Using Design to Take on World Hunger
Designing objects or images is one thing; but can “action” be designed? The visionaries at ESI Design think so. The firm—known for its experiential design on everything from museums to the interiors of Best Buy stores—recently partnered with client Mercy Corps to unveil an ambitious social-design effort in New York’s Battery City Park neighborhood. The “Action Center to End World Hunger” opened in mid-October and it represents something new: a kind of museum crossed with a training center. Living up to its name, the Action Center is designed to inspire people to take direct, hands-on action on an issue that can seem remote or overwhelming.

Each night, almost one billion people go to bed hungry. Yet hunger itself is a symptom of wider problems faced by local communities around the world, and ESI has designed the center so that it uses interactive technology to try to enlighten visitors on the various issues and complexities that impact the hunger crisis. The center guides visitors through a learning process that ends by offering various ways to get involved and take action—depending on how much time and energy one wants to commit.

Edwin Schlossberg, who heads up ESI Design, told that the mission of the center was to “first tell people that it’s possible to do something about hunger, then give you a strategy for what you could do right away.” The notion of trying to design social action and involvement is nothing new to Schlossberg, who studied and worked with the legendary Buckminster Fuller and helped him organize the World Game, Fuller’s innovative strategy to promote human cooperation by enabling players to solve global problems. This mass-scale interactive experience was a catalyst for Schlossberg’s future mission at ESI Design—to inspire social change through collaborative, participatory design.

The Action Center exemplifies that participatory design approach. ESI envisioned the center as a field station, “a place where you go and get activated,” says Gideon D’Arcangelo, one of the design firm’s creative directors. Much of the training comes to visitors directly from Mercy Corps field workers who are stationed all around the world. Using a citizen journalism approach, ESI helped train and equip the field workers so that they could produce compelling video reports direct from the field, which are then shared with visitors at the Center. It’s a way for the Mercy Corps workers to tell fresh, personal stories about what’s happening in the battle against hunger, while also teaching some of the field workers’ methodologies directly to visitors. The visitor experience ends at the Center’s “action stations,” where you can do everything from typing a letter to a Congressman or signing a petition to getting more directly involved in ongoing panels and volunteer programs.

“You almost can’t leave without taking some kind of action,” Schlossberg says. He expects that the Center will draw lots of young people—“who are really interested in solving problems,” he says—and he’s also counting on corporate initiatives, because many companies today are looking for ways to get involved in social issues on a participatory, company-wide basis.

Schlossberg believes people are more inclined than in the past to get involved with social issues, however, he says “a lot of opportunities to help are inauthentic – as in, ‘Just give money,’ or, ‘Go shopping.’ There’s a hunger out there for more for authentic involvement in these issues—but that requires design.”

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