During the 2012 Design Ethos DO-ference, nearly 100 designers, design students and design experts in social innovation teamed with community members of an economically-depressed area of Savannah through a choreographed sequence of asset-focused workshops. Each workshop group engaged in a participatory design process for three days, with an eye toward generating concrete deliverables and strategies for realistic implementation. Six design experts were invited to participate in the workshops, then to offer their observations on the process: The essay below is Cameron Tonkinwise's contribution.
Take and Give
Every act of creation involves destruction. To build a chair, you must kill a tree, or two.
An ethical designer believes that what he or she has created is worth more than what was therein destroyed. Presumably the chair is more beautiful than the tree, or provides respite to people more important than cute, furry nesting creatures, or at the least, gets used for longer than it took the tree to grow the wood.
A truly responsible designer will realize that it is not enough to merely make a piece of good design and hope that it gets used long enough and well enough to justify the resources consumed to make it. A truly responsible designer will do more to ensure that that happens: marketing the designed chair to communicate its value; providing instructions about use and care and maintenance; perhaps providing repair or return-to-maker services. In this way, whatever destruction was necessary for the creation of such an artifact is more than recompensed by the ongoing valuable services afforded by that artifact.
The economy of destruction and creation in relation to conferences has always irked me. Conferences are immaterial events—exchanges of knowledge and networking—but they have huge material footprints. Attendees must emit tons of climate changing gases to get to these events, where they are accommodated and fed and beveraged, and invariably given a pile of crap in never-to-be-used-again conference-specific dysfunctional satchels. Conferences can go green, serving up local produce to delegates, ensuring that all way-finding is on recycled material, etc, but in the end these will only ever amount to tinkering with the vast material destruction required to convene people together.
And yet we all acknowledge that valuable experiences are afforded by conferences—meetings and learnings that seem still impossible in any kind of virtual context no matter how thickly bandwidthed its multimodal media. In this case, the task is not just to minimize the ecoimpact of conferences, but to maximize their value, to make sure that all those carbon miles are more than mitigated by the productivity of the conferencing experience.
Recently there's been a spate of innovations in conferences, blurring the line between conferences, courses, tourism and television: from TED to Dark Mountain. A very interesting innovation was the 2012 Design Ethos Conference hosted by the Savannah College of Art and Design. The principal organizer, Scott Boylston, made the classic design innovator's move: if I am going to get a large number of incredibly interesting designers, design thinkers and design students together, shouldn't all that intellectual capital be used to accomplish something beyond exchange amongst itself? Given that all those human resources will be co-located at one time, couldn't they be thrown at some local problems needing social innovation? Wouldn't that make up for the ecoimpacts of bringing all those people together—not just for the world, in that it would be a better distribution of the value generated from those resources; but also for the participants themselves, who would now not only get from this conference meeting and learning, but also the experience of making, of making contributions to situations of much-need?
So the Design Ethos Conference was also a DO-ference, with participants working on a series of initiatives in the inner city Savannah neighborhood of Waters Avenue. And indeed it was incredibly valuable, to the local community by all reports, and to the conference participants, from what I saw and heard. Apart from what the DO-ference accomplished, the resource destruction involved in the gathering were also accounted for by the exemplar that this innovative way of conferencing set. Having seen how productive a conference can be, all other conferences now seem to me heavily on the ecodebt side of the ledger.
But the DO-ference was no easy undertaking. There are three lessons that can be learned about what is in involved in trying to make a Conference on Social Design more valuable than the ecoimpacts involved.1. TIME
There is obviously a large investment of time involved in prepping a project like the Doference. Not just logistics, but before that, identifying the right kind of community need, and winning the trust of that community—something that is chicken-and-egg. Scott and his faculty and student collaborators clearly invested a huge amount of time working at creating situations that would allow the contributions from the conference goers to be appropriate and useful to all involved. This kind of work takes time because there is no method for getting it done—it requires spending time with people, listening, talking, experimenting, 'getting to yes.'
And not just time, but being there, being in place, being local and available to spend time, face-to-face, building thick relations that are reliable.
It is fashionable these days for Social Design initiatives to trade on a certain exoticism: come parachute into this community over there, partly because the people over there, stuck in some place that global economies are not yet flooding, need your help; but also partly because it will be kinda exciting to go somewhere you would never normally get to go, to some out of the way place that will deliver a rich travel experience to you Social Designers even if your Social Design initiatives fail to turn things around over there.
This is an old dispute in the discourse around Social Design, from Ivan Illich's lambasting of foreign aid volunteers in "To Hell with Good Intentions" to Bruce Nussbaum's quickly retracted characterization of Project H's overseas work as design imperialism. Design Ethos attested to the very valuable contributions that Social Design can make when the supporting institution focuses its attention on its own backyard. But Design Ethos also made clear that focusing on local issues does not mitigate the amount of time spent. Cities are diverse places; being local to one bit does not mean that you understand the issues of another but being local does mean you have the time to get to do that understanding.
Community-Partnered Courses are sometimes—not always, but more often than should be—excuses for courses that seem to involve less time, rather than more. The learning is thought to lie in the experience of learning to work with the wicked problems of community partners, so less prep is even occasionally considered better for this kind of sink-or-swim pedagogy. The DO-ference proved the reverse—that community partnered projects take much more time to get to the place they deserve.
This makes community partnered projects very difficult for universities. Firstly, there is always the procrustean problem of wedging a community's problems into the arcane timetabling of a semester length class—"your problem needs to be only of a size that will fit a 10, 12 or 15 week class meeting twice a week." Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, there is the issue of how a university accounts for the prep time required of a community project. In effect, universities pay faculty to teach, and in some cases to do research and service; in which cost center then to put the time spent with community partners, time that will make for an effective learning experience (or conference) but which is not actually time spent in the classroom? This time is not well characterized as research (is new knowledge being created?) or service (normally meaning 'to the university')? Without solving this accounting problem, how can universities be incentivized to deploy their intellectual capital, including those intense injections associated with conferences, on Social Design?
Design Ethos also recognized that what is required is not just time before, but also time after. Scott had organized for some local design firms to donate their time to finishing off the best design ideas that emerged from the DO-ference. This allowed Scott to build trust with the people of Waters Avenue who knew that this was not just a fly-in/fly-out, but a longer term commitment with professional follow-through. And it allowed us as participants DO-ferencing to know that what we were developing was not merely speculative. This was not yet another play at Social Designing. These were propositions, which if deemed appropriate by the community partners, were going to be realized. This was liberating—we could sketch quickly, knowing that others would resolve and detail—but it was also a productive constraint, a background sense of responsibility—what we sketched was going to be deployed, so we had better believe authentically in what we were putting forward.
All service and event design involves the dilemma that: enough must be designed to allow people to be quickly productive; but not too much that their contributions are overly scripted. Consequently, mobilizing the social and intellectual capital of a conference so that it can be as valuable as possible, making up for the ecological capital destroyed to make that event possible, is also a matter of timing.
This is a tricky thing to do. The world seems to have become very tolerant of under-designed systems, platforms that have robust infrastructures, a smaller number of inputs, a large array of combinations and an initial but changeable purpose. People pile in and their appropriations of that platform aggregate into a valuable service that designers can fine-tune. This same agile, rapid-prototyping mentality is being brought to complex social situations under the brand Design Thinking. But unlike a business proposition being developed with the investment of surplus monies, people in less privileged communities are not living life in beta. The luxury of failure is rarely an option. In these cases, interventions need to be more carefully designed.
Obversely, this does not mean that social design should be total design. Precisely because social design takes time, interventions must build momentum slowly. The trick is to have the injection of intellectual capital afforded by an event like the Design Ethos DO-ference at the right time in that building process. It is about accelerating existing movements rather than kickstarting them; and it is about advancing the emerging direction rather than allowing new deflections.
A danger here is that the kind of timely design propositions that can be developed in a short time, even by smart, well-briefed conference goers will tend to fall back into conventional forms of design: branding, wayfinding, streetscaping products. More interdisciplinary forms of designing, such as of service systems that are more complex because they are more social than artifactual and so require participatory development rather than merely expert production, might not be possible in the timeframe—even if that is exactly what the timing of the situation seems to be demanding.
There is another important aspect to this issue of timing. Any particular place is never all in one moment in time, with everything moving at the same speed. Cities are heterogeneous timezones with some places further along than others, some moving quickly, others seemingly going backwards. And different aspects of development also occur at different paces, whether they are economic or infrastructural, organizational or generational, even seasonal or climatic.
In the case of Waters Avenue, there is its own history, which contains the changing situations of the people living there and the new people moving there; and then that history is in turn contained in the wider trajectory of Savannah and post-industrial cities, the South and race relations, and the United States and the Global Financial Crisis, etc. It is of course very difficult to get a comprehensive sense of all these shifting temporalities that criss-cross a neighborhood like Waters Avenue. But it is very important for innovations like the DO-ference to find ways of communicating all these timings to its participants if their contributions are to be sustainable.
Let me give you an example. We DO-ferencers, due to Scott and his team's well-done preparations, were introduced to local community groups and quickly briefed in situ about their concerns and initiatives. These briefings were supplemented by broadbrush histories of Waters Avenue. After a few days work however, we became aware of larger dynamic that was recontextualizing what we were doing. The neighborhood is depressed by foreclosures and underinvestment, so some of what we were doing was repair work. But of course, the opportunity of cheap housing stock close by Savannah's center also affords gentrification. Further, the Savannah College of Art and Design, one of the main property holders and economic revitalisers of Savannah, is a force in that gentrification, precisely because it is 'creative class' academics and students who are prepared to be emissaries into potentially regenerating areas like Waters Avenue.
Was the DO-ference accelerating the gentrification of that neighborhood, not building the resilience of the existing residents, but laying the ground for what would eventually price them out? The speed and momentum of these layered forces was hard to discern in the short time of the Design Ethos conference. So it remained ambiguous as to whether the DO-ference's design propositions were timely enough for existing residents. Were they in the right place and time to be empowered by the DO-ference's outputs, to take possession of those designs so that their value flowed back toward the existing community rather than toward others with the liquidity to quickly seize such redesigned assets?
In Social Design, it is never just a matter of what is being created and destroyed, but who; which is why it is utterly irresponsible to finish an intervention with, 'Time will tell.' Certainly, Scott and his team were, and are still, very aware of these issues. Scott programmed a series of reflections on the 'Doference,' such as this one, precisely to encourage he, his team and even SCAD, to remain accountable to its local interventions.
3. THE TIMELY
A third aspect to the exemplar that the Design Ethos DO-ference has established concerns another kind of 'who.' I began this reflection talking about the way the ecological impacts of conferences can be mitigated by the value created by conferences. What is interesting about the Design Ethos conference is that it was conceived as a conference primarily for SCAD students; it was an opportunity for them to hear from an incredible array of Social Designers—who also had the pleasure of learning from each other at the event.
In this second iteration of the conference, students were not only the audience but the participants. As I noted in relation to timing, it was the students, in preparatory courses, who did the outreach to the Waters Avenue community. And it was students who were the primary workforce in the Doference working groups.
This is interesting to think through given the ways in which Social Design is always politically fraught. The reason there are communities suffering underinvestment in developed countries with almost continually growing economies is because these communities have been deliberately excluded from that wealth generation. The result is justifiable mistrust if not resentment. In this situation, students are particularly important figures.
Students, especially at private colleges with high to excessive tuition costs, can be homogenously privileged. So there can be nothing worse than such students marching into underprivileged contexts for learning experiences. But on the other hand, students, whatever their background, tend to be strange beasts in the midst of transition. Jean-Francois Lyotard once described students as inhuman, in that they are not yet fully human—they will be so only after their education. Anther French theorist, Michel Serres, described learners as having 'thirdness' because they are in-between what they were and what they will be.
This not-quite-fully-formed nature of students makes them potentially good at brokering relations between established institutions like universities and under-established communities. Older Waters Avenue community leaders for instance seemed to be prepared to put aside their suspicions about working with an organization like SCAD when its emissaries were somewhat awkward, eager-to-learn students. The quality that students bring to these politically difficult contexts is not unlike the optimist amateurism that Design Thinking claims makes designers useful on seemingly intractable problems.
There are obviously dangers here: amateurs can be naïve about their being used by larger forces to accomplish the opposite of what they think they are doing. But others have seen the value of this approach, taking advantage of the in-between state of students. Much of Ezio Manzini's work on Design for Social Innovation deliberately uses students as researchers because of their door-opening capacities into diverse networks.
Perhaps when the job of outputting fully formed people that is the task of higher education is done via exposure to projects like the Design Ethos DO-ference, those people will emerge in time with different qualities. It is indeed intriguing that an institution like SCAD, teaching future design professionals from around the world, is becoming, by dint of its location in Savannah and because of faculty like Scott Boylston, a model of more sustainable, place co-creation.
The Arrow of Time
I hope I've shown that the important lessons provided by the Design Ethos DO-ference applies not only to Conferences, to the practice of Social Design more generally, especially as it happens in Design Education. But at the least, Design Ethos has made it impossible for me to ever go with a clear conscience to yet another merely-talking conference. Once someone has proved that conferences can be so much more valuable, by having well-prepared, timely DO-ference components, there is no going back. Perhaps another aspect to the value Design Ethos created out of the resources it consumed was the destruction from now on of all other too-destructive, not-valuable enough conferences.