Architecture for Humanity designed the Ecole La Dignité in Haiti, featured in the March issue of Architectural Record. Photo © Aric Mei
Curator and writer John Cary is the founding editor of PublicInterestDesign.org and an A+ Award juror. This story is the second in a three-part series that spotlights notable, mission-driven work in the architecture and design fields.
Following-up on yesterday's review of my 2012 predictions for public interest design, today I'm highlighting the top 10 milestones from this past year. The list looks beyond individual design projects and instead toward initiatives with far-reaching consequences for the field—and, in some cases, the world. From a global visual language using signs and symbols to a solar-powered, self-cleaning toilet (really!), here are our top 10 public interest design initiatives of 2012.
Full disclosure: I've been involved either tangentially or directly with several of the following entries; Architizer editor Jenna McKnight was involved with the first of them. Rather than a conflict of interest, I believe these ties represent a useful confluence of interests.
1. Architectural Record Publishes "Building for Social Change" Issue
On March 1, Architectural Record published an entire issue dedicated to “Building for Social Change.” With the possible exception of Design Like You Give a Damn 2, the issue represents one of the most up-to-date and comprehensive catalogs or encyclopedias of architectural practices and projects anchoring the growing field of public interest design. The issue was supplemented by "The Good List,” an online inventory of nonprofits, networks, firm programs, university programs, fellowships, events, and awards in the public interest design field. Edited by Cathleen McGuigan, the issue was led in large part by Jenna McKnight, now editor-in-chief of Architizer. The public interest design field and the design professions at large would benefit from more rigorous coverage of this type, with actual criticism of the field being the next frontier.
2. IDEO.org and Gates Foundation Launch HCD Connect
On April 4, with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, IDEO.org launched its HCD Connect platform. In just eight months, the site has attracted 17,620 registered users, all taking or aspiring to take a human-centered approach to poverty-related challenges around the world. The website grew out of the HCD Toolkit, a resource that itself has been downloaded nearly 100,000 times. The HCD Connect platform is a place to share stories about problems being tackled, ask questions, and connect with others who are using HCD methods, with over 400 stories already having been shared on the site. Community members are also able to apply for $5,000 to $10,000 micro grants to initiate or implement project solutions, with eight such grants already awarded. IDEO.org, through the HCD Connect website and other means, has an enormous role to play in bringing design and design thinking to the social sector.
Grow Dat Youth Farm in New Orleans, the subject of the second SEEDoc film.
3. Design Corps Debuts the First Four of Six SEEDocs
May 18 marked the official release of the first of six “SEEDocs,” part of an short film series showcasing the winners of the annual Social/Economic/Environmental Design (SEED) Awards. Those awards, and thus the films, recognize design work distinguished in terms of its economic, environmental, and social sustainability. This first film featured the Owe’neh Bupingeh Rehabilitation Project in New Mexico; the second film featured the Grow Dat Youth Farm in New Orleans, a partner of the Tulane City Center; the third film featured the Bancroft School Revitalization in Kansas City, Missouri, a joint effort of organizations such as Make it Right Foundation and BNIM Architecture + Planning; and the fourth film featured the Escuela Ecológica in Lomas de Zapallal, Lima, Peru. The films were commissioned by Design Corps, produced by The Uptake, and supported by a major funding partnership from the Fetzer Institute. The field would benefit from more video resources of this sort, bringing stories about dignifying design to light.
4. U.S. Pavilion of the Venice Architecture Biennale Showcases "Spontaneous Interventions"
On August 27, the Institute for Urban Design, Architect Magazine, and the rest of the U.S. Pavilion team for the 13th International Venice Architecture Biennale introduced the world to "Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Good." In all, 124 projects—"making cities more beautiful, inclusive, productive, and healthy"—were showcased in the U.S. Pavilion, as well as on a dedicated website and issue of Architect Magazine. Although critical of the overall Biennale, Michael Kimmelman of The New York Time perhaps summed up the U.S. Pavilion best in writing, "That many of the projects here skirt authority and don’t involve architects suggests not that architects aren’t important or that cities don’t depend on top-down plans. It suggests that cities and architects still have a ways to go to catch up with an increasingly restless public’s appetite for better design and better living. And that the public isn’t waiting."
5. The Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Addresses "Designing for Impact"
From September 23 to 25, the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) surprised many with its 2012 Annual Meeting theme, “Designing for Impact.” The theme was framed around a set of critical questions, such as “How can we design our world to create more opportunity and more equality?" or "How are we designing our lives, our environments, and the global systems we employ in order to impact the challenges at hand?” This new attention to design will have far-reaching implications for CGI's action-oriented "commitments," and already has. One hundred and fifty such commitments were launched this year, including the “Designed to Move" campaign by partners ranging from Nike to Architecture for Humanity. IDEO.org and the Wasserman Foundation announced the establishment of a $1.5 million “innovation fund." And MASS Design Group in partnership with Shaw Contract Group committed to launching the the MASS Design Lab (MDLab), an innovation laboratory that will test, implement, and bring to market specific solutions that will affect systematic change in the built environment. But the real power of CGI's interest in design may be felt in its ability to cut across industries and sectors.
6. "Public Interest Design" Exhibition Opens at the Autodesk Gallery
On October 4, more than 480 people attended the opening of the Public Interest Design: Products, Places, & Processes exhibition, guest curated jointly by this author and journalist Courtney E. Martin at the Autodesk Gallery in San Francisco. Focused on actual projects in use by real people around the world, the exhibition includes everything from affordable solar lanterns and a life-saving infant warmer, to a couple of San Francisco’s popular parklets, to a hospital in rural Rwanda, to a global ideas-sharing platform and sanitation system in Ghana—all designed or redesigned for the public good. The exhibitions will be on display and traveling for up to five years, including potentially to the TED2013 conference in Long Beach, California, early next year. Three elements of the exhibition—a focus on field-tested projects, an emphasize on data and storytelling, and the introduction of systems design—would benefit the field at large.
7. The Noun Project Launches New Website and Symbol Suites
This fall, The Noun Project -- a unique platform building a global visual language of our everyday lives -- relaunched its already-enviable website. Within the site, however, there's something even more powerful: Hundreds, if not thousands of symbols representing countless aspects of our lives. Among other collections launched this year is one in partnership with the United Nations (UN) Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, contribution 241 humanitarian symbols. All of the files are available for download as vector files. If The Noun Project succeeds in developing a shared visual language, perhaps there's still hope for a shared language for the public interest design field, where debates persist.
8. The Gates Foundation Hosts Inaugural Toilet Festival
Last year, Bill Gates made headlines by issuing a multi-million dollar challenge, calling for an operable toilet that isn’t dependent on electricity, plumbed water, or a sewer system. A team from CalTech won the Gates Foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. Their solution is a solar-powered, self-cleaning toilet that converts urine and waste into hydrogen and fertilizer. Beyond the CalTech team, the eight finalist teams attended a first-of-its-kind Toilet Fair at the Gates Foundation in Seattle to showcase working prototypes of their entries. Other finalists included innovations such as a solar-powered toilet that generates cooking gas, a toilet that turns human waste into biological charcoal, and a toilet that turns waste into electricity. We need to see many more designers tackling the world-threatening issue of sanitation, as entities like IDEO.org have commendably started to do.
9. Grantmakers in Design Hosts Its Inaugural Meeting
Late last month, the Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, Michigan, hosted the inaugural meeting of Grantmakers in Design, an effort to create shared language and understanding between the public interest design field and the philanthropic sector -- in service to the social sector. The convening built on the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum's Social Impact Design Summit earlier this year, which similarly united funders around the power of design. The Grantmakers in Design meeting attracted representatives from a dozen funding entities, ranging from long-term funders of design work for the public good -- like The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, Enterprise Community Partners, Graham Foundation, and National Endowment for the Arts -- to major foundations that are newer to the space, such as the Ford Foundation, Kresge Foundation, McKnight Foundation, and Surdna Foundation. The foundation leaders were joined by practitioners from the leading public interest design organizations of D-Rev: Design Revolution, MASS Design Group, and IDEO.org--representing product, place, and system design. One thing is for certain: Design is uniquely positioned to spur exactly the kind of innovation in the social sector that foundations are increasingly demanding.
10. Public Interest Design 100 Infographic Maps Movers & Shakers
Last week PublicInterestDesign.org's inaugural “Public Interest Design 100” infographic (with support from the University of Minnesota and Tandus Flooring) debuted here on Architizer. The infographic profiled 100 individuals and teams across 10 categories at the forefront of the public interest design field. Many have expressed surprise to see so many amazing people (in the U.S. alone, as a global edition will follow), doing such important work in the world. Among other places, GOOD, TED.com, DesignObserver, Contract Magazine, and Archinect published it on their sites, while publications, like Fast Company‘s Co.Design and Metropolis, tweeted it out. For all its imperfections, the infographic illustrates that public interest design is increasingly robust, multi-faceted, and arguably a movement in the making.