Designers Lets Get Organized | Garret Jacob’s call to arms

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First, we occupy and get to know each other. Then we pause and take ongoing control of some patch of reality so as to make possible further joint activity.

Staughton Lynd

I have been organizing in the Public Interest Design realm for over three years, most recently as the Acting Chair of the Architecture for Humanity Chapter Network. This movement continues to grow as many young designers emerge from school with the intention to do good within their local communities. But as a group we have not built the capacity to transform all this good intention into action.

While there is incredible work to speak of, the people doing the work have not prioritized talking about, sharing, or documenting their practices. They’re just too busy doing the work. This is a problem. If we do not establish goals, drive for outcomes, or even critically share our experiences how are we to know what success looks like? Or failure for that matter? There needs to be more coordination between organizations and knowledge
sharing from practitioners in order to grow this movement. It’s time for us to come together, practitioners, organizational leaders and funders.

Over the past decade many socially focused design organizations have sprung up, now they can partner, creating an accessible and aligned movement. From my experience this past year at Code for America, a leading organization in the civic technology movement,I’ve learned that being outcomes-driven, open-source, and inclusive can help galvanize and support people in a shared effort. Taking Code for America as a movement building model,I believe there are a few key principles that can set us on the path to realizing the full potential of participatory and inclusive design.

1. Organize Around Outcomes
While specific needs must be identified and addressed locally, our movement must begin to establish desired outcomes that we wish to see. If we are aligned in our high level goals,the local practitioners will have a clearer pathway to deliver services to those who haven’t had a voice or seat at the table. This could be more in person gatherings and an ongoing digital dialogue creating collective goals, building on the SEED principles set in 2005.

2. Operate in the Open
The current pedagogy of design teaches individuals to be sole visionaries of proprietary creativity. If we truly intend on advancing the mission of civic participation in the creation of our environments, then we need to share our processes, build on one another’s work, and contribute to an open community working in collaboration. We need to establish a shared database of work, a discussion forum, and ongoing events. The result being a platform that allows us to dive deep into the practice, our failures, and accomplishments — to go beyond the projects.

3. Establish Strong Partnerships
There are many organizations contributing to a shared vision within the Public Interest Design movement, but many people are still trying to do a bit of everything. Doing more is not always doing better. If we gather and discuss our unique value add to the movement, clearly identify our constituencies, and agree to partner, we will be able to refine practices and programs to dive deeper into the actual work and identify where we can best contribute within a larger coalition.

4. Own the Politics of Our Work
We are privileged in our knowledge of how spaces and buildings are created, from legal codes and permits to funding structures and project coordination. Acknowledging our participation in a capital driven and politically charged system is the first step in understanding that we have a powerful voice as advocates and facilitators. We need to see these policies, codes, and processes as design challenges that can be questioned. Currently designers get involved after many of the important decisions are already made. Instead, we can get ahead of this current process and identify new ways to allocate resources for those we work with, in hopes of building capacity for people to advocate for themselves. As my friend Anne Guiney from the Van Alen Institute says, “we can shift from problem solvers to problem definers”.

When we pull our collective head out of the sand, we can no longer deny the undeniable: space and its making are political. The return of the political to architecture does not involve designing a building but designing a process of political engagement — one by which architectural ideas, strategies, practices, and values are developed and disseminated in collaboration and contestation with greater society.

Jose L. S. Gamez and Susan Rogers

Most of this comes down to increased communication and collaboration in the Public Interest Design movement. Designers need to move beyond design, invite their community partners to accompany them in the creation process, work across disciplines, and allow unforeseen partnerships and opportunities to bloom. Together we can build the trainings and digital platforms to skill up the thousands of designers intent on working with their neighbors who might not be able to afford services. Design is constant change driven by who is around at the time, and we have the power to invite anyone to the table.

Let’s dream bigger.