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Empowering Communities Through Design: Strategies and Insights



In the dynamic intersection of creativity and social impact, design emerges as a powerful tool capable of transforming communities and fostering empowerment.


Design goes beyond aesthetics. If done right, thoughtful design can become a catalyst for positive change, lifting communities and providing them with the spaces they need to thrive.

Design can also be a tool for inclusivity, sustainability, and resilience.


From urban planning to grassroots initiatives, there are diverse approaches and innovative ideas that architects, designers, and community leaders can employ to create spaces that not only meet the needs of the present but also pave the way for a sustainable future.


So, how can we then harness the transformative potential of design in enhancing social connections, economic opportunities, and overall well-being?


Virtuous cycle of community engagement


In this blog post, we’ll discuss how, through design, we can build stronger, more resilient, and empowered communities.


Next, we’ll share a case study of our client to illustrate how a community-centric design approach can be used to build a haven that is in harmony with nature, enterprising, and filled with community spirit.


You’ll also find out how you can contribute to their cause and be part of their nature loving community!


How Can Architects Use Design As An Enabler To Empower The Community?


Architects can play a crucial role in empowering communities through thoughtful and inclusive design.


If you’re an architect or design enthusiast, here are 9 suggested ways in which architects can use design as an enabler to empower communities:

Infographic of the 9 design enablers to empower communities


#1 Community Engagement

Involve the community in the design process right from the beginning. 


Listen actively to their feedback and incorporate their ideas into your design.


Conduct focus group sessions, collaborative workshops, town hall meetings etc. to understand the aspirations, needs, and desires, of the community members.


These are the fundamental ways to empower a community but yet often overlooked.


Using this participatory approach ensures that your final design reflects the values and preferences of the community and will help to inculcate a sense of ownership in the community towards the spaces designed for them.


#2 Cultural Sensitivity

Respect the cultural identity of the community.


Consider local traditions, history, and aesthetics and incorporate these aspects of their cultural identity into your design.


This will help you to create a design that resonates with the community and fosters a sense of belonging.


#3 Inclusive Design

Design spaces that are accessible to people of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds.


Consider the needs of children, the elderly, and people with disabilities to create environments that are inclusive and welcoming to everyone.


#4 Sustainable Practices

Integrate sustainable and environmentally friendly design principles into your design. 


This not only benefits the environment but also helps communities by reducing long-term costs and promoting resilience as time passes, in the face of environmental challenges.


#5 Community Spaces 

Include communal spaces in your design wherever possible to encourage social interaction and community engagement.


Public parks, gathering areas, community and cultural centres can serve as major nodes for community activities, fostering a sense of community and connection.


#6 Adaptive Reuse 

Retrofit existing structures to preserve cultural heritage and reduce environmental impact.


Transforming old buildings into affordable housing or community centres can help revitalize neighbourhoods and preserve the historical legacy of the community.

 

#7 Education and Training

Provide education and training opportunities related to design and construction to empower the community.


This can include workshops on sustainable practices, community planning, and basic construction skills, to equip community members with the know-how to actively participate in the development process.

 

#8 Economic Empowerment

Use design to create spaces that support entrepreneurship within the community.


Incorporate mixed-use developments that provide opportunities for small businesses, markets, and local artisans, to peddle their wares.

 

#9 Resilient Infrastructure

Design infrastructure that is resilient to natural disasters and climate change.


This helps protect the community from potential hazards, ensures the longevity of the built environment, and minimize disruptions to community life, ties, and activities. 


3 Practical Tips to Unlock the Power of Design in Empowering Communities


#1 Facilitate, Not Dictate

Architects have to learn the art of relinquishing control, to let go of their roles as lead designers to varying degrees and share the responsibility of designing with the community.


They should be pulling the strings, helping with curating, and facilitating, rather than dominating discussions on design as it traditionally has been.


#2 Be an Enabler, Not an Inhibitor

Design as enabler rather than as an inhibitor.


Traditionally, architects love to ‘complete’ designs. Some are even prone to over designing, leaving minimal opportunities for the community to exercise their intuition and creativity.


Sometimes, a completed building may not necessary be the completed outcome. Do take in multiple perspectives before finalising designs, to transform a good design into a great one.


#3 Co-design, But Don’t Misassign


Not every single building project would require such a collaborative and participatory design approach.


For such projects, the design curators, i.e., the architects, should still have the intention to empower, but discuss with clients and stakeholders the extent to which co-designing would take place.


End of the day, it’s important not to misassign design responsibilities and misalign with client objectives.


Case Study of Empowering with Design: Ground-Up Initiative (GUI)


WeCreate Studio has always been committed to community-centred design. Our design approach has always been inclusive, participative, and collaborative.


We refrain from imposing our ideas on our clients, such as GUI, but instead listen actively to these ideas and nurture them together with our clients.  


We work hand-in-hand with our clients, as we weave our expertise with their philosophies such as being committed to sustainability and community building for example.


Background On GUI’s Inspiring Journey

In 2008, guided by the late Mr. Tay Lai Hock, GUI embarked on a transformative mission in a small corner of Lim Chu Kang. Here, they initiated the first Balik Kampung program, facilitating activities that allowed urban dwellers to heal and connect them with nature.


Over the past 15 years, GUI, under the leadership of committed individuals, has grown into a 2.6-hectare nature-inspired haven, providing mental, physical, and spiritual healing to hundreds of thousands through over 1000 runs of the Balik Kampung program.


Artist rendering of GUI’s new site (Credit: GUI)


Today, GUI is seen by environmentally conscious individuals and nature lovers as a non-profit organisation dedicated to nurturing connectedness, creativity, and risk-taking. 


Through activities like farming, crafts, and earth oven baking in their nature-inspired space at Khatib, GUI aspires to build a Singapore society filled with people who are Gracious, Green, Giving, Grounded, and Grateful, for a happier and more sustainable future.

 

Stakeholders’ Visioning Workshop

Having a longstanding relationship with GUI and sharing the same commitment towards community development and sustainability, we’re grateful to be selected as the Qualified Person (QP) and Architect for GUI’s new space.


Earlier this year on 15 April 2023, we held a stakeholders’ visioning workshop for the movement of GUI’s current set-up to their new Kampong Kampus site in Khatib.


Participants included the staff of GUI from various teams such as farming, craft, the management team, and also regular volunteers.


The workshop kickstarted with a recap on GUI’s vision, followed by a sharing on GUI’s masterplan and sites earmarked for permaculture farming.


Artist Impression of GUI’s new site with zoning (Credit: GUI)

Next, participants did a self-introduction and presented their collective vision of GUI. 


They then participated in an activity called ‘Keep Toss Add Rethink’, where they had to brainstorm on aspects for each of the spaces in GUI such as the Farm, Earth Oven, and Touchwood, that are well, not so good, to keep and/or add for GUI’s new space in terms of hardware, software, and oddware.


‘Keep Toss Add Rethink’ brainstorming chart for ‘Touchwood’ from a discussion group


While some processes in GUI have already been ongoing for some time, this activity provided participants with the opportunity to creatively think of ways to improve these processes at GUI.


‘Keep Toss Add Rethink’ brainstorming chart for ‘Earth Oven’ from a discussion group


As participants did their brainstorming, we encouraged them to be inclusive, environmentally conscious, ‘sustainability-minded’, and with a keen eye on improving GUI’s education and training offerings to the public, when giving their suggestions.


‘Keep Toss Add Rethink’ brainstorming chart for ‘Farm’ from a discussion group


This stakeholder visioning workshop was a success, throwing up lots of suggestions for us to ponder upon. It allowed us to involve the community in the design process right from the beginning which helps to foster a sense of ownership of the new space in them.


Help GUI Continue Their Legacy


GUI's lease at 91 Lorong Chencharu, their home since 2009, concludes on 31 December 2023, as the land is being earmarked for new housing developments. While they are thrilled to be moving to their new site in Khatib, they face a significant challenge.


To make #GUIsBigMove successful, they are aiming to raise $4.5 million in several phases, with Phase 1 alone requiring SGD$2,000,000.


The funds will support the construction of GUI's new campus in Khatib, covering professional fees, plan processing charges, site inspectorate, demolition of existing structures for material reuse, furniture, equipment, external works, BCA Green Mark assessment, and Goods and Services Tax.


Your contribution will help them build a new space that continues GUI's legacy of inspiring, enriching, educating, and fostering community participation, just like what their current space at 91 Lorong Chencharu has done for many.


Show your support today to help shape the future of GUI and ensure that they can continue to be a beacon of inspiration, education, and community building, at their new space.


Urban dwellers from all walks of life enjoying nature-centric activities at GUI

(Credits: Camphora)


Help them spread the word and be part of #GUIsBigMove. Every dollar counts!


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