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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!

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