Why Detroit Matters

This week at UDD we’ve been confronted with that nagging design question,  is North America lagging behind the rest of world in its ability to address pressing problems creatively?  The history of design, as our unnamed colleague put it, as a method of solving problems appears to have waned in favor of “bourgeois aesthetics incapable of addressing concerns other than self interest and promotion.”  Ouch.  That is not to say that we’ve all been preoccupied with design for design sake.  Design with the Other 90% Cities (http://designother90.org/cities/home) an inspirational catalogue of design servicing world problems is a testament to designers will and interest in improving living conditions.  One of our favorite books, “Living in the Endless City” by LSE and Deutsche Bank is by and large a call to arms highlighting the enormity of our human condition on the fragile planet.

UDD Tall Stack SteelSpace(s) Brush Park, Detroit

So what to do?  Is North America engaged as much as our counterparts? Certainly if one seeks out case studies and experimental strategies one often lands in the context of Europe, Asia and Africa.  What if any is the difference where one context is ripe for implementation and another is not?  To begin, our conversation pointed out that design as a social enterprise is both a historical and well tested model in Europe and Asia.  Design as an experimental export has strong roots with exports to South America especially in countries and like Brazil and more recently Columbia.  As for North America the business sector referred to as design struggles to free itself from linkages to profit driven exercises.  This in not to say that profit motivated design cannot service problem solving, in fact it may indeed be even more effective incentivized by profit formulas.  However it does not have a context and or champion or both where the risk to reward ratio seem to warrant its very existence.  That is until we look at Detroit.

We like Detroit.  Why?  Its decline has announced and continues to foreshadow what is to come if we continue to not monitor and design for cultural, industrial and environmental shifts that will continue to arrive on the world’s doorstep and in many cases seemingly unannounced.  The thought in the office here was that Detroit may be just within the risk to reward margins to finally serve as a legitimate testing ground or laboratory. Well outside the traditional proforma models Detroit presents a perfect designer’s storm of economic, cultural, and social circumstances coming into perfect alignment.  That perfect alignment referred in the office as the Design Juggernaut.  Now certainly we do not think we are the only one’s who believe this to be the case.  In similar fashion and response we’ve witness shifts and or an expansion of the design worlds interest in tackling many economic, social and cultural phenomenon driven problems.  Design houses like IDEO and Frog Design have clearly embraced the challenge and have even front loaded their efforts in what appears to be a conscious effort to signal their intentions of addressing larger world problems.  IDEO has spun off several related enterprises focused on and in their words solutions for social impact.

UDD SteelSpace(s) Mid-Stack, Brush Park Detroit

The Juggernaut, we like saying that, had us pondering, as things shift with greater frequency and speed we should be equipped and able to propose solutions at a similar rate, in essence remaining engaged and relevant.  So accepting IDEO’s Open Challenge albeit a little late we’re dropping our first Detroit release (Motown reference), SteelSpaces.  Not a new idea, of which we have  no shame but a timely remix.    Let us know your thoughts.

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