Transdisciplinary Design

Setting the Stage for Possibility

Posted on December 20, 2016 | posted by: student

Considering the scale of the complex issues humanity and the planet are being faced with today, it is important for not only the so-called ‘experts’, to be part of their solutions but for everybody to have an opportunity to reshape the realities around them. A form for designers’ expertise to be wisely put to practice in these cases requires them to step out of the spotlight and focus on designing a stage as a platform where others can play different roles and shine.  A middle ground between the current top-down design practice and bottom-up structures where co-creation is key and agency is evenly distributed between all is proposed by Jamer Hunt: “My idea of a meso-scale approach to design requires designers to design the scaffold or the platform for the emergence of unanticipated outcomes.”[1] In the same way that a well-designed theater allows for it to host different performances; plays, operas, or dance presentations, a well-designed project model may prove to work in different contexts. Yes, the cast may change with every performance, but the access to the stage is what “puts the agency of design into the user’s hand, distributing intelligence, capacity, and creativity away from a monolithic center and toward the heterogeneous edges.”[2]

This process is an extremely important contribution to the empowerment of the end-users. As explained by Sturken & Cartwright in “Practices of Looking”, there is a direct relation between power and attention: “To be made to look, to try to get someone else to look at you or at something you want to be noticed, or to engage in an exchange of looks, entails a play of power.”[3] In humanitarian design, the attention to segregated communities and their inclusion in a design process generates itself the end product of empowerment as described by Emily Pilloton:  “This is the power of humanitarian design: When it’s not about design anymore, it’s about an educational process that produces creative capital where it did not exist before, in beautiful ways, by underestimated individuals.”[4]

The nature of architectural practice contains elements to be applied in this new stage of designing for possibility — every element of a built environment has a larger significance: a wall is never a mere stack of bricks that divides rooms, but a means for privacy; a door not just a wooden board, but the possibility of access; a window not just a landscape frame, but a provider of health.  Proposed solutions are never about the element itself, but the possibilities they represent. In his TED talk [5] Fernando Assad, one of the founders of the “Vivenda” project in São Paulo describes these impacts of the program he co-created with the local community. The social entrepreneurship organization provides credit, planning, and the execution of renovations of mostly bathrooms and kitchens in one of the city’s shanty-towns. Other than intended outcomes such as the home-owners’ empowerment, the betterment of the house’s infrastructure and creation of a healthier mold-free environment for the family, Assad described an interesting unintended behavior by Ana, the client of the project’s first renovation. When visiting for a check-in only a day after her new bathroom was ready he noticed her sweeping the alley where her house was located — something he had not seen her do even once in the previous weeks. When asked about it, she explained that now that her house was clean, the streets should be clean too, to prevent dirt from being carried into it. Assad was surprised that the renovation stimulated Ana’s feeling of ownership over public space — behavior that is not sparked in similar communities even where millions are invested into public redevelopment, but solely from one’s doorstep out.  As his experience led him to conclude: “real change does not come from the outside, but from the inside”.

The example above demonstrates that in the face of wicked problems it may be less efficient attempting to impose change rather than creating the opportunity for it. As designers, let us propose projects that serve as stages and take a front seat in the audience to analyze how well they welcome different scenarios. Having at first felt insecure regarding my role in the realm of service design and social innovation, it was incredibly fruitful to realize how my expertise as an architect will be valuable after all in instilling possibility. May the work begin in designing sets for these stages that include doors to dreams and stairs to empowerment.




[1]Core Jr, “How Quantum Physics Might Help Us Design More Elegant and Scalable Solutions”, Core 77, September 22 2016,

[2] Jamer Hunt, “Letter from the Editor”, Design Dialogues,

[3] Marita Sturken, Lisa Cartwright, Practices of Looking, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 10.

[4] Emily Pilloton, “Are Humanitarian Designers Imperialists? Project H Responds”, Co. Design, July 11 2010,

[5] Fernando Assad, Reformas Habitacionais e Transformação Social, retrieved from