Navigating the Frontiers of Public Interest Design


by David Dewane @dinet

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.


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