From the Townhall to into the Studio: Design, Democracy and Community Resilience

By Thomas Darwin

Darwin, T. (2010)  From the Townhall to into the Studio: Design, Democracy and Community Resilience, The Journal of Design Strategies, vol. 4, no. 1, Spring, pp. 29-33

This is a short article, but it is full of practical wisdom and insights for those prepared to dig deeper than a cursory reading.  This is one piece of writing that could have benefited from the addition of some visual design as there are so many levels, lists and layers embedded in the article!  Written by Thomas Darwin, Director of Community Partnerships at the University of Texas, the article takes a closer look at the potential for design to be a tool for community change.  Darwin sees design as both a capability and a mindset.  He argues that if they is to be useful in helping communities to build resilience and embark on change processes, then design methods and practices need to be shared widely so that community members develop the capacity to design their own solutions rather than relying or being dependent on expert designers to do it for them.


Darwin suggests that designers can be catalysts for community change in the three basic ways above.

Though the first two can be important, Darwin basically argues that the last of these is the one that contributes most effectively to a democratisation of design, and has the greatest capacity for building community resilience. This is important because Darwin believes that many of the challenges faced by communities are actually ‘wicked’ problems, meaning that they defy linear approaches to problem solving and require communities to develop collective resilience in order to engage with change.  He advocates for processes that can leverage design for community change and resilience so that people are able to respond to such wicked problems in context and over time.

Darwin describes an example of this – the development of a ‘Community Studio’ in Austin, Texas, a different space for building community leadership focussed on helping leaders develop a ‘designerly mind’ so that they can think and act on community problems as designers.  The Community Studio aimed to introduce: new effective approaches to addressing community problems; new modes of collaboration; and new skills and an innovative mindset so that leaders could break out of traditional problem-solving patterns.  In effect, rather than focussing on singular interventions in problem situations, the Community Studio was cultivating “a process, a set of capabilities, and perhaps most importantly, a way of engaging the world” (p.33) that led to participants developing different ways of engaging with community challenges (no matter what shape they took) into the future.

Darwin finishes the article by reflecting on what he things such a ‘designerly mind’ brings to the process of community change.  He suggests that at the centre of a ‘designerly mind’ is a “kind of disciplined openness” which has two main aspects:

[1]  “A willingness to intelligently prototype”: being open to trying new things, learn in the process of doing, and reflect in action.  The challenge of this lies in the fact that so much social change work has become bogged down in ‘planning’ methodologies, so that action doesn’t happen until we have a complete strategic plan, a log-frame or we have all the information we feel we need in order to act.  This aspect of openness is what makes design approaches so fresh and exciting to many working in and around social change.  It enables another perspective and cuts the chains that have bound us to linear, strategic models of action for too long;

[2]  “Receptivity to that which situations make available”: being open to the many resources, assets and possibilities that are inherent in any situation and in all communities.  Darwin argues that strategic mindsets can close us off to both the concrete limitations of real-life, but also the many opportunities that are present before us.  A ‘designerly mind’ helps us to cultivate an alive receptivity to these opportunities and harness the potential of systematic, participative, emergent and positive elements in the communities in which we work.

I think Darwin captures much of that which attracts people to ‘design’ approaches.  He doesn’t just see design as a set of tools and skills, he sees it as a mindset – one in which it is still possible to believe that things can change, that is “positive and forward-looking”.  The power of this in a world that is increasingly hamstrung by doubt and complexity should not be underestimated.  He finishes by summarising the power of this mindset:
“We do not take on the challenge of design unless we really believe that there is something to be done     about a situation, a better way to serve a group of people, a way to close the gap between how things are and    how we hope they could be” (p.33).

In addition to this article, it is worth taking a look at the range of articles in this collection, which includes an excellent article by Ezio Manzini, coordinator of DESIS, an international network on Design and Social Innovation and Sustainability (see www.desis-network.org/), and a whole array of practitioners and academics reflecting on the role of design in change processes.  The full collection is available at: www.sds.parsons.edu/blog/category/sds-publications/journal-of-design-strategies/

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