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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Drinking from Fire Hydrants and Focusing on Failures: Structures for Inclusion Conference Reflections

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SFI Conference in Detroit; Photo courtesy Virajita Singh

The 15th annual Structures for Inclusion Conference was held this past April in Detroit, Michigan. Two students from the University of Minnesota, Thomas Kallenbach and Aika Mengi, were able to attend, and both produced the following reflections about their time at the public interest design conference:

Thomas Kallenbach

The 2015 Structures For Inclusion conference was hosted by Lawrence Technological University and Design Corps in Detroit, Michigan with events taking place in both downtown Detroit and at the Lawrence Tech. campus. The Autodesk Foundation and SEED Network sponsored the weekend; both sponsors played an integral role in the momentum of the discussion. I went into the weekend with an open mind as I was a first timer to the City of Detroit and had no experience regarding design conferences. I knew I was going to be enlightened by professionals, students, and community members' insights on the idea of Public Interest Design, and I was correct.

The overall theme for the weekend was "resilience of mind, body, and spirit". Resilience was a very appropriate and fitting theme for a conference being held in Detroit, a city that is currently being lifted back on its feet. Despite all the negatives I'd heard about Detroit, I couldn't believe the positive attitudes and actions taking place in a city built for 2 million people, but currently residing just under 700,000 people. There was a strong sense of hope that was clearly evident in the residents. I left the City with faith that it will be prosperous once again, and I believe that it will happen sooner than many think.

The major takeaway I had from my weekend in Detroit is that if we want to see more successful public interest projects then we need to focus more on the failures of these projects; as designers we need to make known what didn't work in the process in order to avoid these problems in other future designs. When practitioners speak of their projects they only want to speak on behalf of the positive impact because they want their project to have a good reputation, but in order for this field to progress we need to share not just the process, but rather the story (while admitting to our failures). We need to focus on the resilience of culture and not just merely the built environment.

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SFI Conference in Detroit; Photo courtesy Virajita Singh

Aika Mengi

I have never been to a conference, I didn't know what to expect, especially one that was focused on design. But whatever it was going to be I was very excited to be a part of the conferencing crowd.

The weekend was not unlike what I would think it would feel like to try drink from a fire hydrant. It felt a lot like orientation, overwhelming with the amount of information that was being thrown at as. The Pecha Kucha presentation style of 20 slides in 5 minutes meant we were able to hear highlights of some really great projects all over the world. My favorite was MASS design hospital design and construction in Rwanda. I loved how they not only created a beautiful and functional building, there work there is helping to develop gender equality in Rwanda. It was a great example of how Architecture is so much more than a building, if Architects chose to see their role as more than designing buildings.

I thought it was interesting to see and hear the slightly different perspectives on the Role of architects in PID. For a lot of architects, it sounded like in order to practice in PID, architects need to be one stop shop. But the architects from Germany see the architect as another a member of a team. And that PID needs to be more interdisciplinary. The majority of attendants were architects, and as an urban planner it felt like there was some appropriation of different fields. I was discussing this with an alumni, and he also mentioned how a lot of the projects were landscape architecture projects, or urban planning projects.

The conference was an accurate representation of what perhaps is the state of the PID practice in the US, still working to define its role. During the wrap up, a lot of these things came up, the homogenous nature of the participants of the conference. The majority of people were from the design field, and if SFI is to be inclusive then all the parts that are a part of PID should be involved, the economists, community, construction firms and ecologists.

To celebrate millennials' revelry of top 10 lists, here are the top 10 things I learned from the Detroit SFI.

10. It doesn't matter which scale PID project is on, it's all about the impact on the community.

9. Everybody is not on the same page.

8. When people are heavily invested, emotions can go from 0-100 really quickly.

7. Disagreements are not a bad thing, and can help create a clearer understanding of an issued. (How you disagree is important!)

6. Metrics, Metrics, Metrics! There must be a way of judging the impact of PID projects.

5. Failure, we don't hear about it enough, learning from other people failures can help us avoid them in our own projects.

4. Interdisciplinary collaboration is easier to talk about than it is to practice.

3. PID still needs to be more inclusive, there was a very obvious lack of community members sharing their thoughts on PID and the impact on their lives.

2. Money changes things, but it is about the People!

1. It really is all about the PEOPLE!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

"Nature Looted Nepal"

Today's blogpost about the personal toll of the recent Nepal earthquake was written by Indira Manandhar, a graduate student in the Sustainable Design in Architecture program, and a native of Nepal. To learn more and see how you can help, please see this week's PID Newsletter or scroll down to the previous blogpost on ways to donate to the relief effort in Nepal.

Just half an hour before the earthquake, I talked with my mom and brother in Nepal. It was already midnight here when I saw news about the earthquake. Facebook was full of pictures with devastated monuments. When I saw the "Dharahara," a 9-story historic tower in Kathmandu, was flattened, I was sure it was not a prank. I tried to call my family, and messaged each and everyone I know in Nepal " R U There?" and kept waiting for their reply. Finally at 4 am, one of my relatives saw my message and informed me that my family is fine but that the other adjacent house of my house was destroyed. After this news, I became more desperate to talk with my family. We kept looking on the USGS website for earthquake updates. The aftershocks of more than 4 magnitude kept on going. There have been more than 60 aftershocks this week. I know it is the rainy season in Nepal. After the first quake, I started praying for no rain as it would make the condition worse. I could not handle that fear and pain alone here in US in that night. I shared on Facebook to get someone to talk, spread word and help Nepal: "Nature looted Nepal. We lost our heritage we had loved, taken care and proud of. We knew that it's gonna happen but not this soon..You could have given some time to prepare...RIP to those who lost their lives and much worried for all family and friends, still terrified and waiting for nature to calm down." My family and many others were out in open areas. It rained heavily that day and night in Nepal. They all are wet, hungry and cold outside. The aftershocks became more devastating, as they are making the weaker buildings fall down. My house is not livable now. As many servers, including T-mobile, Viber, and Skype, had made it free to call directly to Nepal mobile and landline numbers, it became a bit easier to at least direct my family and help them decide on further steps to take, get resources for help and make their stress a bit lighter as they are all in shock, and could not think properly about what and when and where. I regret I cannot be there with my family and Nepal at this moment.

Though my immediate family members are safe, countless people have lost many. I am very worried for the coming days' scarcity, crime and other epidemics. Nepal is not that technologically advanced. We are getting news that the government is not cooperating with relief funds and helping hands sent to the country. The local youth groups are more active than the government. I have been talking and sharing information with my friends who are architects professionally working in Nepal. They have started actively campaigning for low cost shelters for victims because, as per my friend, now tents are out of stock; there is no place to buy a tent in Kathmandu and shelter is the first priority for the victims. The capital city is in such mess, I cannot even think what might be happening to the other small villages. Food, clothes, and other medical supplies sent from international organizations and Nepalese from outside the country are all stuck in only one international airport due to the lack of proper direction for releasing those materials. Many small groups of Nepalese have already left from the USA with their own travel baggage full of the necessary materials so that they could at least help some victims on ground.

Nepal needs help not only in materials and funds but the proper organized planning for helping those victims.

Thank you U of M for keeping us in your prayers and thoughts. I am really thankful.