheimer’s Disease.

Thinkpublic believes in rigorously testing new ideas and approaches to be sure that they work in the way in which they’re envisioned. An important part of the co-design approach is to set up systems so that feedback can continue after the initial discovery, design and implementation have taken place.

Thinkpublic’s work brings design not only into the world of healthcare, but into the world of public services as well, demonstrating that design can be a multiplier of good work done in different fields.

Theaster Gates
Theaster Gates works as an artist, curator, urbanist and facilitator. His projects act as catalysts for social engagement, leading to political change. Trained as a potter, sculptor and urban planner, his studio practice works in tandem with urban interventions. His work integrates art and inspires community regeneration.

In 2010, as a parallel project to his studio practice, Gates founded the Rebuild Foundation, a cultural preservation and development program. Its mission is to demonstrate the impact of innovative, ambitious and entrepreneurial arts and cultural initiatives and it leverages the power and potential of communities, buildings and objects that others have discarded. The Foundation’s work focuses on African American neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago that have suffered decades of disinvestment. Art is used to create and sustain community, and the work is informed by three core values: black people matter, black spaces matter and black things matter.

Gates’ most visible project through the Foundation is the Stony Island Arts Bank, built in a bank building had been abandoned for decades. Gates purchased the bank from the City of Chicago for one dollar and through a combination of fundraising and the sales of his own work, raised funds to make a remarkable transformation. The building was restored to be a ‘bank,’ but for arts and culture.

Re-opened in 2015, the Bank is now a hybrid gallery, media archive, library and community center. Gates has described the space as “a repository for African American culture and history; a laboratory for the next generation of black artists,” and “a space for neighborhood residents to preserve, access, reimagine and share their heritage, as well as a destination for artists, scholars, curators, and collectors to research and engage with South Side history.”

Recently the Arts Bank persuaded Samira Rice, the mother of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, shot by police while playing in a Cleveland park, to let it take the dismantled playground gazebo where the shooting took place. The Arts Bank will create a memorial incorporating parts of the gazebo. “The gazebo could never be rebuilt fully because Tamir will never come back,” Mr. Gates told the New York Times in 2017. “It’s a reflection space where people can talk together about the challenges they’ve had in their lives.”

Other Foundation programs have arisen organically out of a perceived need. For example, the Ash Project – a combination of upcycling and workforce training. The city of Chicago needed to do something with trees destroyed by the Emerald Ash Borer Beetle. The Ash Project brought this together with the need for workforce training and art in the community. Residents are hired to train with master carpenters and learn woodworking as a craft. The felled trees are used as source material, to create high-quality, hand-crafted products.

The Foundation also operates an art and housing collaborative, a public, mixed housing project comprised of 32 townhomes that house community members and artists with the intent of fostering dialog between the two. Another project, a black movie house, hosts screenings of films by and about black people and offers community filmmaking classes for youth and adults. The goal is to encourage community members to tell their stories and explore their own creativity.

Beyond the Foundation, Gates continues his studio art practice, which he feels is where he can reflect quietly on issues of concern. Studio art becomes a “redemptive moment,” as he told the New York Times in 2017. Recently his work has been exhibited at the National Gallery in Washington DC and the gallery Regan Projects gallery in Los Angeles. He is also active as a curator and teacher.