Design is capital: Five lessons I learned from Lille

Design is capital: Five lessons I learned from Lille.

Useful ingredients to bring sustainable design to cities

For the city of Lille, design is the capital. So starts their motto-play on words to honor the recent title its European Métropole has garnered, as, well, guess what…, a Design Capital. Since 2008 the Montreal-based organization World Design Capital (WDO) has bestowed such titled on Mexico, Helsinki, and Turin, to name but a few of the metropolises that have fit the bill. Every two years, a city is recognized for its innovative use of design as a way to reinforce its economic, social and environmental development. So Lille got it, and what did it do for design and designers is our question.

Why do cities need such international labels to address hyper local, seemingly intractable, urban and social issues? Why is a design called to engage creative industries and, in the process, demonstrate the power of a discipline that remains, to this day, foreign to most political leaders and territorial managers? Since when is design making sense as a strategic tool to compete and build territorial positioning, improve people’s lives and offer an alternative method to grappling with issues of sustainability? If the pandemic has made the necessity of rethinking “the world after” then, has design finally gotten a chance to show up and show off as the key to success?

Since coming back to France a couple of years ago, following 20+ years in the U.S. I’ve been focusing my practice on bringing design to cities, at my own micro level. What makes a city tick, adopt and position itself with, for and through design, interests me. What’s the impact for a city that does leverage design vs. one that doesn’t? How and where do we start infiltrating a territory with design approaches, tools, case studies, talent, models and conversations… or shall we “take a step aside” as Lille Design Capital program director Caroline Naphegyi likes to say. To start seeing the true transformative power of design innovation, perhaps we should stop mentioning the word design altogether!?

What the pandemics has done, other than radically disrupt the calendar of events of Lille Design Capital, produce online talks without audiences, delay the engagement of eager citizens in neighborhoods that needed change – ok fine, nothing new here, who hasn’t experienced those annoying, chaotic effects of COVID19?– most importantly, what it has done is validate the need for a transversal, collaborative, creative, experimental approach to piloting innovation projects, to transform systems and territories.

Let’s start with the very notion of territory, so vernacular to French society. Although it remains one of the most centralized countries in Europe, the emergence of regional powers, an authentic attachment to land, a reverence for industrial traditions and local identities, plus, accessorily, the management of an unprecedented crisis, all of this has fortified the need to differentiate territories, think and respond locally, in what appears to be a rather competitive environment. Competitive for funding, for clout, and for cultural recognition, but these regions are also faced with the urgency of rethinking their democratic participation Modus Operandi – and what’s better than an international design label to bring both credibility and the message home.

I can think of five lessons I learned from my recent interaction with Lille Design Capital during this past year, five points of encouragement I’d like to share as an inspired admirer, a conference moderator and a jury member.

1 CONTEXT: Adaptive. Pre, during and after-COVID, the pandemics gave extra meaning and purpose to this design capital project.

2 FORMAT: Multimodal. A design event that was not just a bunch of exhibits, but a long-term affair, sharing practices and processes, truly responding to the needs of people, for the long run.

3 METHOD: Anchored. Engaging the territory, local identities, entities and actors across industries, private and public sectors, regardless of their levels of fluency in design.

4 TOOLS: Pedagogical. The Proof of Concept (POC) model applied to Houses and Awards was used to build a culture of public experiment and entrepreneurship.

5 PURPOSE: Transformative. To make design sustainably integrated in municipal policies, large administrations, practices, workflows and procurements, and not just pure PR and politics.

TOOLS: PoC, PoC, PoC, you said?

For the sake of brevity, I’m unable to delve in detail into those 5 points, and address the entirety of the initiative, spread over several years and 95 communes in the Métropole Européenne, the second-largest in France. I chose to focus on the tools the city used to generate project ideas and engagement: the PoC Houses and the PoC Awards. I believe it’s one of the most innovative and scalable components of the Lille Design Capital initiative, ingredients I wish to advocate for other cities to adopt.

PoC sounds good. Although French thrive to not use English jargon, they love it. PoC is strange enough, but cute. PoC means here Proof of Concept, it borrows from the business innovation field the notion of tested feasibility, a minimum viable product, a prototype to pilot on the ground, fast and furious. PoC doesn’t dwell on design; perhaps one of the key recipes here is not to talk about design, just implement it. Just yield the best out of its creative, iterative, collaborative process to learn to better work together.

To truly start embodying that design capital title, the Métropole assembled a puzzle, a sort of layered cake of support systems, spread over time and space, to initiate successful design integration.

First of, a project laboratory, a “living lab,” called The Republic of Design whose mission was to share best practices, training toolkits, resources, including talent and user-centric design basics. Its advisor's bureau guided project bearers in understanding how to integrate design early on. When launching the call for ideas in 2018–which was open to independent citizens, schools, neighborhood associations, hospitals, etc. –participants could submit proposals that were dear to their heart, deeply rooted in users’ needs, reflective of the pressing issues of their territory. More than 600 projects were submitted, a third selected–more than what the organizers had ever hoped for. The existing local network of nonprofit associations, neighborhood revitalization activists, and urban organizations already mobilized during the Design for Change years, had become the potting soil of an informed and committed engagement. And that was just the beginning.

Now designers came into the picture as project partners, teachers, evangelists and curators.

The accompaniment was formalized by matchmaking a designer assigned to a project, whether a social designer, a strategist, a community engagement specialist, a service designer, an architect, and/or a graphic designer. The multiple competences gathered in each team demonstrated the role of designers as facilitators, ambassadors, enabling communities to express their needs, while creating visible, legible markers in the social landscape. Sometimes, the projects addressed the revitalization of industrial wasteland, the improvement of neighborhood crossroads or social housing’s gardens. Sometimes they addressed social ills or the need for accessibility and inclusion. These design interventions made the initiative visible across the territory, as signals of change. “In the end, this acupuncture approach has less impacted public spaces, than profoundly affected big systems. Two significant structures took giant steps: Lille University and the Métropole administration itself. A few years ago both were doubtful of design potential, they’ve now embraced it through a series of PoC projects. Some have given birth to fully integrated design teams in administrative planning and research labs. We planted little design grains in 2017, we harvested seedlings in 2018, we are still far from the forest but those sowings were almost unexpected”, says Naphegyi.

Secondly, the selected projects were dispatched under curated themes (Care, Collaborative Cities, Habitat, Circular Economy, Mobility and Public Action), each hosted in temporary exhibit/lab spaces, called the PoC Houses. These houses were not built, they repurposed industrial beacons threatened to be demolished, such as the Chaufferie Huet, the red brick boiler room of a defunct mill, or abandoned monasteries, like the historical Couvent des Clarisses in the commune of Roubaix, or old train stations turned into warehouses. Re-claiming patrimony became part of the process demonstrating design’s potential for celebrating architectural heritage, building cultural identity, and creating memorable storytelling, while giving form to projects that remained abstract and intangible for most. The houses questioned the relevance of curated exhibits, and more interestingly became labs of design experiments. For instance, the Circular Economy PoC House, located in a school/convent, embodied the concept of transitory occupation. Zerm, a collective of architects, illustrated sustainable modes of production by recycling wood floors from the local theater, vernacular materials found in rubble, and used modular panels entirely made with eco-materials.

Finally, in order to foster buy-in, nurture a collaborative spirit and spread the word of design wisdom the Lille Design Capital relied on a transparent philosophy of self-evaluation. The PoC awards were instrumental in creating that public moment of reflection. The ensuing online PoC projects library and the work-in-progress PoC White Book are meant to continue building this open source data of design experiments.

Opting for a distributed knowledge model Lille Design Capital hired designers not just to embed them in project teams, but also as experts of the Design Republic who continually lent tactical support, strategic partnerships, and art direction guidance. Additionally, the House curators were often designers themselves, de facto facilitators and educators, like Francois Jégou for Collaborative Cities. Finally, when the time came to critically evaluate the work, the city committee recruited scouts who helped identify the models that could potentially be scaled up.

The scouts, hired from university researchers, ethnographers, students, sustainable development experts and local leaders, sifted through projects in order to pre-select them for the PoC Awards jury–which I was honored to be part of last December. This layered effect of a constant interplay of knowledge and evaluation not only nurtured critical thinking and transparency but also served to disseminate information organically. It also involved non-designers called into service to evaluate projects, making them accidental designers, inviting outside observers in, thereby democratizing the whole design conversation.   

At the core of the Proof of Concept projects, Houses and Awards rely the notions of experiment and accompaniment. The PoCs provided the space, time and method for experiment, opening the possibility of piloting projects and testing models with the general public, for public interest and often with public money.

Accompanying sounds better than support, as it signals the symbolic, empathic gesture of care which empowers designers to not only connect the dots but also sustain political leaders and territorial representatives in their effort to work together for a better world. Designers are enablers, who help nurture this much needed, cross-sector collaboration, as it is native to their very DNA. Design is indeed capital, its mission remains to articulate future governance and invent new economic mechanisms.

 Photo: The Circular Economy POC House was setup in the historical monastery the Couvent des Clarisses in the commune of Roubaix, which is part of Lille Métropole. The Maison POC featured an exhibit, workshops, temporary installations, an outdoor café, and under the monicker “Season Zero” was also temporarily occupied as a living lab demo-ing design’s potential to renew, and reinterpret a place in sustainable ways – the old nun quarters were transformed into a minimalist B&B.

Photo © Lille Design Capital



Laetitia Wolff

Laetitia Wolff is a design strategist and curator, author of Massin, and the former director of strategic initiatives at AIGA, the American professional association for design. Recently relocated in the south of France, she continues to work to bring design to cities, through partnership projects, research-action projects, curated programs, and citizen engagement initiatives.

This article was originally published in the blog Design Observer



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