My favorite presentation of the day was from Alex Gilliam with the non-profit Public Workshop. Alex presented his design facilitation work with several teenage girls in a blighted south Chicago neighborhood. Alex provided the woodworking tools and construction materials and asked questions about what the girls wanted to build. Together they transformed an abandoned lot full of broken bottles, beer cans and hypodermic needles. The girls built construction work tables and asked the community to answer the questions “I would love a place to…” They spelled out these words with empty beer cans in the chain link fence in front of the derelict lot. The next day someone had cleaned the trash out of the lot.
The girls started designing a children’s play space. The theme of “Switzerland in Chicago” came to life with string, wood and paint. As they built, they grew more confident in their skills. Neighbors started to stop by and offer help. Someone donated $20. They weren’t even asking for money. The girls raised $200 and finally $1,000. Everyone involved with the project became excited. Through this facilitation, a whimsical, exciting new play scape was built. In this case presenting someone with a handful of questions was more productive than presenting them with imported solutions.
If you want to see Alex’s conference talk, start at 1:50 in the following You Tube post.
This is just one example of the power of thoughtful, community-based design. At the conference there were many others. Overall it was interesting to hear speakers alternately lamented the crashing of natural systems and celebrated the building of a new, more resilient world. This seemed disorienting to the audience early in the day but by the end of the day attendees seemed to feel more comfortable holding both contrasting ideas of crashing and building together in our collective minds and embracing the paradox.