The Cooper Hewitt – Photo by the Smithsonian Institute
Last fall, the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Museum of Design invited visitors to submit exhibition ideas. Here’s what I shared:
I’d like to propose that the Cooper Hewitt curate an exhibition on “Designing Community: Solutions for a Fragmenting World.”
In this moment of deep division, on the heels of an isolating pandemic, and in the face of dizzying technological change, the idea for the exhibition is to explore how design can bring people together to navigate the challenges we face. Specifically, it would explore three vital questions:
- How do we foster empathy and understanding in the face of difference? (Contact)
- How do we create a sense of cohesion to counteract division? (Cohesion)
- How do we bolster connections that enable shared flourishing? (Connection)
We’ll unpack each of these by grounding visitors in research-driven design principles that pertain to each, by showcasing exemplary examples from right here in New York City and around the world, by providing interactive features that shed light on technology’s role in perpetuating and solving the challenge, and finally by asking visitors to think about these questions in the context of the metaverse and emerging virtual worlds. We’ll incorporate design disciplines spanning urban planning, architecture, UI/UX, accessibility, business innovation, and organizational design; and we’ll draw on concepts from sociology, economics, civics, network theory, psychology and more.
The exhibition will be paired with a series of moderated discussions, perhaps in partnership with the 92nd Street Y, featuring authors, artists, civic leaders and entrepreneurs who are using design thinking to create community or writing about these ideas.
Here’s how someone might experience the exhibit:
We’d start with a panel on the motivation and highlight the well-documented decline of community life in America over the past 50 years. Importantly, we’d highlight the causes: changes in the labor market and economy broadly, media fragmentation, changing leisure habits, and a broader cultural shift in which dedication to markets supplanted commitment to community. And we’d underscore the costs: a loneliness epidemic, rising inequality, inferior health, polarization, poorer governance, and a collective inability to respond to the major challenges of our time. From there we’d tee-up the provocations, explain how they intersect, and the exhibit would begin.
Fig. 1: A mental model for designing community:
Room 1: Contact
Setup – How do we foster empathy and understanding in the face of deep difference?
To explore fostering empathy, we might start with one of the bright spots culturally from the past 20 years: growing support for gay marriage and lgbt rights generally. Specifically, we could showcase the work of David Fleischer, director of the Leadership Lab of the Los Angeles LGBT Center. In 2009, after California voters passed Prop 8 banning gay marriage, Fletcher and volunteers began a project of “deep canvassing” to change views. They discovered even a 10-20 minute conversation with voters about times they or the voter faced prejudice went a long way to soften views. In 2016, they decided to test this approach experimentally to see if it could reduce anti trans bias and discovered that deep canvassing resulted in a 10-15 point reduction in anti trans views on a 100 point scale. What’s more, the effect persisted even three months after the conversation.
Urban Planning – Promoting Contact
This example sets up the premise that key to fostering empathy is getting people to encounter and engage with those who are different. With this established we can turn to urban planning and explore how design can be used to promote contact. Specifically, we could examine the controversial transformation of Cabrini Green, the notorious public housing project in Chicago known for high rates of crime and gang violence, which in the 2000s was torn down and replaced with mixed income housing. Animating the project was a belief that by desegregating the community and bringing a wider mix of residents into contact with one another, those with more means and more power could be enlisted as allies of those with less, the cycle of poverty associated with Cabrini Green could be broken, and a safer community developed for all. We can tell this story with architectural drawings, photographs, data, and excerpts from local news stories. We can also explore the controversy around the project, namely that not everyone benefited, (some were simply relocated to alternative public housing), through these same excerpts and by screening the documentary 70 Acres in Chicago.
Product Design – Overcoming Filter Bubbles
From urban planning we could turn to social media and UI/UX and explore how product design similarly helps or hinders contact. We could start by excerpting Eli Pariser’s TED talk on filter bubbles then create an interactive screen that allows people to see conservative and liberal news feeds side by side. We could take it a step further and let people lookup how Facebook targets content at them. Having made the filter bubble point we can pivot to alternative product experiences that curate content to promote encounters. For example, we might highlight Nextdoor which curates content based on proximity. And we can highlight apps like Bumble BFF, VINA, Ablo, and others which are designed to promote encounters between strangers and help people make friends.
Public Art – Countering Stereotypes & Individuation
But while friendship apps can help us meet strangers, they’re not a perfect solution either. That’s because they still filter on similarities, which raises another challenge to encounter: implicit bias. To explore this, we could invite people to read about implicit bias then take an implicit bias test. Afterwards, a display could compare individual scores with the aggregate scores of exhibit visitors and national averages. Then, we can discuss design strategies that promote exposure to counter stereotypical examples and individuation as a way to counteract bias and build empathy. For example, we might highlight the “Women of Appalachia” art project which promotes positive representation of women in a region often overlooked and misunderstood. This example could serve two purposes: 1. It would illustrate the point about counter stereotypical examples literally and, 2. It might challenge those of us visiting from the New York area to reconsider the assumptions we often make about those from a very different American cultural context.
Institution Design – Trust Building
We can close the section with a case study of the Camden, NJ police department and how efforts to reform the department through an emphasis on community policing and engagement has rebuilt trust and led to a dramatic improvement in public safety. We could do this by screening a documentary about Camden’s story, which emphasizes how institutions can be designed to counter stereotypes, promote relationships, and engender trust even in the face of deep differences.
Room 2: Cohesion
Setup – How do we create cohesion to counteract division?
As visitors move from the first room to the second, we can have them walk on a faux sidewalk past a panel highlighting Jane Jacob’s observation that it’s repeated encounters between otherwise-strangers that build familiarity, trust, a sense of Place, and social cohesion:
“The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public contacts. It grows out of people stopping by at the bar for a beer, getting advice from the grocer and giving advice to the newsstand man, comparing opinions with other customers at the bakery and nodding hello to the two boys drinking pop on the stoop … The sum of such casual, public contact at a local level … is a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in time of personal or neighborhood need.” (56)Jane Jacobs
Urban Planning – Placemaking
Although Jacobs’ was writing about 1960s New York, her design insights are as relevant as ever. To demonstrate this, we could examine contemporary urban planning projects that excel at placemaking and, through this, fostering/strengthening community. For example, we might highlight Essex Crossing, a project in the Lower East Side that combined mixed income housing, community programming, and the century-old Essex Market to create a vibrant mixed use community. We could also draw on work by Ellen Dunham Jones and June Williamson, to show these principles don’t only apply to urban projects; they can be used to “retrofit suburbia” as well. In particular, we could highlight Mashpee Commons in Cape Cod, MA and Holladay, UT which retrofitted underused malls, strips and the corridors around them to create new thriving downtowns. Across all these projects, we could develop spatial analyses, invite architects to provide scale models, and feature video interviews with entrepreneurs and denizens about what it’s like to live and work in a cohesive Place.
Architecture – Bridging the Virtual and Physical
As the pandemic showed us however, connection and cohesion don’t only arise from physical encounters and physical Places. They can be fostered virtually and, increasingly, across the blurring lines of virtual and physical space. To explore this dynamic, we might turn from urban planning to the future of work and explore how innovations in workspace design are creating cohesive cultures in a hybrid context. We could showcase work from Gensler, who is designing offices with “front porches” that allow in-person colleagues to connect with each other as well as colleagues working remotely via virtual dashboards, and “connected kitchens” where workers can grab coffee, chat with colleagues working remotely through drop-in screens, and otherwise feel a greater sense of connection across the IRL/WFH divide. Such offices of the future might not even be entirely self-contained. Ground floors could be reimagined as spaces for public gathering, integrated into the surrounding streetscape, and given over in part to small businesses, freelancers, non-profits, or arts groups, transforming the hybrid office into a true communal hive. We might set up a café in the exhibit (or use the existing Cooper Hewitt cafe) and allow visitors to grab coffee surrounded by screens connected to laptops in an adjacent mock “home office.” (Maybe we open up part of the CH campus as co-writing space?). Visitors could chat to one another through the screens to experience connection in this hybrid space.
Systems Design – Democratic Governance
From this exploration of physical and virtual spaces, we might focus next on the governance of such spaces. Specifically, we could look at electoral system design to highlight democratic reforms shown to promote greater consensus and buy-in, and to counteract extremism. For example, we could do a deep dive on rank choice voting and look at the recent NYC mayoral election, and other races where candidates were incentivized to campaign together and build broad coalitions instead of only mobilizing their base. We could explore other reforms as well: expanding mail in voting, proportional instead of virtual representation, campaign finance reform including public matching funds, and independent districting. We might showcase where these are working and then ask visitors to vote on which ideas resonate most.
We could also highlight “Citizen Assemblies” in which a group of ordinary citizens, selected at random to be a representative cross section of society, are brought together to study an issue and recommend a policy response. In Ireland, such an assembly was convened in 2016 to study a constitutional amendment allowing abortion. The panel’s recommendation ultimately garnered two thirds of the electorate’s support. Similar citizen assemblies have been called in Canada to study the issue of regulating misinformation online, in Australia to evaluate ethical genome editing, and elsewhere. We could highlight work by Ariel Proccacia who is designing algorithms to maximize such assemblies representative nature, and invite visitors what issues they might submit to a citizens assembly in the US.
Organization Design – DAOs and local governance
Further, we could look at decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), self-governing entities which use block chain technology to align stakeholders’ interests, coordinate decision making, and incentivize positive participation. In contrast to top down corporate or government structures, DAOs operate as peer collectives, with decision making done democratically with votes weighted based on individuals’ contribution to the collective. To make this more tangible we could highlight CityDAO, a DAO which raised $6M to buy a plot of land in Wisconsin, and is now developing it through collective action coordinated via Discord and the smart contracts embedded in the chain. Other examples include ConstitutionDAO, which raised funds to try to buy an original copy of the U.S. Constitution, Krause House, which is buying an NBA team, LinkDAO, which is working to buy a golf course, and PleasrDAO, which buys art and recently acquired the rights to an unreleased Wu-Tang Clan album. One could imagine DAOs revolutionizing local governance, with community members granted tokens for pro-social activities like voting, volunteering, paying taxes, and voting on municipal matters like bond raises and ordinances based on their token holdings.
Business Innovation – Local News
This discussion of democracy design could flow naturally into an exploration of the media landscape and specifically the importance of local news to creating a sense of cohesion. We could start with a panel on news desserts and show how the growth of Facebook and Google’s advertising duopoly has come at the expense of newspapers advertising revenue and thousands of journalism jobs. This panel might also highlight that towns without local papers typically face a higher cost of borrowing since there’s less scrutiny of local contracts and therefore less incentive for politicians to keep finances in good order. This panel could be followed by live screens featuring local news outlets innovating their business models to fill this important public mission. For example, we could examine models such as Gothamist here in New York, Denver’s Colorado Sun, Baltimore’s Banner, Patch and Memphis’s Daily Memphisian which are relying on a combination of subscriptions, philanthropy, digital ads, merchandising and event revenue to offset the shortfall in traditional advertising revenue. We could examine philanthropy first models like ProPublica, publicly supported outlets like WBEZ Chicago which recently bought the Sun Times, and crowdsourced platforms like Citizen which track local crime. We could make this interactive by inviting guests to lookup their county and see if it’s a news desert, and ask survey questions about how people get local news, and whether they support public funding models.
Market Design – Safeguarding Democratic Discourse
This discussion of local institutions would set us up to tackle one of the more challenging topics in culture and politics today: the proper bounds of free speech in a free society, particularly with respect to hate speech and weaponized misinformation online. We could frame the problem by inviting visitors to guess the misinformation and spot the deep fakes. This could be followed by a panel sharing stays on the spread of misinformation and inflammatory content online, showing how this often out performs true information. We could then examine solutions including Facebook’s “Supreme Court” and look at international approaches like Germany’s ban on antiemetic speech. The goal isn’t to answer the dilemma, but to get people thinking more critically.
Room 3: Connection
Setup – How do we foster connections that enable individual flourishing?
As visitors ponder the challenge of managing speech in an age of social media, we can beckon them forward to the third room with two screens featuring animations of health behaviors like depression, smoking and obesity spreading through social networks. The point is: network design doesn’t only matter for community cohesion, community ties contribute to health and wellbeing as well.
Network Design – Health Contagion
We can land this point by introducing visitors to the work of Nicolas Christakis and James Fowler whose analysis of the Framingham Heart Study showed that health behaviors are“contagious.” For a more recent example we might also highlight the infamous experiment Facebook ran on unwitting users in 2012, when the company showed users more negative posts from friends for several weeks, then found those users became more likely to themselves post negative content. The experiment suggested that users’ state of mind was directly impacted by the people they were exposed to.
To highlight positive examples of community improving health, we could turn to a medical mystery: In the 1960s, at a time when cardiovascular disease was the number one killer in the United States, in Roseto, PA, local doctors reported that not a single patient below the age of fifty showed signs of the disease. When researchers tried to figure out why, at first they were stumped. Residents of Roseto ate more fat than most Americans, smoked and exercised at similar rates, and worked in similar conditions to those individuals in adjoining towns where cardiovascular disease rates were much higher. But then it dawned on them: what was different was the strength of the social ties of the community itself. Most residents had emigrated from Sicily and stayed close in their adopted home. Houses were clustered close together, bringing neighbors in frequent contact. Meals were often shared with extended family, particularly on Sundays after church. Children were raised under the watchful eyes of neighbors and extended family, not just parents. And all of this, researchers concluded, helped to have a salutary effect on stress, thereby contributing to the extremely low rates of cardiovascular disease. We can tell this story with videos as well as a panel.
To land the point about the health benefits of community, we can feature contemporary projects that have elements similar to Roseto. Meals on Wheels isn’t only about delivering food. It’s a way to support isolated seniors with human connection as well. Papa, Helper Bees and DUOS (where I work) are startups similarly helping older adults stay healthy and independent by providing companionship and help accessing rides, food, in-home care and more. Independent research shows such programs can drive a 10% reduction in health care costs through improved health and access to preventive care, underscoring how enhanced community connection promotes individual wellbeing.
Architecture – Encouraging Health through Building Design
This discussion of health and service design sets up a natural transition back to architecture and ways design can be used to promote health by shaping the environment around us. Specifically, we might highlight Via Verde, an innovative affordable housing project in the Bronx. Built in 2011, Via Verde includes many features to foster community and promote the health of residents. Notably, the building features a series of rooftop terraces and community gardens which progress like a staircase from a ground level playground all the way up to the 12th story roof. Actual stairs connect the terraces, inviting residents to climb from the playground to the highest roof where they can encounter neighbors along the way. Street level retail to support residents’ needs, a health clinic, and LEED certification round out the project, further making it a study in contrast with Le Corbisier inspired public housing from generations past. In keeping with our theme, we could feature video interviews with residents about what living in the building is like, how its design features promote individual wellbeing, as well as the architects about their design inspiration.
Accessibility Design – Promoting Inclusivity
This discussion of built space will flow naturally into an exploration of accessibility design ways to design community spaces that are broadly inclusive. To foster awareness, we might invite guests to try on an aging simulator suit so they can experience what it’s like to navigate space with impaired vision and mobility. We could feature the TED talk by Elise Roy about how “when we design for disability we all benefit,” and showcase winners of the annual Boston Society for Architecture’s Accessibility Awards with high-impact photography of the design innovations. The goal would be to bring our explorations full circle by illustrating how accessible design not only allows people to participate fully in a community, it also helps promote contact between those from very different walks of life.
Network Design – Reimagining Job Hunting
Health, of course, isn’t the only prerequisite for individual flourishing; economic wellbeing is crucial – and here too community ties matter. We can make this point by reprising our social network motif and highlighting research from MIT and LinkedIn showing that when it comes to finding a job, acquaintances or “weak ties” tend to matter more than friends and family or “strong ties.” In the UK, social innovator Hilary Cottam took this insight and created Backr, a program designed to help those looking for work by facilitating social meetups. Unlike more traditional employment assistance programs which focus on resume writing and interview prep, Backr focuses on helping people further define their career aspirations and work-back plans to get there and then – crucially – helps them create weak ties by having them discuss those plans with others in the group. As Cottam found, this social process helps individuals demystify what it will take to achieve longer-term aspirations. For example, what might have struck one participant as a low level job not worth their time, suddenly can be re-understood as an important step towards a bigger vision. And by making job hunting a social activity instead of a solitary one, it helps people broaden their networks. Both of these help individuals identify new opportunities, find new ways to contribute to their communities, and ultimately (hopefully) thrive.
Network Design – Mentorship
Jobs don’t only matter for economic well being. They give many a sense of purpose and identity within a community context. But how does one discern one’s purpose and find one’s place in a community, particularly when young? And how does a community keep young people safe and grounded, particularly in their potentially turbulent adolescent years?
Hilary Cottam’s work could be informative here too. Similar to Backr, Cottam created another program called Loops designed to help young people grow by connecting them with job shadowing opportunities in the community. Realizing that young people need mentorship and guidance from adults other than their parents, and that most young people crave a sense of belonging, Cottam and her collaborators observed that many UK youth centers fail to provide either. Chock full of video game systems, foosball tables, magazines and sofas, most are designed to “keep teens out of trouble” by keeping them out of public places. Loop challenges this idea. Instead of keeping teens out of public, Loop gets them into the heart of public space. Loop invites local business owners to submit day-long shadowing opportunities. Young people can then sign up via an app, complete an experience, reflect on it with loop facilitators afterwards, then sign up for another. By connecting them with local leaders for mentorship and giving them opportunities to gain skills and explore, Loop helps young people discover interests while strengthening their ties in the community.
Institution Design – Cradle to Career
We can round out this discussion of community ties, health and opportunity by turning to an example closer to home: the Harlem Children’s Zone. Founded in the 1990s, HCZ’s award winning “cradle to career” model brings these principles together by surrounding children with the resources and connections they need to grow and thrive. Services begin before birth with “baby college” prenatal classes for expectant mothers and their partners, continue throughout a child’s early years, include 3K-12 education, after school programming, and an array of health, mental health, mentorship, and job/college readiness programs. In contrast to a traditional, top-down, siloed, individualistic approach to public programs, HCZ takes a ground-up, holistic approach that builds community capacity. Parents who went through baby college or the toddlers program can knowledge share with future parents. Because early child care services and after school programs enable often-low-income parents to get back to work, the neighborhood is more economically stable and prosperous. That creates a healthier out-of-school context that supports in-school student achievement. Finally college and career readiness programs provide young people with mentorship and training connections, similar in spirit to Loops. All of this together helps young people and families succeed and the community thrive
Room 4: Capstone
As visitors emerge from room 3, we can present them with a table featuring an array of AR/VR devices, connected to Meta’s Horizon Worlds or alternative social virtual worlds. As these virtual interfaces become a part of our culture and collective experience over the next five years, we can invite visitors to explore what design might mean in immersive environments, while simultaneously asking them to reflect on our three provocations. We might do this by having volunteers interview participants in the virtual world and ask them whether they see such virtual experiences replacing real life community, as imagined by movies like Ready Player One and Mark Zuckerberg, and how such spaces should be governed to promote contact , connection and care. We could record these interviews and share a subset on TikTok, Twitter, YouTube and other social platforms as a way to foster a broader conversation around the exhibit, and to spark additional interest. We could also invite people to build an avatar and take a “photo” of themselves to share on social media more broadly.
In the spirit of bringing people together, we could pair the exhibit with a multi month symposium featuring panels, lectures and fireside chats featuring authors, designers, civic leaders and others who are working to mend the rifts in society today and build healthier, inclusive communities. We might host these with the 92nd St Y, the Aspen Institute’s Weave Project or a similar organization and live stream them to the world.
For example, we might consider:
- Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett, authors of The Upswing, on lessons from history about rebuilding social solidarity and trust through grassroots-up community building
- Senator Amy Klobuchar, outgoing Meta COO Sheryl Sandberg and New York Times columnist Zeynep Tufekci in a conversation about free speech, big tech and the internet
- Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and City Block Health founder and CEO Toyin Ajayi in a conversation about the loneliness epidemic, health equity, and ways to tackle both
- Senators Ben Sasse, author of Them, and Cory Booker about depolarizing our politics
- David Brooks, author of the Second Mountain, in conversation with Michael Sandel, Harvard professor, philosopher, And author of the Tyranny of Merit, in a conversation about politics, culture, and the role of community in healing our divided culture
- Nicholas Christakis, Yale professor, and author of Connected, along with Dan Buettner, author of the Blue Zones on designing healthy social networks.
- Ellen Dunham Jones and June Williamson on placemaking and retrofitting suburbia
- Representatives from Gensler and Dattner Architects on a panel about architecture, community design, and bridging the digital and physical divide in physical space
- And more
The goal of the symposium is not only to build a higher profile for the exhibit, but to pool the public conversation at an historically important time.
To offset the cost of the exhibition, we could approach the several organizations featured, including Meta, Gensler, and ConsenSys (a major force behind DAOs). We might also approach NGOs like the Aspen Institute, whose Weave Project has explored similar terrain, Carnegie Endowment for Peace, which is similarly committed to democratic reform, and ProPublica. Finally, healthcare organizations like UnitedHealthcare, real estate companies like Related, and technology firms focused on urban tech like Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs might also be enticed to sponsor.
Like all prototypes, I’m sure there are many ways this outline could be improved — examples added, focus tightened, etc. If this concept is of interest to the Cooper Hewitt, I’d welcome a chance to collaborate on fleshing this out further.
My interest in this topic stems from fifteen years designing healthcare systems and experiences that improve health and reduce inequities. At its heart, this work has been about fostering healthier communities which, as I’ve come to understand — and as discussed here — is about far more than healthcare alone. I’ve written about and been published on this topic before.
This exhibit topic would be both timely and important. Thanks for your consideration.