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DESIGN 21

Our commitment to improving life through social design has been with us since the beginning. This is who we are and why we’re here.

  • Participaction

    June 11, 2007

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    By Jennifer Leonard

    Growing up in Canada in the '80s – between episodes of Mork & Mindy and Welcome Back, Kotter – I was exposed to an entertaining mix of public service announcements as a result of a government initiative called ParticipACTION. It was about creatively battling exorbitant health care costs through mobilizing citizens to “keep fit and have fun!” and not “just think about it, do it!”

    I’d often get great pleasure out of seeing a well-clad (actor) couple in matching track suits and terry headbands who would demonstrate cool moves to get the heart pumping and the muscles limber. Other times, they would appear in a kitchen (still as sporty as ever) instructing viewers on how to whip up low-cal, low-fat recipes for a family of four. The TV campaign was completely cheesy but, upon reflection, I now see seeds of greatness somewhere amid their jumping jacks and Chicken à la King.

    “Participaction” is a fabulous concept! For me, today, it invokes active community-wide engagement in an effort to serve the greater good. I’d love to resurrect participactionary thinking in the realm of social design. How can we pull together, across disciplines, from near and far, to collaboratively take positive action? How can we put design memes out into the world that spur community-building around something larger than self?

    Although likely not called “participactionary” till now, I can think of at least two shining examples from South America – from two of my design heroes, who have both had stints as mayor. While representative of the people, Jaime Lerner, from Brazil, and Antanas Mockus, from Colombia, did some of their best work…

    Mockus, a scholar (of philosophy and mathematics), transformed his city of Bogotá by including the citizens in multiple initiatives. Among many more playful schemes, he risked humiliation by running around in a Supercitizen costume and taking a shower in front of the camera (to shoot a “save the water” TV commercial); he hired mimes to patrol the streets by following law-breakers until they selected to change their irreverent ways; with citizen-selected honest taxi drivers (who he named “Knights of the Zebra”), he brainstormed ways in which they could collectively inspire behavioral change in not-so-honest colleagues. Mockus has wisely said, “The distribution of knowledge is the key contemporary task. Knowledge empowers people. If people know the rules, and are sensitized by art, humor and creativity, they are much more likely to accept change.”

    Lerner, an architect by trade, likewise transformed his city of Curitiba by inviting the citizens to participate in the shaping of it. Notably, he looked at mass transit as an ecosystem and managed to inspire locals to want to step aboard one of the many bi-articulated buses (rather than driving a car). He told me “a city needs a strategy that works with potentiality, not just needs. And a city needs solidarity, not as rhetoric but as a sincere understanding of the daily life of its citizens. With every problem there needs to be an equation of co-responsibility. When everyone understands what the consequences of certain attitudes are, they will more readily cooperate and help bring about change.”

    Both Lerner and Mockus valued education and looked upon their respective cities as giant classrooms, or laboratories. They entered into politics not with the view to become top-down leaders, or action heroes; they sought the more righteous role of figuring citizens into the equation and becoming “participACTION” heroes.

    Do you have a complementary story to share? Bring. It. On.