Could Detroit Show Us the Way to a New Future of Work?

An exhibit opening tomorrow at the Saint-Étienne design biennial highlights Detroit-based partnerships that have produced truly innovative projects.

Early installation shot of Footwork, featuring the modified bicycles of Detroit’s East Side Riders.
Courtesy Anne Laure Lechat

Since the election of Donald J. Trump, America, as a nation, has been forced to confront some uncomfortable realities and ask some fundamental questions. The most pressing of these are how can post-industrial America, still reeling from the effects of globalization, move forward—and what is the future of work?

There is perhaps no city better situated to provide some answers to that question than Detroit, America’s iconic city of post-industrial decay and transformation. And, as the first American city to be designated a “city of design” by UNESCO, Detroit also offers some remarkable examples for how design and creativity can play a role as the country reconsiders its identity and its workforce.

These are just some of the topics that Footwork, a 2,000 square-foot exhibition opening tomorrow at the 10th Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Étienne 2017, will explore. Co-produced by the Detroit Creative Corridor Center and Public Design Trust (PDT), “a collaborative of thinkers, creators, futurists, and civic servants,” Footwork aims to highlight Detroit-based partnerships—often between big corporations and grassroots design initiatives—that have produced truly innovative and productive projects, such as a hospital gown that’s comfortable for both physician and patient and FOAM-O, a furniture prototype made from the scraps generated by a seat-making manufacturer.

It is the PDT’s contention that, in the future, work will transition away from linear assembly and towards network-based working models that link together previously separated industries. The group also foresees a post-industrial future where cities are inclusive and design and design-thinking play a pivotal role. To learn more about these ideas and how they will be explored in Footwork, I spoke to Nina Bianchi and Libby Cole, leaders of the PDT and co-founders of the social innovation firm The Work Department.

Vanessa Quirk: Could you give me a general overview of The Work Department? What is the work that you do, and how did it all begin?

Nina Bianchi: The Work Department is a women-led social innovation firm. We were founded in Detroit in 2008, and we’ve seen a few different phases of our business over time. Growing in a very complex and unique city like Detroit, we’ve inherently had social justice and social innovation infused into our genetic core from the beginning.

Libby and I went to school together and we both moved to Detroit in 2000. As students do, we daydreamed about starting a studio together. Then the reality was there weren’t a lot of design opportunities if you didn’t want to work in the auto industry. So it was kind of a necessity. We’re embedded in a very complex web of economic collapse and infrastructural decay, so that’s the market.

VQ: How do you create a consultancy in a context like that?

NB: We were working within cities and foundations that had access to more resources than we did in the beginning. Then, slowly, as Detroit has gone through transformation, and revitalization, there has been more and more attention around design, and so it’s easier for us to find local partnerships. But we always love the local, national, and even international elasticity, being able to work across those scales.

VQ: When you take on a project, what is the process that characterizes the work that you do?

NB: It’s usually working directly with people in a participatory kind of way. We like to engage stakeholders, and whether that’s people within a corporation that are going through big change or staff at a non-profit, we engage them in the design process so they’re making decisions with us. They’re helping create content with us, and we’re listening to them very closely. We deliver a product that they are invested in, and that they are comfortable using at the end. So it’s not just us observing them and watching their behavior in a sort of behavioral science kind of way. It’s engaging them, and building relationships.

Libby Cole: We’ll come into a project with very little ego and say, “We’re not really the experts in this. You’re the experts, so let us listen to your expertise, and then from there, we’ll together create something that we’re proud of, and that you’re proud of, and that your audience can easily use.”

VQ: We are talking on January 20th, Inauguration Day, and I’m curious, how are you feeling about the new administration? How should the design world be reacting to the election?

LC: For us I think our work’s not changing that much. We keep on doing the things that we have been doing. In Detroit, it’s hard because things aren’t changing dramatically for people on the ground right now. Yesterday isn’t that different than today for a lot of people, and that’s really where our social justice focus is–just helping these organizations better serve their audiences.

NB: While no one enjoys the experience of a crisis, I do believe that innovation happens, and new solutions emerge, because you have to. You have to find a different way. And you know, that’s one of the most beautiful parts of the design process: really looking at a complex system, or a complex situation that has a lot of room for improvement, and analyzing it, and understanding what are the areas where you could really develop further.

LC: Design has a huge role, I think, in the future also. I feel like it’s only more needed now than ever. Just on a personal level, looking at Instagram and Twitter today, seeing people design posters and the communication about everything that’s happening. It’s so beautiful, and I think that that’s really encouraging.

VQ: Having your first-hand experience with the kinds of people whose work and careers have been displaced due to globalization, do you feel like you have an understanding of where these frustrations are coming from? How do you answer the question of ‘how do we move forward and be great’ without necessarily reverting back to a reality that is no longer valid, potentially?

LC: Detroit has been in this position of this post-industrial kind of state for a while now. We’ve grown up in it, basically. And it has affected our families, and everyone close to us. While I don’t really have the answer to what the future is, in this exhibition, our answer is, “The future is network-based collaborations.” It’s not the assembly line, and it’s not finding a new product for us to make.

We work with so many people who are experts, and who specialize in so many beautiful things, and then we all just work together, and lift each other up, and create opportunities for our own projects. And that can happen at the corporate level, and it can happen at the grassroots level.

Some of the people that we’re highlighting in the exhibition are open-minded, forward thinking corporate leaders who have the investment dollars to stimulate and incubate smaller entities who are really thinking through smart solutions. I think that applies to government as well—how do you open up communications channels, and create spaces where people can exchange ideas, and understand the art of negotiation as well?

No one is ever going to get their way a hundred percent, but you know, organizations on the ground can help inform policy level decisions. Maybe it’s a little bit idealistic, but I believe there needs to be improved communication and collaboration. How do you facilitate that? I think we’re exploring a little piece of it, and there’s so much more to go.

VQ: For the U.S., where do you see the future of work potentially going, and what’s Detroit’s role in that?

LC: I think, with so many layers of change happening in Detroit simultaneously, we’re using the Footwork exhibition as a place to explore and open up some of those questions. We hope that some of the ideas and processes that we’re seeding in the exhibition may grow over time, and blossom into other sorts of programs or projects. We’re not sure how it will happen, but that’s why we took the exhibition on–to really work within the city of design designation and open up these conversations. What role does design and creativity play in our future economy?

VQ: Can you talk a little bit more about the exhibit?

LC: It’s so exciting because everything is finally on a shipping container on the ocean. It’s been a long time coming.

We’re really trying to bring together very different people and projects to collaborate and then also highlight people who are already doing that in Detroit in really interesting ways.

So the Bluebird Jazz Stage was inside a historic jazz club in Detroit, one of the buildings that unfortunately has fallen to decay. No one has really cared for it in the past several decades. But the owner let the Detroit Sound Conservancy harvest the stage out of the building and then helped to fund its rehabilitation. It’s a place where Miles Davis once performed, but now the first performance on the revamped stage was by Detroit public school kids. Then it will be in France where other people will perform there, and it will be kind of like a traveling performance space in the future, which we’re really excited about.

The third big collaboration that we’ve initiated is between Underground Resistance, the grandfathers of electronic music in Detroit, and Assemble Sound, which is a new kind of production house space in Detroit, and then about 40 other musicians and producers that are local. Everyone from motel musicians to Shigeto. They’re all collaborating to record a whole album’s worth of music, and that will be pressed in vinyl, to have a new kind of sound from this collaboration of old and new.

NB: We’re also featuring existing collaborations, like a hospital gown that was grown in concept at the College for Creative Studies and then shepherded through with the support of large companies like Carhartt. How do you take an idea that’s born in an academic institution and grow that in a human-centered way, take it it to market, and really turn it into a viable business?

LC: And that hospital gown, it came from a problem. Everybody hates the current hospital gown, and having to hold the back shut, or the front shut at the same time. It was design students who thought through a redesign of that, so it’s a much more comfortable and covered experience, but also very useful for doctors and nurses, as well.

VQ: Why do you both feel that there is value in unconventional collaborations? Where does the value emerge for you in bringing together, for example, a corporation with a small designer?

LC: I think that’s where the change happens, when people step outside their comfort zones, or step outside the way they’re used to working, and put themselves in a position to listen to how other people are doing it, and are open to trying new things. And I think that’s how we work a lot of the times, and I think we found such joy and success doing that, that we really think it’s exciting when we find other organizations and businesses working that way.

VQ: And are there any times where you feel like it can be problematic? When do you step away from a partnership, potentially?

NB: So a big job that we have as The Work Department is translation. We translate, not necessarily from English to Español, but across cultures and across values. We try to help find that common ground, because sometimes people are speaking past one another. They really want the same thing, but they’re using different words that have triggers. Conflict emerges. The importance of us as that facilitative entity is pretty important. Those are the biggest challenges, when folks—whether it’s a CEO, designer, or activist—speak different languages, and they don’t have a shared culture.

Specifically in Detroit, we don’t have a lot of shared spaces where people come together. We have very few parks that are very active that encourage those sorts of collisions. We just don’t have the density. So I think that these innovative projects create an instantaneous kind of density of difference that allows things to happen.

LC: I mean we always start projects having very honest and transparent conversations about expectations and goals, even down to “how can I best communicate with you? Should I text you, or should I email you, or should I call you?” And that might sound really basic, but having that first conversation, where we can decide if this is gonna work, is really important.

And we have turned down clients where, after a few conversations, we don’t think it’s going to be fruitful. That’s okay that that happens. If we get the feeling this potential client isn’t being open and honest with us, and transparent about their needs and goals, yeah, it makes it really hard.

VQ: Is there something I didn’t ask about that you think is important to mention?

NB: I would love to pose the question, and this is tied to the new administration as well: what does it mean when funding shifts? How can we secure more resources, whether they’re coming from the corporate social responsibility angle, or whether they’re coming from foundations, or federal line items within a budget, to ensure that we can incubate and spark these projects, so things keep moving forward?

The way that we’re shaping our business is sort of in reverse. We built our corporate social responsibility platform first, and then the purpose drove the profit, whereas so many companies drive with profit and kinda tap purpose on later at the end. So my hope would be that Public Design Trust as a curatorial entity might take on a new life after this exhibition and be the beginning of a fund that would support public design or public interest design.

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