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Tonics and provocations

Exploring the intersection of poverty, prosperity, innovation, and design.


Over the past several years, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum curator Cynthia E. Smith canvassed the country, logging more than 50,000 miles in a search for design solutions to society’s most intractable ills. The result was By the People: Designing a Better America, the third in a series of exhibitions at the Cooper Hewitt that celebrate the problem-solving capacity of design.


When I begin my research for an exhibition, I start with a thesis. For By the People I was exploring the intersection of poverty, prosperity, innovation, and design. That necessarily kept the inquiry open, which is appropriate because the challenges the American people face are often complex and systemic, and many require reckoning with a history of injustice. At its best, design improves people’s lives and benefits the communities where they live and work, but it was unclear as I began my research how many innovative and responsive designs I would find.

In fact, I returned with close to 300 different possible collaborative design projects, products, and proposals. Some are simple and elegant in their design response, embodying the spirit of the citizen designer, while others are multilayered strategies formed over time by many stakeholders. What they have in common is a drive to create more inclusive, healthy, and just places.

Whether the concern is persistent poverty, homelessness, mounting climate challenges, unequal education, or a fraying civic life, design can act as a catalyst for change. Experimental human-powered vehicles that challenge the US transportation system, an innovative permanent housing approach that converts one community’s attitude toward its homeless population, or a landscape architect’s urban design for a shrinking postindustrial city that catalyzes economic, social, and environmental transformation — these are designs that challenge the status quo and ignite hope.

Architects, designers, and planners are well positioned to engage complex systemic problems and can often help expose underlying inequalities. Because social problems grow from an interlocking web of conditions, working across disciplines — an ethic established early on in design school —is important in helping break through silos in pursuit of alternative approaches.

Often the responses are multidimensional, bringing together different disciplines to rethink entire systems. One example from By the People is a complete redesign for the delivery of post–natural disaster housing. In Texas’ Lower Rio Grande Valley, typical federal disaster relief has left hundreds of low-income families living in substandard conditions for years after hurricanes devastate their neighborhoods. Determined to foster the social, physical, and economic resilience of the communities while restoring their homes, a team of architects, policymakers, housing advocates, community developers, and organizers collaborated with residents to develop the RAPIDO Rapid Recovery Housing program. The new model helps vulnerable families navigate the disaster-relief process, delivering higher-quality housing while avoiding displacement and keeping social ties intact.


Pavilion and Rain Gardens at Oktibbeha County Heritage Museum - Architecture and Landscape Architecture design-build collaboration

The base of the pavilion is conceived of as a flexible landscape, with site furnishings designed to serve as seating, a stage, or a barrier. LED lighting minimizes electrical usage.

Photo by Megan Bean / © Mississippi State University


A climbing hydrangea vine points visitors to the hidden garden above, an extensive green-roof system of customized, climatically specified sedum plants.

Copyright: Mississippi State University


The SuperUse pavilion fascia—constructed of durable, low-maintenance cementitious siding to ensure a low operating expense—is attached to the repurposed fueling station frame.

Photo by Megan Bean / © Mississippi State University


Herrmann asks, "Failed service station or raw material for another public amenity?"

Photo by Megan Bean / © Mississippi State University


The Oktibbeha County Heritage Museum stormwater demonstration garden

Photo by Megan Bean / © Mississippi State University


Exploded diagram of pavilion components

Copyright: Cooper Hewitt


Designers provide vision, often combining disparate ideas, gleaning new possibilities for seemingly intractable challenges. They are directly engaging communities, listening, valuing, and incorporating local expertise. Many call for emphasizing process over outcome as a way to build local capacity, from hiring area youth as part of the design team to creating neighborhood design residencies.

Too many American communities — in former industrial cities, on native lands, in older first-ring suburbs, and in small rural towns — have been abandoned by a culture of disinvestment. Designers, architects, landscape architects, students, artists, historians, and entire communities are describing new ways to navigate the legacy of neglect that public and private policies have wrought. Communities are learning to recognize and value existing assets in both the natural and built environments that have long been overlooked. This might mean recycling or retrofitting blighted properties and abandoned infrastructure to stitch neighborhoods back together. In Mississippi, for example, an abandoned service station canopy was converted into a public-event structure with reclaimed materials that support a vibrant green roof, teaching architecture students, residents, and area trades-people alike to see opportunity in what is discarded or undervalued.

The notion of design addressing critical social issues is not new. The current movement has its roots in the 1960s and ’70s, such as when the International Council of Industrial Designers joined with unesco in 1963 to use design on several international development projects for the “betterment of the human condition.” In 1964, C. Richard Hatch founded the Architects’ Renewal Committee of Harlem (ARCH), one of the nation’s first community design centers, which helped low-income residents influence planning in their own neighborhoods. More broadly, in 1973, the British economist E. F. Schumacher wrote Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, the influential text that introduced “appropriate technology,” an approach to manufacturing locally using area resources. These and other developments wove their way into a range of socially responsible design strategies over the decades.

Today the field of socially engaged design continues to expand, perhaps due to increased global connections. In 2000, the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals focused the world’s efforts on ending poverty, combined with improved communications and new technologies, to spark innovative approaches addressing vexing issues both locally and internationally. Global environmental challenges and increasing income inequality have added a new sense of urgency. Communities are exploring alternative social and economic systems, often not waiting for outside help but creating local infrastructure that support more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable places. Design gives form to ideas. Right now, it is more critical than ever that what we value as a society is expressed in what we create.

Despite — or perhaps because of — looming new challenges, I remain cautiously optimistic about the future. The next generation of designers and architects is focusing on social justice as never before. The collaboration of today’s young designers with communities and the solutions they imagine together are a tonic for uncertain times. Not deterred by barriers, they understand the urgency for advocating, designing, and building a more just and equitable world. ■

Cynthia E. Smith serves as the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s curator of socially responsible design. After training as an industrial designer, she joined Cooper Hewitt in 2005, where she integrates her work experience with her advocacy on human rights and social justice issues.