Design organizations and schools all over the world are
increasingly pondering the proverbial question: Do designers have
the ability to change the world? In the face of the current
worldwide economic crisis, it may be hard to be optimistic. Yet
given the right engine for change, the answer, according to
Project M's John
Bielenberg, is a resounding YES—however, he would argue, it can
only be done one community at a time. Through his intensive summer
program, Bielenberg's students use design, writing, photography and
other strategic skills to address global issues at the local level.
From the rural American South to urban Iceland, Project M applies
design thinking to help provide safe drinking water (Buy a Meter, in Hale County,
Alabama) or turn abandoned lots into parks (This Is Not Grass, in
East Baltimore, Maryland). Recently, Bielenberg went to Reykjavík
as the nation's economy collapsed and led an M Blitz workshop, in
which creative collaborators have just 48 hours to make a positive
impact. As the recession continues here at home, we spoke to
Bielenberg about his experience in Iceland and what Project M will
do next to save the world.
One of the 48-hour M Blitz projects in response to the Icelandic
financial collapse, Deilum involved posting items in bags for
people to take as long as they returned it with something they no
Heller: For several years now you've been running Project M,
an intensive learning experience—a global classroom, so to
speak—with the objective to "change the world." What was the
impetus for the program, and what does the M stand for?
Bielenberg: I was totally and completely inspired by
Mockbee, founder of the Auburn Rural Studio for architecture in
Hale County, Alabama. So, M stands for Mockbee, Maine (where I
live), messages, mentoring, mavericks—not McCain—and more meanings
Heller: You've held Project M programs in the rural South, in
urban East Baltimore and in the rainforest of Costa Rica, and you
developed the Mbulance to help victims of Katrina. Recently, you
were in Reykjavík. Why Reykjavík? Iceland is not known as a third
Bielenberg: I was asked to run a Project M Design
Activism class at the Iceland Academy of the Arts, which happened
to coincide with their recent economic and political meltdown. It
was a perfect opportunity to use design as a response to their
crisis, even though the country is fairly affluent. While I was
there, the government was forced to resign by crowds of Icelanders
banging on pots and pans in front of the Parliament building. It
was too loud for them to carry on business! They told me that
nobody had protested in Iceland for 40 years.
Heller: The Icelanders were melting. You say that "ability
equals responsibility." Does that mean everyone on your M team is
responsible for a small piece of the earth?
Bielenberg: [Laughs] I just think we all should just care
about something deeply and use our skills as designers to do
something about it. Maybe it's the earth, maybe not.
Videos from the Reykjavík M Blitz projects on YouTube.
Heller: Let's talk about the Reykjavík project. What were the
results of it and did it make the proverbial change?
Bielenberg: The Iceland group was engaged in something I
call an M Blitz. It's a 48-hour project using design for the
greater good. In this case, design was used to respond publicly to
their current crisis. Several of the seven Blitz projects were
covered in the Icelandic national news. They were all documented in
48-second YouTube videos.
Heller: What is the profile of your participants?
Bielenberg: There were about 40 young students from the
architecture, graphic and product design programs. Most were
Icelandic, but not all.
Heller: I presume anyone involved is serious about social
issues. But how much are they willing to sacrifice to go the
Bielenberg: I was overwhelmed by their energy, passion
and courage... and secretly afraid that they might get injured or
arrested. A couple of the projects were potentially dangerous and,
while I wouldn't encourage risking life and limb, they kicked
The group placed 12,793 kronas in front of the Central Bank
building in Reykjavík. Each coin represented one unemployed
Heller: You have a motto that can easily be taken as a
superficial saying: "Learn how to think wrong." What does that
mean? Is wrong the new right?
Bielenberg: Thinking wrong is really about challenging
our conventions, processes and orthodoxies, especially during the
idea-generation phase of design. I believe that the process of
thinking wrong is an antidote to how our brains create synaptic
connections, or heuristic biases, to efficiently function in the
world and produce predictable, but expected results. It's about
generating a huge number of possibilities, before selecting or
executing, and is based on the assumption that creativity,
invention and innovation are good things. At Project M we use a
variety of exercises to short circuit our biases and connect things
that wouldn't normally be connected. It doesn't mean that the final
project looks or feels "wrong."
Heller: What have you and your participants accomplished that
is quantifiably life altering?
Bielenberg: I think of Project M as an incubator, or boot
camp, for designers that share a common belief in the power of
design to shape the future in a positive way. The true impact of
Project M can only be measured when you evaluate the arc of the
careers of the people who have participated. The actual projects we
produce together are useful—I hope—byproducts of our brief
experience together. However, I do think some of them have been
successful, like connecting a hundred families to fresh water in
Hale County, Alabama.
An Icelandic reporter interviews M Blitz designers as a letter M
burns in the background.
Heller: How do you keep Project M afloat?
Bielenberg: Good question! At this point it's completely
self-funded. The participants share the cost of running the
program, and all the advisors donate their time. There's no profit
built into the model—just ask my wife, Dee. The good part of this
is that we are completely free of external forces or agendas, like
we might not be with corporate funding. This model might need to
change at some point as Project M expands to meet increasing
Heller: Do you foresee the economic slowdown as impacting the
work of Project M?
Bielenberg: So far it's had a positive effect. Because of
factors like financial collapse, global climate change and
decreasing supply of fossil fuels, we are all a bit anxious and
young people are increasingly interested in doing work that
matters. I also think that the job market is so tight that they are
looking for alternative creative outlets. I haven't seen this level
of engagement since the 1960s! Also, there is no shortage of
projects that we might care about addressing.
Heller: What do you envision as the future for Project
Bielenberg: As I mentioned before, there's a lot of
interest and momentum in Project M and using design for the greater
good. I'd like to offer more people more ways to participate.
Although I'm not the type to have a business plan, I do have some
expansion ideas. In addition to my traditional four-week Project M
program in Alabama in June, I'm expanding to offer a two-week
program in Maine in March. We're also establishing permanent design
studios called Project M Labs in several locations. The first,
built by the 2008 M Team, is in Greensboro, Alabama, and I am in
conversations to open similar ones in Belfast, Maine, Baltimore,
Maryland, and Reykjavík, Iceland. These studios will be staffed by
young designers and work on ongoing projects, as well as help
facilitate other groups coming through to have the M
We're also launching the M Blitz movement, and I'm working on an
M Blitz guidebook right now. The last thing I'd like to do is bring
together M Expedition teams to travel to places and do projects.
I've been talking to a group from the Dakota Sioux reservation in
South Dakota about doing something there. I imagine this as a more
functional version of Team Zissou, from the movie The Life
Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
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