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How to find the world's best urban designs: An interview with Cynthia Smith

With the population of the world's urban areas exploding, creative city planning and design is more important and vibrant than ever. Photo: <a href="">Design with the other 90%</a>
With the population of the world's urban areas exploding, creative city planning and design is more important and vibrant than ever. Photo: Design with the other 90%

"Design With the Other 90%: CITIES," an exhibit of innovative designs and technologies from the world's fast-growing urban areas, debuts on the West Coast at Mercy Corps' Portland Action Center and Portland's Museum of Contemporary Craft on Friday, August 17. Global Envision spoke with its curator, Cynthia E. Smith of the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, about the exhibit.

Can you tell us a little bit about your curation process for the Design with the Other 90%: CITIES exhibition? How did you find and select the innovative solutions? Is there a set of criteria involved in the selection?

I began formulating the thesis for the second in the Design with the Other 90% series soon after the first exhibition—which was a broad survey of this growing area of design—began to travel. In 2009, we were approaching the point where more of us were living in cities than ever before. Our most vulnerable urban dwellers were those that resided in dense and unhealthy informal settlements, especially with increasing climate challenges. The astounding statistic—close to one billion people live in these precarious settlements and projected to grow to two billion over the next 20 years—was the basis for the exhibition’s thesis. This rapid urban acceleration is unprecedented, leaving many local municipalities unable to keep up with this wave of new urban migrants. I sought to answer a myriad of questions on how design could play a role in improving conditions. The answers often came from the people living in the settlements.

With early support from The Rockefeller Foundation, we convened a 10 person international Advisory Committee to explore the thesis. Comprised of leading practitioners and experts in different fields from Asia, Africa, and South and North Americas, they included a former Brazilian mayor, slum dweller activist, mobile health leader, technology innovator, and urban planner and designer. This expert group proved to be invaluable in providing insights, recommendations for relevant projects and initiatives, and introductions to people living and working in the settlements.

It was clear that if I were to discover emerging ideas and innovative design responses to these growing settlements, I needed to travel to many of these locations. Often it was only when I was in a city that I would be introduced to other relevant work. I captured many of my meetings with photography, video and audio recordings, gathering over 300 projects and initiatives. The selection narrowed from 300 to the final 60 based on one or more of the following criteria: was the project socially, economically, environmentally and sustainable? replicable in other geographic locations? scalable with positive impact? and sensitive to local culture? I looked for a broad geographic representation and a variety of innovative approaches. I met regularly with colleagues to hone the ideas and final selection.

In curating the exhibition, were you able to travel to see any of the ideas or products on-the-ground? Any favorite moments throughout the selection/acquisition process?

I visited 3 continents and 16 cities, meeting with people living and organizations working in the informal settlements. I found that the most innovative solutions were those that bridged the informal and formal city. This is an important development because of limited local institutional capacity to deal with the rapid growth. Even so, I found many design solutions, ranging in scale from large urban strategies to mobile health initiatives.

It is hard to narrow to any one moment because I met with so many inspiring people in each location. One group that stood out because of the breadth of work was Shack and Slum Dwellers International (SDI). I met with several SDI affiliate organizations in different countries during my research. SDI is a transnational organization that empowers the urban poor to claim their right to development in cities. Members are residents of informal communities, the majority of whom are women. Groups from different countries visit each other in a peer-to-peer exchange comparing their experiences and achievements. One of the first exercises they do together is to form a micro-savings group to build trust and a sense of community. One group I met with in the Philippines told me it was easy to build a house, but very difficult to build community. During these exchanges they share SDI tools like community enumeration and mapping, settlement planning, housing design and construction, and infrastructure upgrades. SDI affiliates are located in over 34 countries. Each affiliate shares a common realization: that government alone cannot solve poverty and underdevelopment.

How do you hope audiences will respond to the exhibition? What feeling might they take away after viewing it?

My hope is that the general public will gain a better understanding that design can play an important role in addressing the worlds most critical and complex issues. Speaking with visitors and reading comments in the books we left out during the first installation of the exhibition at the United Nations, the overwhelming response was a feeling of inspiration and hope for what is possible when creativity and collaboration are put to use to find sustainable, inclusive solutions.

What comes next for "Design with the Other 90%: CITIES" after its West Coast premier?

We are in conversations with several possible locations in two southern and one east coast location here in the U.S. There has been some interest internationally with the full exhibition and some discussion about bringing a smaller 2D version to the informal settlements. We only lack funding to make that version happen. One community group from South Africa was able to attend the opening of the exhibition at the UN and took the exhibition’s catalogue back to their community to test out some of the designs. Just think if we could take a portable version of the exhibition to Bangkok, Mumbai, Manila, Nairobi, or Mexico City what could be possible!

Why did you decide to work with Mercy Corps and the Museum of Contemporary Craft as the exhibit's Portland partners?

Mercy Corps brought the first exhibition in the series to Portland and as soon as they understood there would be another exhibition we began discussing the possibility of a return. The footprint was too large for the Action Center to accommodate the CITIES exhibition, but we also had been speaking with the Museum of Contemporary Craft about a possible display. The two organizations joined together and it is a perfect partnership with the potential to reach different audiences. Our mission, as Cooper-Hewitt is part of the Smithsonian, is the “dissemination of knowledge,” which this joint display clearly enables.

RELATED: Portland hosts the West Coast premier of 'Design with the Other 90%: CITIES'

The exhibit opens Friday, August 17, 2012 and remains on view through January 5, 2013. There is no charge for the half of the exhibit on display at the Mercy Corps Action Center. The Museum of Contemporary Craft charges a $4 entrance fee for its half of the exhibit. Smith will deliver a 45-minute lecture about the exhibit at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 26 at the MoCC.

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