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The Reality of Building a Social Impact Design Project

July 15, 2015

Composed of four city blocks alongside the crowded streets and sugarcane fields of Villa Rica, the El Guadual Early Childhood Development Center is an exquisitely constructed building in a highly contested territory. As the primary pilot project initiated for “de Ciero a Siempre” – a national childhood attention strategy initiated by the First Lady of Colombia – El Guadual focuses on synthesizing education, play, food, culture, registry and health.

The architects of El Guadual, Daniel Feldman and Iván Dario Quiñones, took full advantage of the unique opportunity to work with a government program that put design at the forefront of beneficial community engagement and early childhood development. An implicit aspect of the national childhood attention strategy is the Reggio Emilia Approach, a comprehensive pedagogical system emphasizing the impact of the physical environment for learning, and even referring to it as a child’s “third teacher.” When El Guadual was completed, it not only raised the bar in terms of low-cost sustainable building processes but also through innovative methods of community and government engagement during the full spectrum of the design process.

In order to gain insight on the inner workings of a successful social impact design project, Impact Design Hub interviewed one of the architects behind El Guadual, Daniel Feldman.

Blaze Gonzalez: What was the impetus for the Colombian government to use design as a pathway to create participation between local communities and governmental organizations?

Daniel Feldman: Terror regimes have been institutionalized in many areas of the country making social service work life threatening. The First Lady (Maria Clemencia Rodriguez de Santos) and the Presidential Counselor for Early Childhood (Maria Cristina Trujillo) understood the need to show that institutions were coming back to these regions, but wanted to do it in a way that would be impactful. By offering these communities the possibility to be part of the process, it became local and personal, not only political. Design processes were the avenue to create the desire for the institutions to return.


BG: That seems like a highly motivating situation to walk into as a designer. How did your relationship to this project begin?

DF: My friend from college, Ivan, started working for the First Lady in mid 2010 after spending a year in Japan as an environmental design consultant. At the time, I was in Brazil working for Architecture for Humanity. Ivan showed the First Lady a blog where I kept my family updated with the work I was doing and she ended up asking us to both join her team and work in creating a framework for the design and development of a series of Early Childhood Development Centers in the war torn areas of Colombia.

BG:  Since you were working so closely with the Colombian government, you must have faced a unique set of opportunities and limitations.

DF: The opportunities were plenty! We gained access to regional leaders that then created paths for conversations with community members. We also had access to donors, government entities, information, and the security measures needed to be able to visit the communities we worked with. However, there were limitations as well; having to represent the government also closes many doors. It puts you in a vulnerable situation in terms of physical security but also in terms of political battles, as there are always contenders looking to make you trip. Documenting every step and making sure our processes were completely transparent was very important to us. Even responding negatively to the private interests of others made us a political target.

BG: How did you respond to situations where you became a political target during this project?

DF: We had to confront corruption repeatedly and not agreeing to be part of the cycle made certain plans turn sour. We had to explain why our decisions were based on technical readings of the situations and not political alliances. I learned that changing the reality of our country is way more difficult than I could ever imagine.

BG: You and your partner ended up doing a lot of work while you were in Colombia though- building 30 Early Childhood Development Centers in 3 years! Did each project present a different set of challenges?

DF: Since the program never changed, the challenges were more logistical, political, and cultural. Figuring out how to build in an area commanded by guerrillas, or how to transport materials through paramilitary floodplains, became part of the design process. Using the largest amount possible of locally sourced material and labor became a necessity.  On a more human scale, gaining the trust of communities who have been stuck in between multiple sides of conflict was a big challenge. Getting them to believe that they could dream wasn’t easy. Also, knowing that it’s better to not know certain things forced us to control the conversations, as we couldn’t carry upon us the threat of knowing more than we should.


BG: How were you able to build trust with the community?

DF: The first thing we did was meet with the mothers, whom we were introduced to through the mayor of Villa Rica. We explained how their lives would change if the project was built and they all agreed that it would improve the lives and education of the kids as well as their own. From there, every meeting/process with the larger community involved the mothers. We had them introduce us and explain the importance and reasons behind the project.

BG: Another key factor in any design project is securing funds. From my knowledge, the funds to build the project came from international corporations, private donations, public resources, and in kind donations. How did your team secure funding?

DF: We did it all internally, in our office with our team, which included the First Lady and the Presidential Counselor but also an economist/lawyer (Sandra Pineda), 2 junior architects (Gabriel Canos and Eugenio Ortiz) and a structural engineer/architect (Andres Ortega). When we began working with the First Lady the compromise was that we would work with communities and design the projects, and she would facilitate conversations with local governments, agencies, and donors. By having access to her political platform, that is being the First Lady, we were able to knock on many doors that would otherwise not listen to us. Her platform allowed us to present the projects to foreign governments, aid agencies, foundations, and private businesses interested in our mission.

BG: Having multiple sources of funding allows for the project to not be swayed in any one political direction. Was this a conscious decision?

DF: We used our mission (early childhood) as a strategy to make different interests jump on the same boat. It was difficult to manage them once there, but by forcing them (and us) to make the discussion based on early childhood, it allowed us to shut down unnecessary discussions.

BG: Are you planning to revisit and evaluate the performance of the project? If so, how do you plan on measuring the impact of your project?

DF: Metrics! There are two moments we measure: the design and construction phase, and the impact phase. The design and construction phase is simple and has a short aim. During this phase, we measured:

  • public participation in the process
  • jobs generated
  • training done
  • building sustainability and performance (environmental/cost of utilities)
  • amount of kids enrolled in the programs offered in the buildings
  • replication of construction techniques

The impact phase is long and complex as it ultimately wants to establish a set of measures that will allow us to evaluate if the kids who go through our programs are able to have a better lives than prior generations. In this phase we are measuring:

  • Amount of families who want their kids to attend (we have waiting lists in all of our projects)
  • Amount of kids who successfully transition to school (first cohort will be making the transition in 1 year)
  • How long those kids stay in school

These measures will begin to draw conclusions 15 years after the construction of the project.


BG: In the end, what was the most substantial learning curve for this project?

DF: Getting projects like this built means that the designers have to be involved in the process from the beginning to end. This means that the typical fee structures we work with as designers can’t support this type of work.

BG: Do you have any thoughts on how to improve the typical fee structures for designers?

DF: I think the idea that we design square feet has led to a suggested fee scheme that doesn’t represent the amount of work and time that goes into good design. A good designer will get the same amount of money as a bad designer. By selling square feet our work becomes a commercial product that can be numerically compared with the competitors in a direct way, disregarding the quality of the product. Nowhere is the cost of meeting with communities, structuring integral processes, and offering bi-products of the process (training, local enterprise building) considered within the fee structure.

I think a combination of thinking about design as a process led by a multiservice organization (design, strategy, social work, community outreach, lobbying…) and an understanding of the investment in time would be more representative of the work being done.

BG: So, what’s next? Does the team you worked on El Guadual with want to start a firm?

DF: I recently graduated from a masters in urban design program. I plan to work with developers understanding the business side of our profession. I don’t think we want to start a firm. We don’t think that the existing firm structures can support the type of work we like to do. MASS Design is a great example of how to propose a new model but I still want to dig deeper. We believe there is much more to our work than design and we believe a design organization capable of capturing the value at multiple levels and moments is a model we are more interested in.

We as designers are brought up to understand that all of the processes we do are part of the design (which is right), however, public interest design demands processes that we do naturally, without understanding that they are processes with a specific value within themselves that others typically charge for.

Another way of saying this is that design isn’t the problem – its part of the solution.

Click here to get a full video tour of the El Guadual Early Childhood Development Center.

Big thanks to Daniel Feldman for bringing such important and relevant information to the table on social impact design projects! Join us next week for “Staying in Close Proximity to Customers” an interview with Proximity Designs.

All images courtesy of Iván Dario Quiñones

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