Design Thinking and Poverty – Challenging Everything I Know (Or Thought I Knew)…

I’ve known for a long time that design has the power to change the world.

I’ve also known for a long time that I wanted to be a designer who could help change the world. Not a ‘starchitect’, not a show-pony but someone who worked quietly and efficiently behind the scenes to make lives better.

Part of the reason I left behind my former career as an interior designer was because I wasn’t helping anyone. I was confronted… day in, day out… with extreme affluence and subsequently, extreme waste. Money was thrown away on things that didn’t matter… on symbols of status, wealth and power. There were times when I felt physically ill, watching hundreds of thousands ($$$) worth of joinery and fixtures be thrown out (not even upcycled!!) because it wasn’t how the client ‘envisioned’ it would look or because they’d simply ‘changed their minds’ between the time they gave their approval and the time of installation.

Part of the reason I came back to study architecture was because I thought “I won’t be working within an existing shell, I’ll be creating the shell”… and by creating the shell, by being the initial step in the process, I could contribute on a social level. I could help stimulate change. Yes, it’s a romantic idea. Some would say I’m highly idealistic in my faith in design to change the world. So be it. Only time will tell.

But now I’m faced with a challenge that confronts (head-on) everything that I know and everything that I thought I knew.

Our final project for the semester is to design an architectural student commune for our tutorial group (22 young designers) with 2 ‘bonus’ spaces of 48 square metres and 12 square metres that are dedicated to a special ‘theme’, chosen by our head tutor. That theme is then to be addressed in terms of how we, as young architects and designers, can tackle said social theme … in a nutshell, the ‘issue tackling’ defines the usage of the bonus spaces.

My tutor selected the issue of poverty.

Poverty where I live in Australia is a delicate issue. Some say that people have the choice of being poverty-stricken and homeless… that our social welfare system is adequate enough that no-one needs to live in those conditions. Others say that by raising enough money, poverty and homelessness can be eradicated. I disagree. All the research I’ve done in the last few days also disagrees. Sometimes people don’t want to live within 4 walls. Sometimes the psychological effects of what happened to them within 4 walls is the very reason why they can never go back to living within 4 walls.

I’m finding this project extremely challenging emotionally. I’ve been moved to tears whilst watching various TED talks, videos and reading articles and statistics. I am overwhelmed by the seriousness and enormity of the task and the situation which at least 9.5% of people living in Brisbane find themselves faced with. Their stories are gut-wrenching. And I feel powerless.

Though I’ve been under the poverty line myself more than once, I always had family and friends to come to my aid financially and emotionally. Other people are not so lucky and it is without this support that the downward spiral begins.

One key point that is continually raised is that it is not about the money, or the food / supplies given to the homeless on the streets of Brisbane… it is about being ‘present’ to these people. Listening to them and letting them know that they have support. Anthony Ryan and Brother Damien Price are two men who tackle this issue head-on… they go out to the streets with food vans, make coffee and food for the homeless and poverty-stricken but most importantly, they address their very basic need. To be listened to and to be heard.

So defining how I use these ‘bonus’ spaces within my archi-commune design is critical and no longer simply a project exercise for grades. At least not for me. I know whatever I come up with will not solve the issue of poverty in Brisbane. But what I do know is that I am being challenged in a way I had always hoped for and now that it is here, the emotional impact is huge and unexpected. Yes, it’s only a project but I have the chance to do what I’ve always wanted to do… to use my skills and my systems-thinking and design-thinking… and apply them in such a way that I can make a difference, even if it is only very slight.



3 thoughts on “Design Thinking and Poverty – Challenging Everything I Know (Or Thought I Knew)…

  1. In my own few experiences of life, while I’ve not experienced (luckily) any of what you write about, I can egg you on a little bit and say – It’s not very often that you want to do something and you get paid in money/kind/time to do it. So if your curriculum has somehow led you to do what you wanted to real life… make sure you grab on to that oppurtunity. Maybe a few other courses suffer..maybe. It’s probably worth it.

    It’s very rare that ‘What I want’ and ‘What I can do’ both intersect. All the best and I do read all your blogs still..infrequent as they are πŸ˜‰

    p.s.. Well apart from the multiple emotions ones. I found it hard to relate to those. But keep going.. a blog is yours..just yours πŸ™‚

    • Thanks Arvind πŸ™‚ I’m trying to make them more frequent but life has just been crazy busy… Juggling jobs and university etc etc. Finding I’m missing regular blogging so will attempt at least once a week just to stay on top of it!

      Will try to keep you updated on my project progress πŸ™‚ thanks again for your support!

      • You’re welcome. I know that at times all one needs is support. Just in case something goes wrong…someone there. So while obviously, I cannot support you personally as I do not know you..the Internet has made faceless support possible and meaningful too. So well done for having the courage to drop a career which you possibly could have coasted in (I assume here) and having the guts to go back to school. It’s not that easy to do it. It’s more common in the first world countries..I guess but never never easy.

        Do as much as you can. Just remember…if at 1 point of time you start feeling you’re “in something” just because of a commitment you made yourself and don’t enjoy it…it’s okay to quit and spend your time doing something else worthwhile. I use “quit” loosely here…by all means give it your best shot…but remember also “Why” you’re doing it in the first place.

        …which is why I urge you to do this project well… because it’s something you know for sure..that you want to do. I understand zilch from an architectural standpoint and “The Fountainhead” (Read it?) is/was my only education on the same.

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