THE SOCIAL TURN: Why I embrace Social Practice

This is a quick inflection coming off the coattails of the MIT 150 Anniversary of the School of Architecture ‘Turning Points’​ symposium where I had the chance to moderate the social turn panel. I’m grateful for what I get to do today in my career and have MIT to thank for being an important turning point in my focus today. Cheers to places the cultivate social trust, social capital and social research. Originally posted as an article on LinkedIn, April 15, 2019:

My time at MIT has had such a lasting impact on me as a person and as a designer. When I came to MIT I thought I was going to add onto my design education a top notch technical education. In addition to that, I walked away with a new mindset which ultimately helped lead to a passion and career in social practice and social research. This was a big turning point for me, and has influenced where I focus my energy ever since. There are 2 parts to this mindset:

The Giving Mindset. People at MIT are not only ridiculously smart, they are ridiculously giving. if you walk around with a broken laptop as I often seem to be you will find people poking their heads around corners just to take on the challenge of helping. People cannot help themselves but to give their time and knowledge, because they are curious, empathic and so not self centered, they can’t help but throw themselves into helping. This isn’t just nifty- it’s crucial to making and delivering on bold ideas together. As a practitioner in architecture and design for the last 20 years, I can tell you the industry is made up of givers and takers. Eventually the takers will be penniless. But giving creates social capital, which in terms of value, is more rich than gold. I have always aimed to surround myself and to be a ‘giver’ as the work and innovation is more fruitful, satisfying and impactful.

The Fandom or “Let your freak flag fly” Mindset. MIT is a place where we can allow ourselves not to be ashamed of our own wicked personality. In other words, double down on your version of freaky. Find your awesome and go there, 110%. That’s how you will find your friends, your idols, your career. It’s also how a fandom mindset helps you find your tribe and develop strong social trust- the honesty, integrity and reliability of others allows you to go farther faster with your ideas, goals, inventions and passions.

We can also add the the Giving Mindset and Fandom Mindset a ‘Social practice mindset’, which values the work as not just product but as a process; the design and value of human interaction and social discourse. When you have this mindset- you affect your community and environment in a real and scalable way that enables social and political change.

Along the way there have been many turning points for me in my career and now I lead the workplace strategy discipline and discovery studio at WeWork- My job is to bring social research methods, evidence and data to the design process, helping prove and improve the design as people inhabit the space. I do this in the space of workplace experiences, but the methods and processes are universal for any space type. Reflecting on where I am and the education I got along the way here is what I would recommend for an architects education that will influence the success and longevity of the built environment.

  1. Co-Create with the people who will use your design.  Most of the time you are not the end user, so don’t assume you know what people want. The longevity of an idea lengthens when people feel they had a part in the process. It’s not mine, it’s ours.
  2. Design both the building and activations together. Space should support social interactions, not steal the show. the architecture is NEVER as cool as what is going on inside. Make sure to celebrate that.
  3. Don’t walk away. Stick around. Use methods to watch and learn from how people embody your ideas. Make it better next time.

At MIT’s Turning Point Symposium on April 13, I had the privilege of moderating a panel of faculty innovators who have devoted their work to both the positive and sometimes uncertain power of social systems, social networks, social science, social memory, social media, social impact, social activism. As we celebrate MIT’s School of Architecture 150yr anniversary, we hope the ‘social’ theme is omni-present in all of our work, for if we are not in pursuit of understanding how minds work and how societies as a whole function, informing and bettering human society and social relationships, then what the heck ARE we doing? As Winston Churchill said “We shape our buildings thereafter they shape us”. We as designers orchestrate the environment and therefore the behaviors within. We have a responsibility to affect the shaping of our society. Please check out my Panelists to learn more about their own work and missions.

Timothy Hyde– Ugliness and Judgement: On Architecture In the Public Eye

Ana Miljacki– Unfair Use

Miho Mazereeuw– Urban Risk Lab: Post Disaster Housing

Azra Aksamija– Performative Preservation