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Best of 2012: New Socially Responsible Designs

Cooper Hewitt curator Cynthia Smith shares five of the best new examples of socially-responsible design from 2012.

This was an important year for socially responsible design—design that is socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable. Design with the Other 90%: CITIES finished its run at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, and headed to St. Louis and Portland until January. Look for it in Atlanta in 2013. In February, the National Endowment for the Arts and Lemelson Foundation joined with Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum to convene a Social Impact Design Summit at The Rockefeller Foundation, bringing together leaders in social design to brainstorm ways to support this growing area of design. Spontaneous Interventions: Design Action for the Common Good, the US Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale, opened in August, winning a Silver Medal.


President Clinton brought design to the global stage this September, focusing the Clinton Global Initiative’s Annual Meeting on “Designing for Impact.” This year, IDEO.org also graduated its first class of Innovators in Residence. Cape Town, South Africa was designated as the next World Design Capital in November. In receiving this honor, their mayor noted, “Cape Town’s vision of design is based on socially responsible design, sustainability and innovation.” These highlights from the year, along with following list, represent just a few significant examples for this promising discipline.

Mandartola Re-housing Project, Gopalganj, Bangladesh

Designers: Mandartola community with ACHR Community Architects Network

Mandartola is a breakthrough housing project for Bangladesh, where forced evictions of the urban poor is common. Construction begins this month on the community-driven design—dense cluster housing around open space for over 300 forcefully-evicted squatter settlement families on publicly provided land. Designed with the community’s women, a strong disaster-resistant core housing structure is finished in stages using local materials.

Walk [Your City], United States

Designer: Matt Tomasulo

An online open-source design platform for sharing citizen-initiated signage that encourages urban walking. First deployed guerilla-style in Raleigh, N.C., Walk Raleigh indicated the number of minutes to a nearby destination, rather than miles, to engage at a human scale. Spreading to other cities, post-superstorm NYC volunteers were inspired to install an Occupy Sandy wayfinding system to help residents find emergency relief centers within walking distance.

Supergas, Mexico

Designers: TOA (Environmental Operations Workshop) and Superflex

This small bio-digester unit has the potential to be manufactured for use in both rural and urban locations around the world creating energy from animal/human waste.

Via Verde, Bronx, N.Y.

Designers: Dattner Architects and Grimshaw Architects; Lee Weintraub Landscape Architects; Development partners: Phipps Houses and Jonathan Rose Companies

Designed to support healthy and active living for residents in the South Bronx, this mixed-use sustainable affordable housing masterfully attends to open space. Garden plots step up the building from grade to roof levels providing gardening and harvesting activities for the residents throughout the year.

Essentialist clothing, New York, N.Y.

Designer: Natalia Allen

World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and fashion designer Natalia Allen is challenging the fashion industry with a new line of clothing made in the USA by robots and designed to outlast a single season. Catering to the “slow purposeful shopper” each piece is crafted without seams from a single piece of sustainable, high-performance yarn.

Contributor Cynthia Smith is curator of socially responsible design at the Smithsonian Institution.

Photos courtesy ACHR Community Architects Network, Walk [Your City], TOA, Dattner Architects, and Natalia Allen. Bangladesh photo via (cc) Flickr user Joseph A. Ferris III. Illustration by Corinna Loo.

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