Photography: Architecture Design Fashion, British Council
A couple of weeks ago I visited Mexico City. I had an absolutely brilliant time thanks to the wonderful Clore 13 Chevening Fellow Maria Garcia Holley who is Director of the Creative City Strategy at the Laboratory for the City. The Creative Lab for the City is an experimental office for civic innovation and urban creativity and is part of the government. The Lab is the first in Latin America, and can be described as a ‘space for rethinking, reimagining and reinventing the way citizens and government can work together towards a more open, more liveable and more imaginative city’.
I had read a lot about the Lab, and had even watched a few YouTube videos of Gabriella Gomez Mont its director presenting the Lab’s work at conferences. Before I visited it however, the Lab seemed pretty abstract and I had many questions – what did the lab actually do? How could a government department be run experimentally, and how could it make an impact in a city of over 8 million people?
Luckily my questions were answered when I walked into the space, full of interactive wall displays and post-it notes, and Maria announced that she had organised for me to ‘speed date’ her colleagues. I met with each of the teams, finding out about their work and the impact that it had on the city. I learned that the Lab has delivered innovative socially engaged projects, from crowdsourcing public transport maps in Mexico City using a game app, to shutting down whole streets in order to create pop-up play areas and parks in suburbs that have a high population of children and little space to play.
The thing that really struck me however, was the mix of people that worked at the Lab. It was totally multi-disciplinary. I met a pedestrian activist, a designer, an industrial engineer, and an architect. I chatted to Brenda, an industrial engineer who pointed to a plastic crate and said ‘I could be designing those’ but explained that she prefers to use her design skills in a different way. It was quite serendipitous that at the time I was reading Tim Brown’s book Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organisations and Inspires Innovation. Tim Brown is the CEO of IDEO which is a consultancy known as a pioneer of human-centered design. I was increasingly wondering why I hadn’t used these methodologies in my work. I couldn’t shake the idea that designers were endlessly creating accessible products and services, testing them over and over again and working collaboratively with consumers, whilst much of the cultural sector uses a top-down approach. Whilst I’m certainly not advocating against the artistic expertise of curators or artistic directors, often the language of engagement teams reflect this approach – ‘participants’ are ‘engaged’ in projects and agendas of cultural organisations.
Will this really lead to great art and culture for everyone?
Back to the Lab - Brenda, the industrial engineer, explained that for each project, design models are used in order to design projects with communities in Mexico City. She explained that she would often use human centered design and community centered design in her work, and these processes are embedded at the development stage of each project. I wondered what it would look like to have an industrial engineer in an engagement or learning team, and more radically what would it look like to have an industrial engineer work with a curator or artistic director. Wouldn’t artistic programmes become more relevant, diverse, accessible and interesting?
Whilst I was in Mexico City I also met Jorge Munguia whose company, Buró Buró, I’m totally fascinated by. Jorge used to be the Head of Education at one of the large museums in Mexico City. He left to set up Buró-Buró, an “office and publishing house dedicated to the design and development of cultural projects ranging from publications to new platforms for the dissemination, education and reflection of the arts and culture.” Jorge has given talks all over the world about participation and engagement. My favourite Buró-Buró project was the ‘Traveling Participation Module’ which was created in collaboration with Duco Lab. The participation module is a foldable trailer that travelled around Mexico City, ‘popping up’ in different communities for the public consultation of Mexico’s City Urban Development Program 2016. It acted as a platform for community debate, film, and discourse – it also looks really strange and I interpreted it as an artistic intervention in communities in its own right. The team at Buró-Buró is equally multi-disciplinary. Jorge told me his team included designers, a philosopher and an urban planner.
From two organisations that really focus on culture, engagement, and people I’ll be taking away this multi-disciplinary approach and the concept of using design as a methodology for engagement.
Oh, and maybe one day you’ll find me working with an industrial engineer.
Looking forward to reporting back on my trip to New York City next time.