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Take 5: Ken Botnick says Pulitzer design salons could forge new collaborations

Ken Botnick
Beacon archive | 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 24, 2013: Beginning Sept. 24, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts will host a series of discussions focusing on important issues in St. Louis. One idea at the heart of these salons, as they're called, is that the design process offers tools for solving problems.

Before the series begins, organizer Ken Botnick, a professor at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University, spoke with the Beacon about the salons, goals for the series and where he hopes these discussions lead.

The salons and issues discussed are as follows: 

• Sept. 24, Sustainability incubator for St. Louis

• Oct. 9, The aging community; challenges of our aging population

• Oct. 15, Educational strategies

• Nov. 6, The innovative city: Business and entrepreneurship

Botnick says additional sessions will be a place for people from the first four salons to gather and collate information, hopefully continuing with what's been started and finding ways to push ideas forward. The salons are part of a larger program by Pulitzer called The Design Initiative, which will work through several programs to help people understand the role design has on our lives. 

The sessions are not open to the public.

Beacon: Tell us about who will be present for these salons, and what are the main goals of the overall series?

Botnick: The intention of the salon series is to bring together a multi-disciplinary group of citizens vested in a common problem confronting the city, including the subjects of sustainability, aging, education, and innovation and entrepreneurship. The salons are focused on the question of what it means to live in a viable, forward-looking community that offers its citizens options for the future.

At the core of this viability is the belief that the practice of design can, and should, be a part of each problem-solving approach. We've taken care to invite participants that represent a balance of ideas and experiences with the subject. The intention here is dialogue and exchange of ideas, and, hopefully, identifying potential partners for future projects.

We hope that meeting in this way, without the pressure of a typical meeting in which an agenda is present and a concrete problem must be solved, we'll have a forum for new ideas to percolate. There are no outside experts invited, these meetings are all involving the expertise of the community. 

Beacon: Is there increased attention, or are there even increased instances in St. Louis, of how art and design can impact the community?

Botnick: Design practice, in all its forms, has changed significantly. And though there's a bit of a lag, the public perception of how design functions has changed, too. It used to be that people perceived the role of designers as those people who came to a project toward the end to "pretty it up." But today, people are more accustomed to seeing designers participating at the very beginning of a process, as problem identifiers and solvers, possessing distinctive approaches to synthesizing information.

I think you could call St Louis a city with a high design IQ, beginning with its infrastructure of classic architecture through the incredible changes taking place in Grand Center that have brought world-class modern architecture into our community. We have significant design endeavors at all scales -- we're home to one of the world's largest architecture firms, HOK. And being a design educator at Washington University, I see more and more of our students choosing to remain in St Louis each year because unique opportunities are opening up for them.

The city represents something of a dichotomy: established, interesting infrastructure with plenty of room for new life to take hold. 

Beacon: Are there cities using this approach effectively that people in St. Louis should be paying attention?

Botnick: There are quite a large number of conferences and meetings directed at new strategies for renewing our cities. But from what I see, many are using a formula of bringing lots of good experience together from different places to talk about a variety of fascinating ideas. For these meetings we wanted to keep things focused on the people who are here making a difference, people who represent a huge amount of expertise. What is true of most of these efforts across the country is seeing design as a viable partner with other disciplines in order to determine new paths forward. 

Beacon: Do you have a sense of what success looks like following the salons?

Botnick: The Pulitzer Foundation staff and I have planned these salons to provide the opportunity for new alliances to be formed as the result of the conversation. Our hope is that participants will meet colleagues they never knew they had-- that is, people working toward the same goal from a different perspective or location in the city -- and want to continue talking, and potentially, working with them. Actually, even in the planning phase this has occurred a few times already.

We have planned two follow-up sessions with participants after the four evenings take place with the goal of synthesizing information and identifying potential projects that might come from the conversations. "Success" for me would be identifying some great ideas and hearing from participants of their desire to continue the conversation.

Kristen Hare

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