Sunday, July 26, 2009

Stimulating Ecologies of Design

President Obama signing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act
on February 18, 2009 with Vice President Joe Biden looking over his shoulder.

I have been pondering the ‘‘American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009’, known also as the Stimulus Package, Recovery Act, or ARRA. At the national level, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) expressed strong support for this legislation and I know of no organized opposition on the part of architects or the broader design community to the concepts that underlie ARRA. Still, many architects I know question the bill that was signed into law. They quietly express concerns about the prospects for architecture, architecture work, and design culture, especially if a second round of stimulus, based upon the same assumptions as the first round, is proposed.

For me, questioning the scope, if not the intent of the stimulus began when in early 2009 I attended “Grassroots”, AIA’s annual lobbying day in Washington DC. At this gathering AIA positions are introduced to component leaders by national staff. Then, architects go meet elected officials and their staffs, present “our” ideas, and lobby for action.

This year the timing was perfect. As a chapter president, I, along with hundreds of other architects, advocated passage of ARRA just days before its passage. We visited our congress members and were given the opportunity to sit in the House and Senate chambers and see these bodies debate a nearly completed bill. I felt privileged to see and participate in the making of history.

ARRA delivers almost a trillion dollars of spending. It is divided into broad themes including increased spending on transportation, support for education, improvement of educational facilities, mortgage relief, housing production, greening of buildings, energy sustainability, and energy independence. Looking closely at the range of programs proffered, there are dollars injected into almost every Federal department and program. President Obama claims millions of jobs will be preserved or created.

All this, one would hope, would be helpful to out-of-work architects and designers. But I do not get the sense from most of the architects I speak to that they are feeling more secure, sense that their prospects are improving, or that the Recovery Act, as passed, has much in it for them. Anecdotes and quick review of public documents thus form the basis for a critical narrative. Indeed, this narrative started being constructed in Washington DC last February.

There was a distinct sense conveyed to us by Congressional staff, regardless of political affiliation, that the Stimulus Package was a cobbled together potpourri of unfunded programs. They further stated that it would to be passed outside of the context of local wishes. In one Congressional office we were shown an early version of the City of Los Angeles’ recovery list which was described to us as unfocused, silly, and unhelpful.

As architecture is typically specific to a particular locale, the critique of the Los Angeles input, indeed the nearly uniform rejection by Congress of the suggestions made by Mayors from across the country, did not inspire confidence on my part that there would be much emphasis in the Stimulus Package on design and planning. Instead, ARRA’s emphasis on support for “shovel-ready” projects, it’s concentration on repair of roads, bridges and water systems (surely needed but hardly visionary), and most important it’s minimal funding of locally based advanced planning and design suggested that design would have virtually no role in this component of the recovery.

Later, Los Angeles’ wish list was revised and made shovel-friendly. Thus the lion’ share of announced stimulus spending in Los Angeles for physical improvements, close to 45% of the total, is going towards the construction of high occupancy vehicle lanes (HOV). No doubt jobs are created but one has to wonder if these types of projects prepare Los Angeles for a 21rst Century economy and lifestyles or are yet another attempt to re-engineer the consequences of 20th Century urbanism.

My nascent doubts of late winter were brought into heightened focus this past spring. Thanks to the initiative of Harry Wolf, FAIA, a conversation was held at LA/AIA where the Stimulus Package was discussed. There was much conversation about the difference between ARRA and the legacy of the Great Depression, which realized landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge, Hoover Dam, and so many other designed treasures. Most felt that the activities promised by ARRA would provide little long-term leverage of present resources and leave a minimal cultural legacy.

On the one hand this critique is unfair, ARRA does include money for the introduction of high-speed rail, the building of a new Federal Courthouse, and numerous community development projects such as non-profit medical clinics. Still, nurturing an integrative built, cultural, and economic legacy for the country, a goal of depression era efforts, seems to be at best a weak motivation for the Recovery Act.

The reality is that the Recovery Act is short on exploring longer-term planning and design opportunities. From a parochial point of view it ensures only a small amount of work for architects and designers. I am not surprised that at the time of this writing that the AIA has just sent out a press release stating that “…the path toward recovery in design activity has stalled”. Yet, AIA’s position with regard to stimulus and recovery is largely unchanged and as yet unchallenged.

How can it be that the largest spending program in generations is in its conceptualization so distant from the values and aspirations of architects and creatives so as to only minimally include them in its implementation? The answers to this are manifold. I want to suggest three, and further suggest that it is only by addressing each of these that organizations such as AIA can begin to create the politics required to more successfully shape subsequent stimulus legislation that may very well be required as this economic recovery evolves.

The first reason I feel bills like the Recovery Act are less than satisfactory is based upon my experience lobbying for its passage. The experience in Washington DC illuminated a clear reality. Our society is much more comfortable debating and manipulating programs that result in projects, regardless of their efficacy, as opposed to projects that require programmatic support.

Our society has moved increasingly towards privileging expertise in the management and manipulation of services (especially financial services). This privileging of service systems, rather than platforms that produce things, creates a milieu where economic policy increasingly becomes grounded in programs that do not insist on any form of physically tangible outcome. Only by insisting that design outcomes are as important as program outcomes - that one cannot exist without the other - can architects and designers hope to influence future legislation in a way that leads to design work.

My sense is that organizations like AIA need to be more willing to go against the grain, insist upon the design vision thing, and be less comfortable working within systems of legislative, management, and business logic that prioritize the expansion and fine tuning of programs where the outcomes are predominantly temporal and abstract.

The second reason design is not as important a factor as it should be in the shaping of national policies is that we are only in the infancy of learning how to effectively communicate design values. If architects and designers, and most especially design organizations like AIA, are going to insist upon the value of design outcomes, then these values need to be communicated to the public and the public’s leaders in such a way, and with clear language, so as to better capture their imaginations before legislation is crafted.

I think that AIA has begun to do this in its emphasis on sustainability, support for the 2030 initiative that establishes carbon neutrality as an objective for all new buildings in twenty years, and insistence that community-based planning be incorporated into transit design initiatives. These types of advocacy ring true to the public and create a framework for new policies that not only benefit architects in terms of project opportunities, but society at large with outcomes that incorporate values that are in addition to those of the economic bottom line.

Finally, and ironically given my strong belief in the primacy of projects over programs, one small but concrete way to begin to heighten the importance of design values in shaping national priorities and legislation is to work towards the adoption of a national design policy. In this regard AIA could learn from and more vigorously support the efforts of the U.S. National Design Policy Initiative (see below). This particular endeavor, formed in 2008 to influence the programs of the present Federal administration, is grounded more in communications design than environmental design. However, this group has produced a ten-point policy statement that begins to suggest means to embed design values within politics and government so as to recognize and nurture the contribution that design already makes to the national economy and the Country’s future. My main concern with this initiative is that it is attempting to create from scratch what should be a collaborative effort by all the professional design organizations; AIA, ASLA, APA, IDSA, AIGA, etc. and their hundreds of thousands of members.

Each design organization and each designer, even the country, will suffer the consequences of future legislation that repeats the diminution of design values that is unfortunately inherent in ARRA. I am suggesting that designers and design organizations need to collectively organize before we publically support a second round of stimulus legislation. If done correctly, advocacy for projects, clear communication of the importance of design values, and formation and implementation of a collective national design policy may both in part and as a whole be the quickest way to influence legislators and leaders that demand new logics and ways of doing business, but at present have too few tools to realize their aspirations for a better-designed post-stimulative world.

The U.S. National Design Policy Initiative is found at

Their list of ten policy proposals include:

1. Formalize an American Design Council to partner with the U.S. Government.

2. Set guidelines for legibility, literacy, and accessibility for all government communications.

3. Target 2030 for carbon neutral buildings.

4. Create an Assistant Secretary for Design and Innovation position within the Department of Commerce to promote design.

5. Expand national grants to support interdisciplinary community design assistance programs based on human-centered design principles.

6. Commission a report to measure and document design’s contribution to the U.S. economy.

7. Revive the Presidential Design Awards to be held every year and use triple bottom-line criteria (economic, social, and environmental benefit) for evaluation.

8. Establish national grants for basic design research.

9. Modify the patent process to reflect the types of intellectual property created by designers.

10. Encourage direct government investment in design innovation.

This article will appear in the September/October issue of Form - Pioneering Design.