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.