Imagining Recovery

Recover What?

Columbia Architecture students Wayne Congar and Troy Therrien launched the Imagining Recovery competition to invite designers from across the world to envision, in a single image, the prospect of post-financial crisis America. In devising these experiential images, and the accompanying design strategies, designers are encouraged to propose responses to some of the following questions. What is it that we hope to recover? How can designers assert the importance of design in recovery (economic and otherwise)? How can designers act as visual interpreters between policy-makers and the general public? How can design support innovation in imagining the future?

The timeline of Imagining Recovery corresponds to the first hundred days of the Obama administration: the competition was announced days after President Obama signed the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (otherwise known as the Stimulus Package) into law, and the final deadline for submissions was day 100. The competition offers a forward-looking, design-led alternative to the modes of analysis provided on the stimulus tracking website, the maps, charts and graphics that aim to explain how stimulus dollars are being spent. It also seeks to recast the function and identity of the designer in the context of current global economic challenges: encouraging greater collaboration with policy-makers and “proposing a model wherein designers can actively participate in the initial imaginings of the policies they will be called upon to implement.”

To foster this new culture of collaboration, competition organizers set up a policy discussion forum, between days 45 and 55 of the presidency, which gave designers “the opportunity to participate in a global network of public policy students to unpack and discuss the issues of recovery, developing lines of communication and a common language.” A summary of the issues raised collectively in this forum constitutes the brief of the competition.

On Day 100, over 100 submissions poured in from 25 countries. The winners of this competition will be announced tonight at a party and public discussion with the competition jury at Studio-X. This week on Urban Omnibus, we hear Wayne and Troy discuss the ideas behind this competition in their own words and get a sneak preview of some of the competition entries.

Design Responses to the Stimulus
>Wayne and Troy are part of a growing number of citizen-designers turning economic crisis, and the policy measures to combat it, into an opportunity to re-imagine the American landscape and the role of the designer within it. Part of the challenge exists in the language; “shovel-ready” projects are meant to prioritize short-term job gains and immediate capital influx over the benefits of a lengthy design process. So how do you help convince Americans that “shovel-ready” projects – dependent on the status quo by definition – might not yield the innovative investment that our built fabric needs? You’d better have some good ideas, which is exactly what the design professions are trained to think up.

As those shovels enter the ground, many of the responses from design communities have emphasized the need for transparency and accountability. Edward Tufte, statistician and information designer par excellence, has offered advice to the managers of on how to move beyond accountability towards the sharper challenge of legibility. Many other efforts are underway in small and large projects across the country, including our friends at WNYC, who are working with ProPublica on the excellent Shovelwatch. This model is interesting for a number of reasons, particularly for fusing the burgeoning field of non-profit, foundation-supported (professional) investigative journalism with public insight journalism. Listen to the Brian Lehrer show from Monday for an overview of the project. Another interactive project, Stimulus Watch, invites the public to report on, discuss and evaluate the list of “shovel-ready” projectsassembled by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Other open-source initiatives, such as the Sunlight Foundation‘s Sunlight Labs, rely on the collective intelligence of software and web developers to design mechanisms to make government more transparent and accountable. More locally, Council Member and Public Advocate candidate Bill De Blasio uses some similar language to describe SunlightNYC. The proposed new government website would “help the public easily track how City Hall allocates money provided to New York City by the stimulus package.”

And while we may sometimes like to pretend otherwise, branding is an important part of design. FDR used an eagle with an “NRA” for National Recovery Administration. This time around, we’ve got another icon for stimulus-driven projects that will make recovery visible and mark its legacy.

For its part, the architecture community has set up a series of online forums to address issues of concern relating to the economic situation. Many of these, such as Architectural Record’s Architect’s Survival Guide, deal primarily with keeping your job or finding a new one, Archinect‘s also includes discussion threads on the recession’s effect on the evolution of architectural practice. Taking a different approach to putting the expertise of out-of-work architects to good use, John Morefield has set up Architecture 5 Cents. You can read more about it on Flavorwire.

And there are many others. Leave us a comment below if your latest design project, school’s design studio or plan for the year-off you’re about to take offers a unique vantage point on the relationship between design and the attempts to stimulate, recover or reinvent the American economy.

– Cassim Shepard

Some further reading:

– David Brooks opines: This Old House (12/09/08)

– AIA Archiblog dares to ask: Is a Stimulus Package Bad for Design? (12/09/08)

– Unbeige wonders: Will Hard Times lead to Better Design? (01/05/09)

– Michael Cooper reports on Stimulus Spurs Road Projects, Big and Small (03/03/09)

– TSArchitect offers an uncommonly thoughtful take on Why Design Matters for the Stimulus(3/15/09)