Designing a Better World

How the growing practice of inclusive design is leading the development of sustainable and equitable economies and places in UNESCO Cities of Design

By Bonnie Fahoome

I was involved in a minor crash on a rented e-bike touring the Langhe region in Northern Italy this weekend.  In addition to wounding my pride, the fall resulted in some wicked bruising to the muscles and tendons of my left thumb.  I’ll be fine in a few days, but for now I wince every time I move that thumb, which I’m finding is surprisingly often during the course of a normal day.  

Simple things like turning a doorknob, closing a Ziploc bag, and opening a water bottle have proved painful and quite difficult.  Which is making me really think about how challenging it is for people living with physical limitations every day to function independently.  This is just one reason Design Core Detroit champions the practice of inclusive design.  We believe designers have the power to make things better for all by designing products, policies and places that work for everyone.

As you may know, Detroit has been designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a City of Design and Design Core manages our participation in the Creative Cities network.  Torino, Italy is also a City of Design and recently honored me with an invitation to share our work on Commerce Design: Detroit and the Design Guide for Neighborhood Business at an international forum during Torino Design of the City.

It was a fantastic trip in many ways both professionally and personally, but I was especially inspired by all the programs and projects I learned about in cities around the globe that are employing inclusive design to solve challenges for real people.  Twenty-five years into their democracy, for example, Cape Town, South Afrcia, a sister City of Design, is using design principles and practices to build an inclusive economy and transform systemic social problems. Check out The Better Living Challenge, which improves the living conditions in low income communities, to learn about just one of their many projects.  

And, I heard about at least several incredible inclusive design initiatives, both public and private, making a difference for residents in Torino, including those often marginalized and left out.  There are many I think could be explored and potentially adopted to improve the quality of life for Detroiters. These are four that really stood out to me.

Torino’s 5T provides services and innovation related to mobility and has been hosting mapping parties for residents, where open source online maps are used to collect information about ramps (or lack thereof), barriers and other impediments to improve transit and mobility for all residents.  MinD Mad in Design is working with hospitals and patients to address the prejudice, isolation and exclusion of people with mental disorders through a program called Restart, where they identify and train creative psych patients in design prototyping and then host workshops where those individuals work alongside others to create solutions that address community needs.  Costruzione Bellezza, translated to Building Beauty, is a participatory, interdisciplinary lab focused on social inclusion, empowerment of homeless people, and the development of design skills in students.  They work through other social service agencies to train the homeless population in design and build things that can be installed to improve places in the community.

Each of these projects uses the principles and practice of inclusive design for the betterment of not just the constituents and communities they serve, but for everyone in the city of Turin.  In much the same way, Hackability focuses on one person’s needs but ends up creating something that works for many.  

Bringing it full circle to my thumb and the challenges faced by people with temporary and / or lasting disabilities, including limitations that come with age, Hackability is a Turino non-profit using digital fabrication, technology and design for social impact to co-create and produce customized solutions for autonomy and care for individuals with disabilities, resulting in social inclusion and participation.  They do this by co-designing prototypes of adaptable everyday objects, like a fork, and / or more complex products services with the disabled individuals and then making the digital production files available online for all, thus providing low-cost and scalable solutions to many.  

It’s truly a remarkable and inspiring program and it was truly a remarkable and inspiring trip.  I’m so excited for the future of design in Detroit and look forward to working with the many organizations and people here at home already practicing inclusive design to make a better city and a better world for all.