Our collaboration began weeks before we arrived, via email, phone and our new favorite social media platform, WeChat. The subject was an opportunity to work with a community in Changsha City, China, to help revitalize a forgotten neighborhood. What began as a desire to work together inspired by our first visit to Hunan Normal last March has turned into what we all hope will become a long relationship, benefiting communities in both our countries.
Wei Zheng, DSI 13 alum, introduced us to Professor Shaobo Li, who connected us to Professor Yi Yi, Professor of Architecture and Interior Design at Hunan Normal, who became aware of the plight of Yan Dao Ping, the most historic neighborhood in Changsha. Cheryl Heller, DSI Chair and Cheryl Kiser (now forever known in China as the two Cheryl’s) Director of the Lewis Institute and Social Innovation Lab at Babson College, joined a class of sixty Hunan Normal Students to teach a workshop using the social innovation design methodology to co-create a new future with our new friends at Hunan Normal and this neighborhood. Professor Feng Sue was our extraordinary translator.
Using Design to Bring a Community Out of the Shadows
The preservation of historic neighborhoods is important to most cities, but in the case of Changsha, physical evidence of history is precious and rare. In 1938, in the middle of the second Sino-Chinese War, Kuomintang officials ordered that Changsha be burned to the ground to prevent its wealth from falling into Japanese hands. The result was the greatest human-caused fire in the history of the country, during which eighty percent of the city was razed. For that reason, this neighborhood, with its extant buildings from the Qing Dynasty and earlier, is getting the attention of city and party officials alike.
Yan Dao Ping is quite literally in the shadows of new high rise buildings that now surround it, dwarfed in height, modern amenities and roads wide enough to accommodate the incessant traffic that runs through it.
To make our four days together productive, we created a work plan for the students to complete in advance of our arrival. That plan included mapping the neighborhood using the Field Papers platform, identifying audience groups, conducting interviews and creating user journey maps.
On our first morning, as we heard the stories they had collected from residents, the complexities of the neighborhood became more apparent. About half the population there are workers, who come to the city for construction jobs and stay in Yan Dao Ping for only a few months at a time. The conditions in which they live are challenging: of three hotels, only one meets the quality standards set by the government, the others are considered illegal. In addition, many property owners no longer live in the neighborhood, because there is a belief that the neighborhood will soon be torn down for more new development. Other than the hotels, the local economy consists of shops that line the main streets, selling mostly food, which restaurants from outside the area come to buy because of their convenience and competitive prices. What became immediately clear is the challenge in creating a sense of ownership of this neighborhood among its residents, so that a conversation about revitalization can even take place.
On the first day, we organized and evaluated the issues uncovered from resident interviews and student observations, discussed the difference between symptoms and root causes, and each of the five teams was given the assignment to chose three root causes which, if solved, would solve all the other issues. This helped the entire class align and prioritize the most important challenges. Together, we identified seven different root cause issues.
The second morning, we surprised students by asking them to shake up their teams and work with different classmates (assuring them it was temporarily). Then we asked each team to choose one root cause, and come up with one hundred ideas for how to address it. The result was disbelief, then lots of excitement, energy and wonderful ideas. In the afternoon, people went back to their original teams armed with fresh thinking, new approaches, and aligned priorities as to challenges and desired outcomes. Overnight the students began working on low-res prototypes of their concepts.
On the third day, students went to the neighborhood to test their prototypes with users, to begin dialog about the ideas; to learn and refine. Each team engaged people in the community, came away with important learning and next steps. Sometimes the learning involved how important it is to ask questions rather than present solutions too soon. Sometimes the learning had to do how family dynamics can disrupt opportunities for change. Sometimes the learning was how hard it is for people to change their behavior at all. But in every case, students came away with deeper understanding of what it means to design with a community instead of trying to change things from the outside.
And, we all came away with a deepened commitment to work together, to bring our students together to share learning and increase the influence we can have on making the lives of people in challenged communities better.
The students at Hunan Normal were, without exception, bright, creative, open and excited to learn and try new things. They were delightful partners in this project and we look forward to more.
We plan to connect our students in the U.S. and China, to share learning between the Changsha project and two that we are involved in Harlem and Brownsville, and to continue to learn about and document the impact of social design.