Fast Company

Can Designers Stamp Out Rural Poverty?

Plans for a national design center to help alleviate rural poverty will be solidified when 60 designers, corporate leaders, foundation heads, and journalists meet next month for the 2009 Aspen Design Summit. The event, sponsored by the AIGA and Winterhouse Institute, is a strategy session for the social design movement.

Harris House

The prospective design center will be based in Hale County, Alabama, one of the poorest areas in the country. The county was chosen because it already hosts a number of similar efforts, including Project M, Teach for America and Rural Studio, a group started by the late Samuel Mockbee to help Auburn students design and build structures for poor communities in Western Alabama, including the Harris House shown above.

The center would serve as a collaborative hub and a laboratory for design ideas that could be used in Alabama or elsewhere, according to William Drenttel, a founder of the Winterhouse Institute and editorial director of Design Observer. "If ever there was a place where synergy might occur, this is it," Drenttel said. "For example, Rural Studio is planting a vegetable garden at its headquarters. HERO (Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization) is planting a vegetable garden on the backside of main street. It wouldn't take a lot to create a food initiative." The center might also collaborate on infrastructure for health and education, house students working on local projects and direct design tourists to local works.

John Bielenberg

A dozen or so designers, including John Bielenberg (above), founder of Project M, will detach from the main group next month to develop a concept and business model for the center. "We're trying to create a fleshed out strategic outline with enough initial work that we can actually make something happen in 24 months," Drenttel said.

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The Aspen summit, which is backed by the Rockefeller Foundation, will also explore ways in which designers might help a UNICEF project to make classrooms safer and more conducive to learning and how designers might aid sustainable alternatives to the U.S. food industry. Participants include Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, Robert Fabricant, vice president of Frog Design, and Allan Chochinov, editor of Core77.

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