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Design to Empower

Rui Peng and Andy Crowe of Critical Pixels Design discuss social innovation with Sylvia Chan during the 10DAYFEST exhibition in Hong Kong.

Design to Empower

Social innovation calls for creativity of not only the professionals but also society as a whole. At the Social Innovation Festival (10DAYFEST) exhibition at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (25 September – 15 November), Critical Pixels Design, an Auckland-based social enterprise that promotes community empowerment through design and knowledge sharing, presents how public engagement in design can bring about positive changes in a community.

Occupy Akarana!

Founded in 2013, Critical Pixels Design carries the ethos that everybody can design and be empowered by it. From product design projects through to architecture and branding, the social enterprise challenges the idea that only professionals should take the lead in design. “People may not have a degree in design, but they know their communities well. They are the experts [in design],” says Rui Peng, the studio’s co-founder, adding that community driven design can lead to social sustainability.

Occupy Akarana!

At 10DAYFEST, Critical Pixels Design presents Occupy Akarana! to illustrate the social impact of public participation in design. Occupy Akarana! is an ongoing open source project in the Akarana neighbourhood of Mount Roskill in Auckland initiated as a social movement in 2013 to fight against gentrification and retain the existing community, which comprises largely of migrants and the less privileged. Together with the local community, Rui Peng and Andy Crowe conceived a prototype “Mobile Trolley” that can be moved to different locations and adapted into different forms for various uses. 3D printers, created using open source knowledge, are used to create certain hinges for the trolleys.


Occupy Akarana!

In the design process of the first prototype with a local household, Peng and Crowe took the roles of mentors and encouraged the local household to make design decisions. The Mobile Trolley was built with timber, a handy material in Akarana. Occupy Akarana! aims to engage people from different cultures and age groups to participate in design-build workshops in the community to construct their own trolleys, adapting them to their self-organised events such as markets, BBQs and education workshops. The trolleys can be used in unexpected spaces in the community, such as in the streets, in garages, and in the front and back yards.

Occupy Akarana! challenges the existing model of urban planning driven by professionals. Crowe says, “Design is a tool to empower people so they realise what they can do.” Peng adds that Occupy Akarana! aims to reframe the idea of success in architecture: successful architecture is not a monument with singular authorship but lets people take ownership.

Roskill South Makers initiative

The Roskill South Makers is another ongoing community design project, where Critical Pixels Design works with six 16- to 18-year-old youths that fail to thrive in a conventional school system to create a design enterprise. Peng and Crowe gave the six youths the idea to design and produce 3D printed high-end vases, and through design workshops over three months, Peng and Crowe taught the youths Rhino, 3D printing, and helped them conceive a business model. The produced vases are sold at the Upcycle Auckland Stalls at the Silo Park Markets. The project brings to light the often overlooked potential of the Mt Roskill South youth community. Peng says the youths are leading the business that started a year and a half ago and are responsible for deciding its future. “We have built a relationship and trust with the boys. To us this is success,” he says. Crowe adds that the project aims to give the youths a sense of empowerment so that they can go on to the next level.

Roskill South Makers initiative

While Rui admits that the social impact of Critical Pixels Design’s work is hard to measure, he is optimistic that community engagement and empowerment can bring changes to design and architecture. He hopes that in 10 years, housing in the community where the social enterprise is located will be designed and built by the local community instead of by government commissioned designers and contractors. Crowe hopes the idea of Critical Pixels Design can be cross-pollinated in the Asia Pacific region and spread to a wider audience.

Critical Pixels Design

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