If a corporation—per judicial opinion—is considered a person, does it follow that it can have a “soul”? If the willingness to consider the social and political impacts of our actions is a characteristic of our company, then perhaps the answer is yes.
On April 6th and 7th, members of the Gould Evans family and selected guests gathered in San Francisco for our annual Spring dGroup meeting. This is something we do twice a year: come together in a single location to discuss the issues common to our work, and enrich our practice with the inclusion of diverse perspectives. Our focus this time was the relationship between our work as designers and the political and social environment in which we practice. In an atmosphere of openness and dialogue, we recalled our core values, engaged in a spirited conversation, and pushed ourselves to think in new ways about just about everything we do.
Gabe Metcalf, the Executive Director of SPUR, kicked things off. We expected him to extol the virtues of urban San Francisco—sustainability, innovation, inclusion and diversity—which he did. But he also pointed out some of the underlying problems our city grapples with—income inequality, homelessness and housing affordability—and asked us to ponder whether we have brought these problems on ourselves. Are we working hard enough to lessen the cost of housing? Can our transit systems keep up with demand (especially given an anticipated loss of federal funding)? What about the California “anti-property tax” culture (dating from the 70’s)? If we don’t alleviate these pressures, will we begin to lose the tech industry as an economic generator? Are we headed for “utopia or dystopia”? He suggested that, in the long run, our city will thrive. But the short run may be challenging. This was a thought-provoking way to begin.
The discussion was then directed south to the work of our Phoenix studio. The city of Phoenix is currently engaged in some great dialogue and planning to shape its urban ideal, and we are where we want to be: in the thick of the discussion. Central City South and South Phoenix, directly adjacent to our (still) new studio in the Warehouse District, are about to be transformed by an extension of the light rail system. We seek to help guide this change by actively engaging in dialogue about both the benefits and the challenges for current residents and businesses. We recognize the rich history and value of this community that has been built through generations even though it may not be easily evident to the general passer-by. We seek to help the residents and business through this change to benefit all its constituents. This process warrants custom tools of engagement to understand the complexity of this extension. Will the light rail be a simple utility, or a symbol of new connections? How will the ripple effect of the light rail change the neighborhoods? We are determined to be part of helping do it right.
Next up was Project H Design founder Emily Pilloton, who inspired us with her work in rural Bertie County, South Carolina and at home in the Bay Area. In Bertie County, she created and taught a class which engaged previously under-performing high school students by challenging them to design and build audacious projects: first a chicken coop, and then a farmers’ market. She made a powerful statement about why what we do is relevant: “communities have been stripped of their voices, and design is a powerful tool for taking that back.” Bringing together diverse individuals with the common goal of building something meaningful, she inspired students to learn, and demonstrated to the community that focused young adults have a lot to offer. Now back in the Bay Area, she has created Girls Garage, which empowers young women literally and figuratively: teaching them construction skills and expanding their horizons. As one young girl said, “I’m ten years old, I can weld, I can do anything.”
Then, we were on to New Orleans, where our studio is assisting Crescent Care, a community health care provider, to build a new hybrid medical facility for a neighborhood which is underserved. Our discussions centered around how we balance our work: large and small projects; for-profit and not-for-profit; design or program-driven. As in South Phoenix, how do we engage with—and respect—an existing community and culture? How can a new building substantially larger than the surrounding single-family homes be designed to respect the richness of the existing context? How do we measure our success in this regard?
Our San Francisco studio presented the space we’re creating for Friends of the Children, an organization which seeks to positively change the life paths of at-risk children by providing consistent, one-on-one mentoring from kindergarten through high school graduation. The discussion focused on our efforts to create an environment which responds to these unique needs, drawing on an understanding of the Bayview community which it will serve. How can the space evoke a sense of comfort and connection? How can it reinforce the mentors’ work and simultaneously provide spaces of openness, intimacy and privacy? Is biophilic design part of the solution? What is the symbolic connection to the community?
Another guest, Andrew Burdick of Ennead Lab, shared projects and approaches that sought similar goals to our own ambitions of solving problems through design at all scales. From art installations in public spaces to spaces that support veterans take on a new mission as farmers after their service, we found commonality in our thinking.
Having explored urbanity, redevelopment, and partnering with non-profits, we then turned our attention to a significant university research building, The University of Kansas Earth, Energy and Environment Center. Providing facilities for scientists whose work seeks to improve our understanding of the natural and man-made environment is a worthy effort. Facilitating the advancement of human knowledge is a laudable part of our work, even though the politics of this work can be complex and sometimes contradictory.
Finally, we all engaged in a wrap-up discussion led by anthropologist Andrea Ballestero. A frequent collaborator in our work, Andrea has a talent for helping us clarify our language and uncover potential biases, in the service of deeply examining a design question or issue. With Andrea’s facilitation, our group discussed ways to “inhabit the tension” of current events and to make activism an ever-present state of mind. We inverted the idea of activist design as a category, with the provocative question “what if all of our work is activist?”
What made the dGroup discussions so honest and engaging was the sense of being in an environment that supports diverse viewpoints, like a family. Design often shies away from tackling complex social issues, but design thinking is an enormously powerful tool for addressing these issues. We’re learning to talk more about them, and to improve our work by doing so. Are we a company with a soul? Can we not just survive—but actually thrive—by letting those values guide our actions and culture?