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Working in the intersection between identity and place: A Q&A with Design+Culture Lab

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Joy Alise Davis had recently graduated from Parsons The New School of Design when an observation led her to form Design+Culture Lab, a research-based social lab dedicated to the transformation of neighborhoods through collaborative design strategies, while addressing complex spatial issues of cultural, racial and ethnic inequality. Joy will be a speaker at the Portland State University Elevating Impact event this week, and Built Oregon sat down with her to learn a bit more about the roots of Design+Culture Lab.

How would you describe Design+Culture Lab?

We are a collaborative design firm, but we operate in the public involvement realm.

 Photographs by Martin Seck, courtesy of Parsons re:d, the magazine for Parsons alumni and the wider Parsons community.

Photographs by Martin Seck, courtesy of Parsons re:d, the magazine for Parsons alumni and the wider Parsons community.

What do you do?

Using a comprehensive and collaborative method that draws on strong relationships with local communities and a deep understanding of their issues, Design+Culture Lab provides a unique consulting service that serves as the glue between disadvantaged community members and urban practitioners within the construction of their environment. By addressing the complex spatial issues associated with cultural, racial, and ethnic inequality, Design+Culture Lab is one of the few that work in the intersection between identity and place.

Our services include collaborative design strategy, engagement management, community data reporting, communication design and interactive engagement tools.

What was the genesis for starting Design+Culture Lab?

Honestly, I was studying at Parsons The New School of Design and focusing on urban design strategy when I noticed that the one of the top design schools in the world didn’t really use race, ethnicity and culture as a lens when designing place. It was very frustrating.  As an African American woman, my identity as a cis woman and as a descendant of slavery influenced how I operated in public space and the built environment.

I also noticed a lack of research efforts from urban designers to collaborate directly with the people who would be affected most by the designs. I would work with (and learn from) architects and urban designers (both domestically and internally), and they had no idea how to involve the public in the decision making process.  Before I studied urban design, I was a very active activist. I made my living by serving the community, civic engagement and by working with underserved communities of color. You can imagine how frustrating it was for a activist like me! Urban Design experts tend to design in a vacuum. I never bought into that idea. I believe that people have the right to actively shape their city.

When did you make the leap to start your own agency?

After graduate school, I took a chance and started my own social enterprise. It was kind of crazy! Instead of waiting for the world to catch up with the reality that America is changing and moving towards a more diverse (a more brown) country, I decided to begin prototyping solutions for positive collaboration along racial lines.This was a very scary leap but it was perfect timing. I had just graduated from one of the top design schools in the world with tons of debt, I was moving across the country (I was drawn to Portland for its strong history of planning/ architecture and strong history of racial exclusion), and I just felt like I was in a point in my life when I was ready to learn from outside of my comfort zone.

There is a great quote by Audre Lorde: “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

Lorde has become a distant mentor to me as I formed this company. This quote in particular helped me take this leap. I had a vision for a better America, filled with true cultural/racial cohabitation, not just coexistence between the different groups. I knew that if I wanted to make this vision into a reality, I needed to be 100%. So I stepped out on faith. I have a great support system, which really helped. But I was scared –  I was nervous of failing.

 Photographs by Martin Seck, courtesy of Parsons re:d, the magazine for Parsons alumni and the wider Parsons community.

Photographs by Martin Seck, courtesy of Parsons re:d, the magazine for Parsons alumni and the wider Parsons community.

 

What were some of the initial projects you worked on and how did your initial idea change through those engagements?

In 2015 Design+Culture Lab started work on the PAALF People’s Plan, The Division Design Guidelines and the Powell Division Transit Plan. We learned so much while working on those projects. We had the opportunity to strengthen our methods, but also learn business skills that we just couldn’t learn from the classroom, or from a book.

I am a big fan of this TED talk: “Start with Why” by Simon Sinek. The “Why” for Design+Culture Lab is this concept that America is becoming more diverse:

IN 2060, THE COUNTRY WILL BE ROUGHLY 43 PERCENT WHITE, 13 PERCENT BLACK, 31 PERCENT HISPANIC, AND 8 PERCENT  ASIAN, WHICH LEAVES 5 PERCENT TO BE  LABELLED AS ‘OTHER’ (TAYLOR 2014).

The world is also becoming more urban:

FOR THE FIRST TIME IN HISTORY, MORE THAN HALF THE WORLD’S POPULATION — THAT’S 3.7 BILLION PEOPLE — NOW RESIDES IN CITIES. AND IT’S EXPECTED THAT NUMBER WILL INCREASE TO TWO-THIRDS BY 2050.(YAHOO NEWS)

The “Why” of our business has not changed. We still believe that equity should be the biggest goal for our country’s urban practitioners over the next 50 years.

The “How”  is also simple. We do this by using creativity and design thinking. We are a laboratory because we are dedicated to prototyping solutions. The “How” of our company has not changed. We still believe that innovation within the urban planning and urban design world must be creative, leveraging design thinking and empathy.

The “What will most certainly evolve. We might find out that operating in the public involvement world is not as impactful as we want it to be. Maybe we will decide to move away from consulting, and solely create interactive engagement products. Maybe we want to only focus on research and producing podcasts and articles. The sky’s the limit! But we will always bring our work back to center, to the “Why”. I am excited to see what evolves over the next year.

We believe that if our efforts are not effective, we will go back to the drawing board. I decided to make this company a laboratory for a reason. I wanted to prototype new solutions and I wanted to experiment through design thinking. We don’t believe we have all the answers but we are dedicated to investing and being flexible while we try to solve issues of racial inequity.

For more information, visit www.designculturelab.com or follow them on twitter and like them on facebook.

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Mitch Daugherty