"I’m a public interest designer,” Bryan Bell (LF 2011) stated at the opening of the 2-day Public Interest Design Institute, part of the inaugural Public Interest Design Week at the University of Minnesota College of Design. Bell, the executive director of Design Corps, planted the seed for the recent event with the Structures for Inclusion Conference now in its 13th year.
In 2000, sociologist Robert Gutman of the Princeton School of Architecture invited Bell to organize the Structures for Inclusion Conference under the theme "Designing for the 98% without Architects.” Gutman was ahead of his time in encouraging interplay between public policy, architects and users when ideas of social engagement were still very much on the fringe of architectural discourse. In the last decade there has been a perceivable tidal shift in the field.
What is public interest design? Bell defines it as the "practice of design with the goal that every person should be able to live in a socially, economically and environmentally healthy community.” Bell was awarded the prestigious 2011 Latrobe Prize, which enabled him to research how public interest design could be integrated as a specialty within in the practice of architecture.
Bell also initiated SEED (for social, economic and environmental design), a certification program, an ethical framework, and also a form of peer review. With the growing popularity of designers going overseas for development projects, where there is less oversight and more potential for abuse of power, SEED offers a a critical framework for service activities. To receive the designation, projects must demonstrate true community participation.
Unifying the Public Interest Design Institute with several other key components during the week was the brainchild of John Cary, founder of Public Interest Design, a platform for the growing movement of intersecting design and service. The 5 days of lectures, panels, and breakout sessions encompassed as well the Affordable Housing Design Forum, the Shelter: connect digital storytelling workshop, and the Structures for Inclusion conference.
In his keynote Michael Kimmelman, architecture critic of the N.Y. Times, described his role as an advocate, with the ability to readjust where to "put the spotlight.” He often waits until after buildings are occupied in order to see how architecture relates to users, as in his coverage of Via Verde, a mixed-use subsidized housing project in the South Bronx.
During PID Week, invited designers, including winners of the 2012 SEED competition, presented their work in intimate seminar sessions as well as lectures. Dan Pitera (LF 2005), director of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center and winner of a 2011 SEED award, described leading "Detroit Future City,” a government initiative for which his team interviewed over 30,000 stakeholders on their long-term ideas for their city. Pitera creating the "Roaming Table” that moves through public spaces in order to collect citizens’ ideas. Pitera sees himself as an activist, a person who is "not content with the way things are.” He encourages designers to "think big; be obsessive.”
One 2012 SEED award went to SAGE Classroom, an alternative to the ubiquitous portable classroom. Designed with students of Portland State University, the design harnesses natural ventilation and lighting in order to achieve healthier learning environments and less energy use.
Maa-Bara, another 2012 winner, was created by Nigerian designer Ogheneruno Okiomah, who was inspired by how the Japanese create efficient fish farms through terracing the landscape. She re-cast this system into a closed-loop model combining fish farming and aquaponics: waste water from the fish farms is pumped up into aquaponics trays in order to grow vegetables. The aquaponic method filters the water naturally so it then can be reused in the fish farm. Okiomah deployed the first system in Lenya, Kenya, and is looking to implement the project in her native Niger River Delta.
These projects, while in very different contexts, carry a similar approach. Pairing design with global issues such as access to food and water, designers demonstrate the relevance of their field for enacting transformation in the world.