Laetitia Wolff | Essays

Design is Capital: Five Lessons I Learned from Lille

Photos courtesy of François Jégou, curator of The Collaborative Cities POC House. Installed in the Chaufferie Huet, an old mill factory turned cultural center, the Collaborative Cities exhibit was conceived as an ongoing performance, with music stands to show work in progress, and projections of recorded actors enacting participatory design debates about the future of the city.

Author's Note: When I first visited Lille in 2015, I was invited to preside over the Design for Change jury—in English in France please—a project Caroline Naphegyi had concocted and still leads today. That preliminary initiative put Lille on the design map, and was a prologue to the application of Lille to WDO. The seeds of an annual design award, the trust in the creative community, the legibility of a label that recognized innovation and talent to improve cities were already there. Add to that a few social innovation principles, participatory design, and a roll-up-your-sleeves attitude and you get Lille Design Capital. As an organic evolution of Design for Change, Lille Design Capital became a heftier vision for a system change, with long-term, cross-sector, collaborative projects, practices and initiatives.

For the city of Lille, France, design is capital. So starts their motto-play on words to honor the recent title its European Métropole has garnered, as, well...a Design Capital. Since 2008 the Montreal-based World Design Organization has bestowed the title 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. In 2020 Lille received the title. What that title did for design and designers is what we will explore.

Why do cities need such international labels to address hyper local, seemingly intractable, urban and social issues? Why is design called on 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? Does design finally make sense as a strategic tool to 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 over 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 is the impact on a city that leverages design versus 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. In order to see the true transformative power of design innovation, perhaps we should stop mentioning the word design altogether.

Left: Cristallography, a project started in 2016 by designer-researcher Christophe Guérin and Philippe Costes, a foundry teacher, proposes to recycle secondary aluminum into objects. The aluminum crystallography technique makes it possible to produce parts directly in the refinery, thus reducing polluting emissions, saving transport, reducing production time and enabling the creation of local jobs. Photo of the Baudelet site, © Sébastien Gras.
Right: 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

The pandemic has, of course, radically disrupted the calendar of events of Lille Design Capital, produced online talks without audiences, delayed the engagement of eager citizens in neighborhoods that needed change—no news here; who hasn't experienced COVID-19's annoying and chaotic effects? But more importantly, the pandemic has also validated the need for a transversal, collaborative, creative, experimental approach to piloting innovation projects, to transforming systems and territories.

Let’s start with the very notion of territory, so vernacular to French society. Although France remains one of the most centralized countries in Europe the emergence of regional powers, the country's authentic attachment to land, its reverence for industrial traditions and local identities, and the demands of managing an unprecedented crisis combined to fortify the need to differentiate territories, and to think and respond locally in what appears to be a rather competitive environment. In competition for funding, for clout, and for cultural recognition, 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?

La Chaufferie Huet, a former milling factory, located in the neighborhood of Berken, in La Madeleine, a commune north of the Métropole, exemplifies the Lille Design Capital approach: to celebrate an industrial history, a neighborhood beacon, an opportunity to make it a demonstrator. The Chaufferie is being transformed into a cultural center, the result of a community participatory process, it was also the temporary host of the Collaborative City POC house. Photo © of Lille Design Capital

There are 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 pandemic 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.

For the sake of brevity, I choose to focus now 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.

The “Participation, Power and Privilege” talk I was invited to moderate back in September for the Collaborative City House, featured designers Audrey Alonso and Soumaya Nader, founders of the POULP collective (POULP = Pôle d’Observation Urbaine aux Langages Pluridisciplinaires). POULP carried out a diagnosis of Les Tisserands, a space in Lomme, west of the Métropole, not visited much by the inhabitants of the Marais district, in which it nevertheless occupies a central place. The diagnosis was done by a public walk to understand the uses of the neighborhood, followed by participatory mapping workshops with local associations to understand the view that residents have on Les Tisserands. Photo courtesy of POULP.

PoC sounds good. Although the French strive to not use English jargon, they love it. PoC is strange enough, but cute. PoC means Proof of Concept, borrowing from the business innovation field the notion of tested feasibility, a minimal viable product, a prototype to pilot on the ground, fast and furious. PoC doesn’t dwell on design; perhaps one of the takeaways 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 the 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 off, a project laboratory, a “living lab,” called The Republic of Design, whose mission was to share best practices, training toolkits, and resources including talent and user-centric design basics. Its advisor bureau guided project cretors 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, and reflective of the pressing issues of their territory. More than 600 projects were submitted, a third selected—a response much greater than what the organizers had 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.
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.
Then designers came into the picture as project partners, teachers, evangelists, and curators.

The designers were positioned as accompaniers, that relationship was formalized by assigning a designer 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 and ambassadors, enabling communities to express their needs, while creating visible, legible markers in the social landscape. Sometimes the projects addressed the revitalization of an industrial wasteland, the improvement of a neighborhood crossroads, or social housing 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. Caroline Naphegyi described the institutional changes:
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.
Next, 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 were 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 of 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. “The object of consumption is no longer a priority for design, but rather the demonstration of its capacity to build more sustainable systems and production chains. Design has become the disruptive strategy to question an economic tradition based solely on economic growth,” says Giovanna Massoni, curator of the Circular Economy POC House. 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 a 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.

Participatory map of industrial chimneys, led by the architects+artists collective Graphites, who work on issues of appropriation of space through playful games, performance as well as experimental tools that allow them to question our relationship to space. A public walk and bike ride was the first step aimed to raise awareness of the industrial heritage of the area (the chimneys being its emblem), while creating and then distributing an educational guide for setting up participatory maps for stakeholders in the Region. Photos © Béatrice Auxent.

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.

More from the industrial chimney project mentioned above.

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.

Posted in: Inclusion, Infrastructure, Social Good

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