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Socially Engaged Design – Cyprus

18 March 2015

Last weekend I was in Cyprus for the inaugural Socially Engaged Design Conference curated by Despina & Marina Hadjilouca. This conference aimed to explore the process, benefits and impacts of socially engaged design from a range of speakers: five from the UK and five from Cyprus.

Whilst it is always delightful to be asked to share make:good’s experience, ‘socailly engaged design’ was a new term for me and I do worry that as an industry we don’t have a consistent language to describe this area, which makes it hard for clients to know what or how to commission. Our work gets called engagement, consultation, participation, social innovation, co-design, public art and much more – and how we describe it doesn’t seem to matter as there is no client consistency.

The issue of understanding terminology was one of the points raised by the conference’s first speaker Amica Dall from Assemble ; what are the problems with words like consultation, participation and engagement? Do they mean anything when so often briefs are set before a designer is commissioned? As designers are we prepared to let go of our own vision in order to allow for meaningful collaboration with local people? Another point that resonated with me was the issue of time and whether clients will pay for that time. It takes a lot of time in order to build the strong relationships required for any kind of social project to happen; to understand an area and develop appropriate briefs. However, so often a client doesn’t want to pay for this time or a brief is developed before you are commissioned, so even if the insight shows that the brief needs tweaking you have to try to persuade a client to shift which can be tricky.

Next up was Alaistair Steele who talked about his PhD research into the power of an ATM to expand our social networks by providing access to the internet and access to locally specific information on available products and services.  I liked the notion of using everyday infrastructure to prompt new social interactions and using things that people naturally interact with to make engagement easier for people.

Colleagues at The University of Nicosia Petros Lapithis & Anna Papadopoulou talked about embedding new practice and ideas into the professional training so that we produce future generations of architects and designers who understand their role as collaborators in order to create urban spaces that are responsive to their social setting.  It is hard to argue against this although as a business working in this field I find that we get lots of CVs from students wanting to work in this way, but there seems to be less understanding of the field within the commissioning bodies.

Evanthia Tselika gave a wonderful talk on conflict transformation art, looking at the history of artists collaborating with local people to produce work and the problems that occur when this seemingly organic process is adopted into the mainstream and commissioned by institutions who, in some way, always want to control or edit the end result. In essence how do we create a fair dialogue with local people and not just reinforce hegemonic structures?

Yukie A Nagasawa & Beverley White of eclective shared their work with older people in Somers Town: I have been a fan of their work for a while so it was a pleasure to hear from them first hand and it reminded me of the importance of finding a range of story telling opportunities so that people can tell their own story of a place in order to offer insight which can influence design. I came home and instantly borrowed one of their techniques on a project!  It also bought up the issue of how you pass on the insight you have gathered to future practitioners; this can often be tricky as people want to explore again and so areas become fatigued of sharing their understanding without seeing any action.

I loved the joyful nature of Socrates Stratis’ work on the Urban- A- Where project which seeks to playfully engage the wider public in conversations about urban change.  It reminded me of the power of being involved in a project, contributing, solving the problem of making a magic carpet road crossing (yes really!) can have as big if not a bigger impact than physical change.

Then I made the case that socially engaged design needed to allow for people who live, work and play in an area to influence change; in my opinion if there is no room for people to influence change then there is no point in doing a project. Anybody who has followed our work will know that finding a point of influence is really important for us and a critical factor in us taking on a piece of work.

Robin Houterman shared examples of socially engaged design from a developer’s perspective by reflecting on projects he worked on in the Netherlands and from a grassroots perspective referencing his work with Clear Village  – I have long been sold on the idea of activating our public spaces and on almost every project people want more activities happening in their area as well as physical change so his work resonated with me.

Victoria Lee made the case that all design has a social impact and therefore is socially engaged – so how we deliver the engagement component is crucial to its success. Her jaunt through the many types of engagement techniques further highlighted the range of practices and why it is so hard to get consistency if that is what we even want. I really enjoyed the questions she posed as they showed the complexity of the industry, cities and people.

We certainly didn’t solve the issues around terminology, commissioning and legacy of projects but it was good to hear the lessons and know that all of us are struggling with some areas and succeeding in others.

My final thoughts were all about language and commissioning and these are issues we are hoping to address through our work with Mend and The Good Engagement Foundation as we think one of the key barriers to delivering engagement, or socially engaged design, is the poor quality of briefs and the commissioning process.

As always ideas and suggestions for creating this change are welcome because, as designers, unless we are always self initiating projects we need great briefs to deliver great projects with real social value.
– CG