Four interviews from the front lines of public interest design.

Design for social impact has been gaining momentum for some time. Most of these early luminaries (e.g. Bryan Bell, Cameron Sinclair, Teddy Cruz, John Peterson) are still active. Indeed, many are entering what is typically considered the prime years of an architect’s career. At the same time, the next generation of designers focused on social impact are now establishing themselves, and as they do so we are witnessing a shift. In part, this is characterized by an evolution in identity. “Public Interest Design” has emerged as a label that effectively organizes the collective efforts of those working in the social impact sector.

Practitioners are scrambling to mainstream public interest design. No one is naive about the central question: how do you provides services for clients who can’t pay typical design fees? No one has answered this question definitively, but it is commonly accepted that the solution will require harnessing two forces: market economics and public policy. The critical lesson learned from early public interest efforts is that charity-based thinking is not going to yield sufficient impact. To achieve scale, we need to somehow leverage the forces of capitalism.

What follows are four interviews from people working on the front lines of public interest design. They work at scales: from product design, to building, to planning, to education. Their insights and experiences shed light on what the next chapter in public interest design will look like.

Public Interest Design: MOVEMENT SCALE

David Dewane interviewing Andrew Balster, Director of Archeworks, Chicago, an alternative multi-disciplinary design school that includes admission information and student projects in alternative architecture and design.

David Dewane: What does “public interest design” mean to you?

Andrew Balster: As an organization, right now, we’re trying to figure it out. We’re breaking down “public interest design” into its component parts. For example, what is the “public” of the public interest? When you start to ask those questions; that’s what actually leads to public interest design.

In the broadest sense, it’s the collective value set of a certain society or culture, with design acting as an advocate of social change. It’s not necessarily an explicit definition. Architects need to be more precise with what it actually is, which is what we’re searching for right now.

DD: What do you see as the relationship between public interest design and entrepreneurship?

AB: We need to stop thinking about serving the public good as an end unto itself and focus more on why serving the public good fits in with the financial system that we live within.

DD: Architecture projects typically begin with a client and their needs. How can the profession become more anticipatory in a direction that serves society?

AB: I don’t think it’s the system. I don’t think it’s the profession. It’s the individuals. There are varying scales of success. Look at Architecture for Humanity. It was so well intentioned, but the business model ultimately couldn’t sustain such a brilliant idea. That happened, literally, the first week I came in as a director of Archeworks, so everything that we’re focusing on right now is exactly what you’re saying. We’re trying to find a synthesis of market need, social benefit, and angling it in a way where you can use market forces.

We’re less focused on the very, very bottom, and, clearly, not on the top; but rather the middle range. Habitat for Humanity is doing tremendous work, but there is so much more.

DD: Public interest design doesn’t equate one-to-one with battling poverty?

AB: Not at all. I don’t see architecture as always fixing a problem. I see it as generating future opportunity and a better society as a whole. All of that is in the public interest.

DD: It’s advocating for social impact projects in the public realm that people wouldn’t otherwise have seen, but affect society more broadly. The Highline is a great example, maybe?

AB: Absolutely.

DD: Who do you consider cutting edge?

AB: Things that are cutting edge to me are new start-up companies, in the tech world primarily. What I’m most interested in is what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. What they’re selling, and the strategy of deployment.

A perfect example in Chicago is BuiltWorlds. They’re doing more for society, the built environment, and education than any institution I know of. They’ll bring all kinds of people together in these amazing round-table forums and presentations. You’re seeing what’s happening in many different industries at once.

DD: A torrent of cross-cultural conversations.

AB: That’s exactly right.

Public Interest Design: PLANNING SCALE

David Dewane interviewing Elaine Asal, Senior Associate, Gensler Baltimore. Gensler is recognized as one of the world’s leading collaborative design firms.

David Dewane: Could you talk about leadership and the public interest design process?

Elaine Asal: For me, it’s starting from a different place. It’s not about delivering a top-down vision. Humility and empathy are a much bigger component of the conversation. It’s a lot more about being in partnership with a community and with the entities receiving the design so that the outcome is much more integrated and reflective [of the community]. The designer’s vision is symbiotic and parallel to the community’s vision.

The process is very iterative, and there’s a great deal of discovery that goes along with it. Oftentimes, you don’t necessarily know what the project will become, but you know the sensibility and the values you want to employ while doing it. That’s the interesting thing about public interest work. We actually just wrote an article internally about lessons learned from these projects that raised several interesting questions for us. Such as, how might we account for trust-building in a scope of work? That’s a really hard, almost impossible, thing to do, but it is needed to try to make this stuff work.

DD: It seems essential that to be successful, at a certain point the design team has to pull back so that whoever is working with you can become a creative collaborator.

EA: We spend so much time talking about social capital because without that it’s really just a set of documents: drawings on paper. If you don’t have people who will latch onto those ideas and transform them into something tangible, the project won’t happen. There’s a ton of politics, and bureaucracy to navigate, but all these factors fold into are just part of making a big vision happen. There are a lot of little details too. A key tactic, for us, is how do you create an agile enough road map so that everybody from an individual homeowner to a large institution can find action items that they are empowered to implement, and in the process make their own?

DD: How do you view market forces in relation to public interest work?

EA: There’s a limit to how far you can go in terms of skirting the capitalistic sensibility. At the end of the day, the market is still going to dictate what’s mainstream. To get to the needle moving to the other side of the dial, I think you really have to be looking at our economic system and how we incentivize our decision-making in respect to development. Government policy certainly plays a role. But I don’t know when that will shift — though there are some indicators that it’s moving in a positive direction.

DD: Whose work inspires you?

EA: I take a lot of inspiration from MASS in terms of their process. They are focused on enabling people from the community to learn from working with them and then take ownership. It’s really a collaborative effort between the designers and the community. Their education efforts that parallel their design process and empowerment local talent is very impressive.

Public Interest Design: BUILDING SCALE

David Dewane interviewing Jeremy Knoll, Project Architect, BNIM. BNIM (Berkebile Nelson Immenschuh McDowell, Inc.) is an architecture and design firm founded in 1970 in Kansas City, Missouri. The firm’s practice areas include sustainable design and community redevelopment; urban planning and design; educational facilities; campus master planning; civic, state and federal government work; residential; and corporate office spaces.

David Dewane: Could you put into perspective how public interest design has worked its way into BNIM’s culture?

Jeremy Knoll: A lot of this began with our involvement in the green building movement, but I think it also came about as a result of our involvement in several natural disaster recovery efforts everywhere from Greensburg, Kansas to New Orleans. For the Bancroft School redevelopment a community development group approached us. They asked us to work with a group of Kansas City neighborhoods that were very low-income area, which had a lot of blight, but a lot of promise at the same time.

DD: Could you talk about the design process of the Bancroft School?

JK: We entered into a dialogue with the community. The scope, program, and even aspects of the design itself were worked out with neighborhood stakeholders. This happened at a variety of scales and at many meetings to where the residents of the community, by and large, felt like they had real influence in the success of the project.

It wasn’t just a developer coming in to tell them how to live in a place. Instead, together, we envisioned a place that was brilliant, with courage and passion. It was restoring a place that the community knew could be great again.

DD: A common struggle amongst many people that are working in public interest design is how to figure out new business models.

JK: How do you do this work and function as a business in a way that you make any money at all? There’s not an answer to that yet. I think it’s one of the biggest questions out there in the design industry at the moment. All the money currently flows in a different direction.

DD: There are a lot of parallels between the evolution of public interest design and the evolution of the sustainability movement 15-20 years ago.

JK: Absolutely there are.

DD: How do you see those two as being related?

JK: Public interest design, in my mind, is building on the foundations of those structural moves towards a way of building that ensures the greatest success, empowerment, and access to the people in and around any kind of development. It operates at a building scale, neighborhood scale, and system scale.

DD: Where is the payoff for you?

JK: More than anything else it has been meeting the residents and talking with the families who have moved into this building and hearing their feedback. To me, the thrill is not a heroic feeling of doing good things for poor people. Instead, it’s the friendships and the breaking down of barriers between people that result from this kind of inclusive and empowering process.

Public Interest Design: PRODUCT DESIGN SCALE

David Dewane interviewing Scott Key, CEO, Emergency Floor. Emergency Floor is the first product of Good Works Studio, Inc.; a social enterprise founded by two graduate students at Rice University and based out of Houston, Texas.

David Dewane: How did you arrive at working on flooring for refugee housing?

Scott Key: We started from an academic standpoint. This was an interesting design challenge, but gradually we learned about the need and the gained a better understanding of the business landscape. We recognized that there were a lot of people trying to address emergency shelters and we didn’t see anybody trying to address the floor.

DD: Why are you doing this?

SK: Good question. It’s a personal thing. I’ve always been inclined to use my vocation to help other people and I think there are real opportunities. In school we were taught design can be certain things and it can’t be certain things. We may not be able to solve world hunger, but I think there are a lot of opportunities, for us, on the product side. We can develop low cost, high impact goods that can be mass distributed.

DD: You think of yourselves as outsiders, but certainly you must have some influences. Who would you point to as somebody who inspired you?

SK: I really like anybody that’s scrappy, honestly. Definitely the Design Like You Give a Damn books were a big influence. Just seeing how people creatively addressed special issues. Whether or not they were scalable or whether or not they were really feasible, it’s just interesting to see some level of elegance, or cleverness, especially when it comes to cost. If you’re not addressing the money side of it, you’re not addressing it.

DD: How are you moving this from being a sideline, after hours project, to being your main professional focus?

SK: We went through a start-up accelerator and that was an okay fit, but that world is definitely geared towards tech and very rarely physical goods, but we learned a lot from that environment. We found a better fit with USAID and they’ve basically been our angels, but the whole process had definitely taken some creativity. Once we make the product and demonstrate it has a solid value proposition, we can flip into a very traditional vendor model that’s already established.

DD: Do you think your education prepared you well for what you’re doing now? What could have been different?

SK: Architecture school definitely teaches you to take critical feedback and process it in a constructive way. We’re learning a lot more about finance, honestly. You quickly realize how creative you can get with finance and how that really does shape a lot of what happens in the world. It just always blows my mind how much some of our partners, like developers, can make on a deal, and granted he’s taking a lot of the risk, but he’s not necessarily smarter, he doesn’t work harder, he just understands the business better. It’s something schools should carefully consider adding to their curriculum.

David Dewane is an architect and entrepreneur who founded Librii, a start-up focused on developing a franchise of libraries along the frontiers of internet access.