Social Design with Here be Dragons

Social Design with Here be Dragons

( Satellite Activity )

Social Design with Here be Dragons

As part of the PDB21 satellite activities, the Warehouse and Zuloark collectives have worked with a community of people with intellectual or developmental disabilities to build new urban imaginaries. The project has the suggestive name of “Here be Dragons” and its aim is to put this often forgotten community at the centre of the design process.

In medieval times, unexplored territories were identified on maps with a curious latin sentence “hc sent dragones”, meaning “Here be Dragons”. Twisting this imaginarium of forgotten geographies for the 21st century, Warehouse and Zuloark Collectives created a social and inclusive design project with members of the associations SOMOS-NÓS and AADID (Association of Friends of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities).

The project integrated the satellite activities of PDB21 and was materialised in a set of workshops and activities that promote the autonomy and visibility of a segment of the population that is often forgotten. Through their inclusion in the centre of the design process, “Aqui há Dragões” challenged this community to inhabit the urban space and to play an active role in the construction of the territory they inhabit.

To reflect about this project, we invited the project curators, Luís Galán (Zuloark Collective) and Rúben Teodoro (Warehouse Collective), to answer three questions about the social responsibility of inclusive design.

A conversation with Zuloark and Warehouse collectives

Is it possible to rethink design and build new and better spaces for coexistence among different neighborhoods and with communities? Luís Galán (Zuloark Collective): Perhaps the question for us is a bit different, as we rather not look at diversity as a possibility but as a responsibility.  Seeking inclusion and positive conviviality in public space projects & designs should be a shared commitment of the professionals participating in the work with communities, territories and the ecosystems that inhabit them.

Rúben Teodoro (Warehouse Collective): For us, this question it’s actually the answer for what should be the main goal for urban designers: “to design better spaces for coexistence”. To achieve that, as Zuloark already pointed out, designers must get out of their offices and work on site with the challenges and solutions shared by local actors. They are the experts of their territory, their social dynamics and their potential. Designers should work as a critical tool to enlarge the alternatives of these spaces, not as behavior dictators that shorten future possibilities.   

LG: As part of the collaborative process of designing and building  better public spaces for coexistence, we believe it is really  important for the architects and designers to abandon the central position and adopt a less-leading-more-constructive role when working with local communities. The myth of the designer as an isolated genius and inventor must disappear in order to promote more ecological, relational and situated perspectives that alter the criteria and indicators for what is now relevant in the design of public space. Our experience at Here Be Dragons Oporto made us realise once again that creating vivid and meaningful public spaces needs a lot more than drawing lines on a paper in your office.

RT: We’ll like to add that actually this project is a proof of exactly that “more than drawing lines on a paper”, as all the people involved from both associations contributed to the overall project, making it better and more inclusive, by bringing their own dynamics to the equation.

LG: While preparing the Here be Dragons proposal for Oporto, we were lucky enough to meet  two extraordinary local associations that work with people with intellectual disabilities, SOMOS-NÓS and AADID (Associação dos Amigos das Deficiências Intelectuais e Desenvolvimentais). The workers, participants and families of the two associations became the absolute protagonists of the story from the very first moment we met.

The associations took care of almost everything to make the project happen. They provided us with almost 100% of the resources that were necessary, they accompanied us throughout the entire process, they facilitated the development of the work sessions together with the monitors and finally they introduced us to the people with disabilities with whom we designed and built the street furniture and with whom we celebrated the opportunity to have been able to realize the project together. In fewer words, none of this would have happened if it wasn’t for SOMOS-NÓS and AADID.  So a big THANK YOU to the monitors, Marlene, David and Miguel, and the biggest THANK YOU to the heads  of the associations, Mimi and Filomena.

Which design methodologies can we use to reflect on our daily life and redesign the present?

LG: We don’t feel there is a clear straight answer to that question. The design methodologies that should be used are the ones that make you reflect first on the people and the context you are working with , taking into account the social, political, cultural, natural and historical environments and ecosystems.

RT: As urban designers we definitely have to move around with a bag of methodologies and tools that we believe in. In our case they are mainly based on cooperation, inclusion and adaptation. But it’s a mistake to think that one of them suits all the situations. Normally not even two or three of them combined are enough. It’s the combination of different methodologies, and different tools, that managed to produce a successful design for the city. This puzzle has to be always adapted to the context, as Zuloark already said, taking into consideration that it’s also important to test, experiment and adapt these mix according to the development of the projects. This constant metamorphosis within the projects it’s only possible when you are working close to all the actors of that specific territory. 

LG: The methodology of “Here be dragons” project is initially based on the good design of the collaborative environment for the agents involved: people with disabilities, artists, mediators, designers, territories, associations, family members and neighbors. We put all our efforts into designing the process, not the actual outcome. Living in such high levels of uncertainty, being conscious of our everyday routines could bring us a step closer to preparing a future that suits our communities better. A worth mentioning example of this methodology is the #KOOPtel, an “exciting but complex challenge of cooperating” where our dear friends in ColaBoraBora Collective invite us to rethink our routine collaborative models, or else the ways in which we consciously or unconsciously cooperate in our daily lives.

Is it possible to think about the urban environment from a public perspective with a more experimental and open approach?

LG: Definitely. Both Zuloark and Colectivo Warehouse are supporters of experimenting in public spaces. Of course, this is not always possible, as our public spaces (especially in southern Europe) are often controlled by numerous activity restrictions. Nevertheless, we always try to push these boundaries and facilitate such creative activities in public spaces seeking to build the environment where innovation could emerge.

RT: It’s possible but it’s very important that public entities –  such as municipalities, governments, and so – managed to facilitate administrative and legal frames to make these experimental and open approaches possible and more impactful. Also the fact that experimentation in public space it’s still seen as “risky” or not an important tool for innovation, contributes to a lack of resources to monitorize and study these experiments, making their impacts mostly temporary without continuity.

LG: The participatory innovation labs we have worked in have often focused on experimental collaborations or prototyping collaborative processes between very diverse actors to enhance collective intelligence and develop proposals that respond more democratically to the social and environmental challenges they face. 

We find that working in social innovation environments with a very open attitude  is often a very powerful tool that facilitates unusual combinations, foster inclusive approaches and promotes the empowerment we look for in many of our proposals.