A central part of a Parsons education has always been civic engagement — students are able to connect their studies about real world issues to the larger community — but a new initiative in now enabling students to take their ideas and make them a reality. Last month, the School of Design Strategies at Parsons and its Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability Laboratory (DESIS Lab) established a partnership with the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI), a Toronto-based nonprofit that supports changemakers in the NGO, public, business, and academic sectors. CSI recently opened a 24,000-square-foot space in the Starrett-Lehigh building in New York, which is housing a new incubator program for Parsons students and recent alumni to develop design-led social innovation projects that have application in the wider world.
“We’ve set up an environment where ideas become reality,” explains Eduardo Staszowski, director of DESIS Lab. Created in 2009, DESIS Lab offers students a chance to work at the intersection of strategic and service design, management, and social theory, while focusing on sustainable practices and social innovation. “All these ideas are new. [Their developers] don’t have the individual resources to try them on their own, so the incubator provides them with the infrastructure and resources to move their ideas forward.”
The incubator provides logistical support, networking opportunities, and most importantly, a platform for student experimentation. In addition, the DESIS Lab will create programming for the Centre that will not only shape the incubator program, but also benefit other changemakers in residency at the Centre. “Having a partner like CSI, who can bring different perspectives to the conversation, is ideal,” says Staszowski. “It’s very much in the nature of what we do at DESIS.”
Five projects are currently underway, led by fifteen Parsons students and recent graduates from the MS Design and Urban Ecologies and the MFA Transdisciplinary Design programs. Bike Flocks is a clean energy transportation system; Make Your Mark is an urban parks stewardship program; Enacting Policy uses storytelling, mapping, and role-playing to educate people about complex policy issues; Co-Kreate is intended to provide a sustainable housing alternative; and Citysteading is designed to help marginalized urban populations gain political traction on important policy issues.
Christopher Patten ’13 (MFA Transdisciplinary Design) leads Enacting Policy, a project based on his master’s thesis. “I realized that I needed to find a way to get my work into a nonacademic environment and in front of people that can offer feedback based on their own experience in the creative start-up world,” says Patten. “Sharing a work space at CSI makes it easy to meet people with similar ideas. On my first day I met people from the LGBT Bar Association, and we are now developing workshops to help LGBTQ families set up inheritance and end-of-life plans.”
Bridging the gap between academia and the wider world is a central purpose of the DESIS Lab. “We don’t do simulations,” Staszowski explains. “These are real-life issues.” The first round of projects wrap up in September 2014, when a new batch of innovative projects will take their place.