In the heat of a balmy London summer evening (which is rare, I hear,) I sat with a large group of people on the rooftop of the Architecture Foundation to hear Liz Ogbu share her experience as an architect and systems strategist. With my ongoing quest in defining the ways in which to practice social impact design, Liz’s talk could not have come at a better time.
What does a Systems Strategist do?
Her mission as a systems strategist is to “turn resource constraints into social impact assets.” This transformation makes sense to me for the work that we as designers do when identifying issues that clients have with said project, collaborating across disciplines, and helping to implement the resolution. The ‘social impact’ part further lends itself to making sure the end user is taken into account in the process, and not just a bystander who we hope will benefit.
Working across a variety of mediums, from consultancy to teaching, Liz presented her projects by issue rather than building or client type. This strategy to group projects also relates to how she ties in analogous experiences when working with communities from around the globe: linking common ideas through the application of basic innovations.
Guiding principles, or a ‘code’ as Dexter puts it (bad analogy, I know, but that’s what came to mind,) are important for all designers to inspire, influence, and tailor the work. Liz’s three inspirations that lead her are:
1. ‘Expert Citizen’ and ‘Citizen Expert’
Taken from Jeremy Till’s Spatial Agency, the Expert Citizen is one trained in a specific discipline and the Citizen Expert are those who are living and working in a specific community–both providing valuable insight into every project.
2. Sustainability, and not just in the ‘green’ sense
The true definition includes social and economic demands, making the practice of sustainability a holistic approach and not solely environmental.
3. Systems thinking
This process of approaching an issue is about understanding “how things, regarded as systems, influence one another within a whole.” The image below shows one way in which to approach design with this method.
Projects, People, Issues
Liz has worked on a wide range of projects, from a Day Labor Station to Scraphouse, a full-size model home made completely out of repurposed materials, to SmartLife, a clean water social enterprise, to a neighborhood integration course at CCA with PopUp Hood.
In an email conversation with Liz, I asked how she selects and balances the variety of projects. Her response was:
I look at the collection of projects and activities that I’m involved in as an ecosystem. While each has merit in its own right, I try to evaluate new opportunities in terms of what it can add to the larger landscape. I think first and foremost the landscape is about finding opportunities to make sustainable social impact through high quality design. Collaboration and capacity building are also really important. These characteristics cut across academia and practice for me…I don’t know that I think in terms of “balance.” To look at practice and teaching as part of an ecosystem means that I’m looking at them not as two sides of a coin but two pieces of a larger whole. Perhaps this is why it’s not such a stretch for me to think of bringing the students into the real world to work with diverse clients in challenging socioeconomic context or applying rigorous research methods to my practice projects.
One of my favorite projects that Liz presented was Safe Spaces Nigeria that she worked on with Maria Shiori-Clark, a former IDEO.org fellow now practicing under SOSHL Studio.
The key lesson they learned while working with a Nigerian community was to not assume that a new solution is always the best solution. Their clients for the Safe Space were girls who tend to marry at a young age and, rather than creating a brand new place where they could learn different skills, they leveraged the marriage preparation courses to integrate new classes, such as financial literacy. This received buy-in from their fathers, their boyfriends (and future husbands), and, surprisingly, huge support from the girls themselves.
Learning to make a small step within an existing system, rather than going for the big revamp, is still a change.
Education is changing because the students and the world are changing. More students are coming to schools wanting to know how they can shape a better world. And events like the ongoing global economic crisis are redefining careers and opportunities, particularly in the design fields. But the actual official curriculum has been slow to change. There’s a need for more nimbleness and cross disciplinary thinking. And I think we’re going to have to have to help students learn how to be more entrepreneurial, both in terms of how they approach their careers and the focus of their design challenges.
How Can You Do This?
I’ll keep it simple. In her words:
Keep an eye out on the Architecture Foundation’s Vimeo page to watch Liz’s full talk.
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Image sources: Wikimedia Commons, Katie Crepeau