Assembly Takes Austin: SXSW Edition

South by Southwest Interactive may be the world’s foremost conference for spurring cross-sector innovation. With diverse programming across the fields of design, technology, government, journalism, health, and more, SXSW presents a venue where experts from across the globe share ideas and spark dramatic innovations. The Center for Active Design was honored to speak at the 2017 SXSW conference to share details of our Assembly initiative at a session titled Designing for Engagement: How Smart Urban Design can Shape Space for Civic Life, where CfAD Partnerships Director Suzanne Nienaber was joined by George Abbott from Knight Foundation and Kate Catherall from 270 Strategies.

Kate kicked off the session, and framed the urgency of addressing today’s troubling civic engagement trends, including dramatic political polarization and abysmal voter participation rates. Her call-to-action: we need more authentic leadership, and “we need to create communities of belonging, where people can interact, have conversations, and build relationships with the government and other institutions that support our society—but most importantly, with each other.”

Suzanne introduced CfAD’s Assembly initiative, which seeks to achieve that very goal by leveraging place-based design as an essential tool. She highlighted a range of emerging research findings that demonstrate the connection between urban design and civic engagement—touching upon the value of walkable neighborhoods, well-maintained public spaces, greenery, and community programming, among other areas. Suzanne also pointed to some of the research gaps that CfAD is exploring through original research efforts. “We are recognizing critical opportunities for further study in this pioneering field—from infrastructure, to public buildings, to place-based technology initiatives that can shape the day-to-day experience of civic life.”

George moderated a compelling discussion, and the interdisciplinary SXSW audience provided a fruitful forum for sparking new ideas and projects that may inform the development of practical, evidence-based Assembly design guidelines (scheduled for publication in 2018). Participants suggested topics for further study, including waterfront access, housing policy, and person-to-person messaging technology to support turnout at public events. They also pointed to the value of making an economic argument for this work, in order to build confidence among city leaders who want to elevate good urban design as a local policy priority.

The session sparked enthusiasm and generated new professional connections from the US to Scandinavia to South Korea. As George noted: "The thoughtful, inspiring discussion with innovators here at SXSW points to the tremendous potential for this work to have widespread impacts.” CfAD continues to build momentum around this work, encouraginging influential civic leaders to elevate place-based design as a pivotal tool for creating vibrant, engaged communities of belonging.

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    George Abbot (Knight Foundation), Kate Catherall (270 strategies), and Suzanne Nienaber (Center for Active Design) at SXSW 2017 session. Courtesy of the Knight Foundation.
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    Audience participant from Copenhagen discusses quality of life in her city. Photo Credit: Michael Bolden, Knight Foundation