Design for Public Good: An UpTake video wins praise from public design group

It’s not often that The UpTake toots its own horn.

But an eight-minute video from The UpTake’s co-founder, Chuck Olsen, and his company, VidTiger has won notice for its skillful emphasis on the connection between good design and the public good. The UpTake is not only proud, we want to be sure our audience notices Chuck’s “mini-doc” film about the building of the Nyanza Maternity Hospital in Rwanda.

That innovative project was sponsored by SEED (Social Economic Environmental Design), a group that believes design plays  “a vital role in the most critical issues that face communities and individuals, in crisis and in every day challenges.

SEED, with funding from the Fetzer Institute, commissioned Chuck and The UpTake to produce a series of “SEEDocs” showcasing the group’s work. One of those films, the documentary about the building of a maternity hospital in one of the most remote and war torn regions in the world, was named one of 2013’s top 10 films about design and the public interest.

The video featured MASS architects working with aid agencies and health officials in Rwanda to build a hospital that prevented people from getting sick while utilizing natural resources maintain a healthy environment. SEED is an organization started by Brian Bell, considered to be the father of public interest design. The collaboration with the UpTake began after our coverage of the 2011 Minneapolis tornado. Bell wanted to tell the stories of six communities working to revitalize their community.Who better to tell those stories than The UpTake and VidTiger?

Designers and architects, alongside community members and other leaders, have tackled some of the fiercest problems facing neighborhoods and citizens today: Chronic unemployment, lack of access to fresh and healthy foods, safe medical care and fresh water. While taking on these issues, designers recognized the need to make connections with the community and, in some cases, revitalize cultural traditions as part of this process. It began with a conversation: People from different backgrounds, different ethnicities and races came together in the spirit of creating change in each community and to re-build for generations to come. UpTake cameras were there to capture that process with the care and sensitivity good documentary filmmakers strive for.

The making of the SEEDocs showed how each project tackled the task of getting these folks to sit down with one another and talk about how a school, a maternity hospital, a garden and housing added value to the lives of the people who lived in the community. The visual storytelling endeavored in each project brought to life communities struggling to survive in some of the most challenging environments.

The UpTake recently spoke to Chuck Olsen about the SEEDocs project

The UpTake: Explain how The UpTake is involved.

Chuck Olsen: The UpTake moved into producing video with a design-thinking approach, particularly in the aftermath of the North Minneapolis tornado. This community was rebuilding in innovative ways, but simultaneously was wary of “drive-by coverage” that reinforced stereotypes. We had to give up some control and engage in a process of meeting with community leaders and activists to gain their trust — exactly the way public-interest design architects must set aside traditional top-down approaches and listen to a community over time. We built a good relationship with Deanna Cummings at Juxtaposition Arts, one of the stars of the Northside’s revitalized creative economy. She ultimately recommended us to Bryan Bell, whom she met studying at Harvard, and he found a willing founder in the Fetzer Institute. Bryan Bell is called the father of public interest design, and founded the SEED organization to connect and promote Social, Economic, and Environmentally sustainable design practitioners. He recognized that The UpTake combined new technology with sensitive storytelling and social justice sensibilities in a unique way that made for a perfect fit.

TU: These docs are about a new way of thinking about design. How did you depict that in 10 minutes or less?

CO: There is no one-way to conduct public-interest design. Each project provides a glimpse into how one particular community worked with one group of designers to achieve their goals. The projects can be complex and multifaceted, so we tried to focus on common themes that could be represented in a short film. This design approach relies strongly on relationship-building; communities and designers work collaboratively to find solutions to pressing problems.

TU: When gathering footage for these projects, in remote parts of the world, talking about complex social issues, what decisions did you make to get the best footage? We imagine a lot of it happened on the fly and with limited resources.

CO: Indeed! Producer Susan Marks spent a lot of time trying to contact stakeholders for each project, which proved difficult as designers often had moved on and community members lacked connectivity. Language was another hurdle. In Peru, a film industry veteran hooked us up with a fantastic translator named Cecilia Torres who arranged transportation and helped us set up shoots in remote shantytown communities. In every case we showed up ready to improvise, and hoping for the best. My camera and audio setup enables a style that documentary nerds call “run and gun” — essentially a flexible, mobile approach that allows us to be nimble. We try to find little poetic details on the fly — a butterfly on a plant, a child chasing a ball — to create a richer story.  

TU: Telling the story of the Nyanza maternity hospital involved not only the designers and architects from MASS, but also aid workers and relief agencies. We’re talking about a country that has pretty recently emerged from a civil war. How did you navigate those relationships and get such good footage?

CO: We didn’t have the budget to visit Rwanda, so we relied heavily on our contacts. It took months of back-and-forth to arrange a remote video interview with Fidèle Kalisa, a Ministry of Health official involved in the Nyanza hospital project. It was well worth the effort, because he explained that while Rwanda has not forgotten the horrors of genocide, the people are very much filled with a sense of possibility in this new era. Photos (including a few stock photos) also help tell the story when we don’t have great footage. Lastly, we went to MASS design in Boston and got a great interview there in addition to footage of the Nyanza hospital model, which helps bring the un-built project to life.

TU: These videos really affected the way those involved in the design process saw their project and its affect on the community members they worked with. You were, in effect, part of the process yourself. Can you comment on that?

CO: We had to set expectations with participants, as some of them thought we were doing a feature-length documentary on their project and wanted us to interview so many stakeholders important to their project. That really told us they were thirsty for the world to know about their work, and it was very gratifying to be able to honor their stories with these well-produced short films. Often the projects are badly in need of funding and in at least one case, our documentary was instrumental in helping unlock funds to break ground. We needn’t be a disinterested objective voice for these stories — participation is the nature of public interest design and we’re happy to advocate for that approach and the good that springs from these projects. It reminds me of the Burning Man philosophy: There are no observers. Everyone is a participant.

 

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Allison Herrera

Allison Herrera, originally from San Luis Obispo, Calif.,  studied media and Spanish at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., where she earned her bachelor s. Since moving to the Twin Cities, she has been a news producer for KFAI Fresh Air Community Radio, communications coordinator for Twin Cities Public Television's arts series MN Original, and producer for the Association of Minnesota Public and Educational Radios Stations for the series MN90: Minnesota History in 90 Seconds.

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