The warmth of humanity in community transforming design.

Shifting cultures: a modern lens to community design

Where there is community, community-driven design naturally emerges. This concept manifests in how design represents the conscious change for progress, facilitating changes in lifestyle by addressing social or technological issues specific to the environments of each community and its culture. To be clear, this concept is not a recent development. However, as the range of available choices expands, there is a growing risk that certain parties might opt for less-than-ideal or misguided pathways in meeting community needs. Instances like businessmen prioritizing cost-cutting over quality or constructing incomplete frameworks under the guise of resource conservation reveal the dangers of selfish, profit-driven motives. Such actions, although seemingly advantageous at first, often prove detrimental and unproductive in the long term to the entire community, including the enactors themselves and their families. Unfortunately, these occurrences do happen in our reality, which highlights the urgent necessity for us to encourage communities that prioritize and practice sustainable design and development.

While advocating for sustainable community building is crucial, understanding the essence of a community is the pivotal first step in effecting change within it. The literal definition of 'community' tends to remain constant, but its connotations can evolve through socio-cultural contexts. In Asia for instance, the predominant concept of community refers to the collective whole. Here, the purpose of a community is centered upon the ideal of sharing, of ‘togetherness’, akin to fish shoaling and schooling for benefits such as an exponential increase in the efficiency of foraging and of hydrodynamics. Drawing back to the point, the function of viewing a group of people as a whole rather than a collection of distinct individuals shifts individualistic priorities to benefit the community, which lubricates the process of achieving a state where the community can thrive. BBC science writer and author David Robson backs this up, noting how there is a lack of ‘self-inflation’ when it comes to the collectivistic mindset, meaning that people within this mindset would often hold themselves in lower regard to their community.

Given the context of the collectivistic heritage of East Asia, I would like to introduce a quote from the Confucian book of Great Learning, which speaks of uniting one’s goals with larger communities to achieve greater ambitions:

“To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right”

When the collectivistic drive for ‘togetherness’ is aligned with this Confucian concept of unity, we can contribute to a culture where selfless pursuits overshadow selfish interests, or to put it in another perspective, we can then extend our identity and desires to include our community. Embracing this ethos, a common goal for the common good—which is important for community transformations—can be realized. This essentially encourages the sense of belonging to the community, which boils down to "If I cherish this place, I won't harm this space". This emotional connection is potent. Moreover, by nurturing this cycle, we create a sustainable path for enduring community endeavors. Inversely, we fall into a wanton lack of warmth in humanity without it.

James Gustave Speth, a former United Nations Development Programme administrator, used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change, and that 30 years of good science could address these problems. Later, he commented:

“I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

So where are we headed today? Technological advancements and systems facilitate almost all aspects of life, and yet the grip of capitalistic individualism is stronger than ever. Parallel to this, we witness a concerning surge in isolation and loneliness among individuals deprived of communion and fellowship through meaningful connections. This underscores the importance of embracing a balanced approach, drawing from the best of both worlds. Share resources, make friends, build a network. Above all, our duty lies in utilizing resources judiciously, not allowing their limitations to deter us, but rather learning to adapt and thrive within those constraints. Though it is natural to find our situations challenging, channeling that energy into initiatives beneficial for the community is vital. In a nutshell, converting personal strife into communal betterment begets empowerment and purposeful influence. Hopefully, the live examples raised in the next section will make things clearer.

Roots and resources: The organic growth of community

Cultivating Culture

In Guangzhou, there is a distinct movement of architectural placemaking that transcends physical structures. We’re talking about placemaking with an awareness of the preservation of history and culture, involving documentation, social initiatives, and problem-solving, all rooted in addressing the specific needs of the people inhabiting the stretch between the city and rural villages. This concerted effort, operating on multiple scales, is built upon proactive participation from parties of various sizes dedicated to attuning themselves to the prevailing sentiments and lifestyles of the community, then crafting tailored programs for them. Central to this approach is the recognition that the relationship dynamics within these spaces differ significantly from the hyper-urbanized communities that have evolved. Ultimately, the goal in mind is to focus on stories woven for the local community, to make them seen, and feel seen.

To begin with, a local teacher—Ms. Rui—has a staple narrative we can follow on a personal level. Ms. Rui wanted to do something about the abandoned children's play space in the school, which was closed down by the neighborhood committee due to noise complaints. Despite the disapproval of said authorities, she organized a collaborative effort involving local merchants, kindergartens, and residents to create a garden in the children's space. Ms. Rui’s process, which encompassed various stages from site selection, fundraising, planning, and design to construction, could only be realized through a fluid maximization of community relationships, by which she actively involved residents, including children and adults, in decision-making.

Meanwhile, for a broader approach, we can look to the Shengping Community’s Fish Lantern project, aimed to aid a local traditional fish lantern maker in telling his story to the next generation through his works, while making ends meet. Sharing a concern for cultural preservation, the community enthusiastically participated in creating a localized lantern festival. What followed was a rejuvenation within the village, reviving near-forgotten cultural heritage trades by engaging the youth to support cultural awareness activities within and beyond the community. In time, local businesses will be documented in this manner to amplify their visibility and support. Complementing these efforts is the introduction of history education rooted in the specific heritage of the area, cultivating a deeper understanding and appreciation of the community's unique identity and past.

On a similar tangent, the XinLong Village had a social innovation initiative. With a little resource management and direction from their neighborhood association, the locals began to grow their own vegetable gardens, and also began prioritizing the active engagement of social workers in remodeling living environments to suit their aging community. There is also Hand to Heart, a coffee shop staffed by individuals who are visually impaired, enabling their seamless integration into society as well as to increase consumer awareness about the significance of accessibility. This establishment not only serves coffee but also sells artworks crafted by members of the community.

To progress in widening the lens further, we can peer within the heart of the Liwan Historical and Cultural Reserve, where the Pan Tang Wu Yue stands as a government-led initiative that blends conservation efforts with strategic district restructuring, all geared toward benefiting its residents. This methodical approach not only preserves the authentic spirit of the local community but also propels infrastructural advancements, enhancing the overall living standards. By embracing the cultural essence of the area, the initiative tactfully integrates commercial elements that resonate with the local population. This transformative shift ignites a shared passion for cultural preservation and maximizes the functionality of the district’s historic spaces.

The common theme that threads the initiatives above is that they are tailored to the specific needs of the community. This can be done by acknowledging the unique relationship structures within the village that differ from contemporary communities. Amidst the gradual transformation of the area into a tourist-centric zone marked by cafes and gentrification, endeavors like these hold immense significance. They serve as a pivotal effort in maintaining a sense of belonging for individuals, preserving the community's essence, and nurturing its culture. In a way, they are anchors that sustain the community's spirit in the face of ongoing changes.

Recapturing Resources

About four thousand kilometers southwest, nestled under power lines in Kuala Lumpur, the Kebun-kebun Bangsar (the farms of Bangsar) stands as a beacon of effective community-driven action. It symbolizes a repurposed piece of neglected land, now dedicated to nourishing the underprivileged and educating locals about food security through cultivating produce. In the following, the founder Seksan tells us about how it all began:

“We first started this kebun with the hearts to step out and help ourselves attain the community we want. We are the components of this community, and initiating the kebun was about self-reliance, not relying on authority figures whose promises might take a lifetime to materialize.

The idea is to just do it, and the community will naturally form around the action. The momentum of your work carries the project beyond your expectations and planning. In the end, your efforts will evolve into something grander than yourself, and that is when we can say the community has adopted it.

In fact, KongsiKL, another of our initiatives, has also evolved so much beyond its initial purpose as an incubation space. It goes to show that we really do not know when waves of opportunities will land and propel you in new directions. In this spirit, it can be considered more productive to just begin the initiative first. Create the platform, make it exist consistently, then your community will flock and land on it.”

Both initiatives revolve around liberating important resources—like land (Kebun-kebun Bangsar) or buildings (KongsiKL)—allowing more freedom as well as a breathing space for much-needed experimentation and meaningful work. The underlying essence here is empowerment, not merely constructing a community for its sake. It is due to the collectivistic nature of the community that once abandoned and withering spaces are pruned, reconceptualized, and repurposed, nimbly evolving into a limb filled with life and potential energy for communal purpose and action.

Community design is Collective design

As we hone in on the concept of human-centered design, it becomes imperative to move beyond the aesthetics of “l'art pour l'art”, and design solely for design’s sake. At all times, it should be stressed that prioritizing the inclusion of all community members in the design process is pivotal. Hence, our focus should revolve around redefining "design" to emphasize justice and local values. In doing so, we can contribute to facilitating effective responses to social issues at a practical, community-focused level, fostering sustainable communities and responsible resource management. Coined as collectivistic design, this approach extends beyond mere form and function, and delves deeply into social innovation. It champions human-centered methodologies that embrace empathy, observation, diverse perspectives, and real-world experiences.

Whether within the creative industry or not, everyone has the potential to contribute to community building by initially observing the needs of those around them. After all, community building transcends the boundaries of any specific industry; its spark originates within the community itself, driven by a shared desire for change and a sense of belonging. Contemplating this, we ask: How can humans of all disciplines and backgrounds organically apply empathetic design to shape, reform, and revitalize communities? Amidst the prevailing individualistic mindset, how might we effectively utilize resources to shape communal identities?

It may be challenging to provide adequate examples to prompt a realistic change of heart for the casual reader. Regardless, I hope that our exploration of the community projects above has uncovered some level of insight into effective strategies for engaging the community and igniting grassroots initiatives that can—and should—follow suit.

The journey ahead is vast, yet it commences at the root of all action—aligning our hearts to possess the observational acumen and determination to collectively launch the transformation. If it sparks the motivation in one organization or even just one person to champion transformative projects for their community, we can count it as a step towards meaningful impact.

A little less of yourself.

A little more for the community.

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