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On the Trail of Grassroots Innovation Across America

Community design efforts get a platform at the Cooper Hewitt museum in New York.

The Open House in York, Alabama unfolds into an open-air community space. (Shana Berger/Coleman Center for the Arts)

On the top floor of the Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt museum in Manhattan, a large, beat-up plastic barrel, painted blue, rests against the wall of the third-floor exhibit hall. Housed in a regal Upper East Side building, Cooper Hewitt is a maze of ornate staircases and rich wooden walls; walking through it, one expects to encounter objects of beauty, easily classifiable as “art.”

The lurid blue drum is not one of those things. But to Cynthia E. Smith, Cooper Hewitt’s curator of socially responsible design, it still deserves a place in a museum. Smith compiled objects for Cooper Hewitt’s most recent show, By the People: Designing a Better America, which is on view through February. For the exhibit, Smith collected 60 examples of recent and ongoing place-based innovation projects. Some are large-scale and well-known, like Toronto’s Underpass Park, captured through photographs and renderings; others might not even register, to a casual viewer, as design.

For two years, Smith traversed the U.S., logging more than 50,000 miles in pursuit of responsive innovations. In speaking with local designers, community advocates, artists, philanthropists, policymakers, and citizens, two questions drove her research. One: What are the most pressing challenges faced by American communities? And two: How can design and innovative approaches address those complex and systemic issues?

The blue plastic barrel is one of the simplest projects in the show, and among those that most animate Smith. In 2000, reports reached the southern Arizona-based nonprofit Humane Borders that immigrants were dying of dehydration when heading north through the desert from Mexico. In response, Humane Borders worked with the local medical examiner’s office to identify clusters of migrant deaths, and installed water-filled drums at high-risk sites. The barrels are nothing spectacular, Smith says, but “it’s a case of ordinary people thinking like designers.” Each element, to Smith, signifies the design process: The blue color universally denotes water; a flag extending 30 feet into the air clearly marks the station from a distance; on the side, an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a symbol of protection, signals to travelers that the water is safe to drink.

The Humane Borders water stations. (© 2001 George Kimmerling)

The water stations, Smith says, were a tangible response to a perceived need. This is not the type of design that’s often valorized in museums, but By the People finds beauty less in a project’s aesthetic and more in its effect: the idea that design can and should do good, Smith says, is the show’s driving principle.

“I was interested in the intersection of poverty, prosperity, innovation, and design,” Smith says. She saw those four factors come to a head in places most affected by disinvestment. Smith traveled to the shrinking Rust Belt cities of Detroit, St. Louis, and Syracuse; post-industrial rural sections of Appalachia and the Midwest; pockets of poverty in Los Angeles and Chicago. The solutions she observed were by no means uniform, but they reflected an overarching trend. “The current generation of designers, and certainly the next generation of designers, are very interested in working collaboratively and embedding themselves in the community,” Smith says. “That’s when you see the most meaningful work happening.”

Since 2005, when Smith came to Cooper Hewitt as the curator of socially responsible design, she’s been interested in dismantling the notion of design as a top-down phenomenon. In 2007, she curated Design for the Other 90%, an exhibit intended to be “a provocation for the design world,” Smith says. What most people understand as “design,” she adds, only reaches 10 percent of the world’s population. To show the need for design and innovation across all socioeconomic levels, she aggregated low-cost solutions to food access, shelter, and energy from across the globe. Her subsequent show, Design With the Other 90%: Cities, focused on the citizen-driven architecture of informal settlements in the urban global south.

Sewing at the Raleigh Denim Workshop. (Rob Howard)

The communities Smith traveled to for By the People were not waiting around for the government to come in and fix what they perceived to be broken. Instead, they devised their own solutions from the ground up. Grassroots innovation is taking hold in cities and towns across the country. In Cleveland, that looks like a network of sustainable business cooperatives, developed to inject some life back into the economy after local manufacturing and industry dwindled. In Detroit, that means reimagining the urban landscape as a catalyst for social cohesion and change. In York, Alabama, a blighted house was re-purposed as an open-air theater for community discourse. In Raleigh, North Carolina, two idealist designers are re-energizing the waning textile industry through through a small denim factory that prioritizes local materials and individual workers’ talents.   

Most museum exhibits are intended to provoke thought; By the People, Smith says, is a call to action. Though the communities Smith visited developed their projects locally, the exhibition imagines them as parts of a toolkit of resources, which any city and town could enter and learn from. “We’re trying to convene a conversation,” Smith says.

After By the People closes at Cooper Hewitt in February, Smith plans to take the exhibit on the road in the U.S.; she’s in talks with organizers about where the show might have the greatest effect. “It’s about bringing the message further,” Smith says. By the People is not a finished product, and it may not be “art” in the strictest sense, but it mimics a reality that citizens could build for themselves.

By the People: Designing a Better America is on view at Cooper Hewitt through February 26, 2017.

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