Tuesday January 24th 2017, 1:25 pm
Filed under: Sustainability



This is an exhibition I went to at Asakusa museum in Tokyo in 2014 that drew together curated pieces from the life-work collection of Chuzaburo Tanaka, a celebrated Japanese ethnologist, who has been studying Japanese culture especially in the North (including Ainu – the Indigenous people of Japan in Hokkaido). The exhibition was on BORO, and for me it was really powerful because each piece of clothing was accompanied by stories of people who actually made them through love, poverty and survival, and the article passed through generations where you can actually see stitches of many many hands. For me, this helps to anchor BORO at a deeper level compared to how its ‘celebrated’ as a sustainability aesthetic in the West or framed as a kind of exotic activism for anti-consumerim. The origins of BORO is centuries old, and its actually about love and respect and the belief that materials are living and care for us as much as we care for them (inter-relatedness, which is a Shinto/Buddhist notion). It’s also about wisdom of elders and their teachings of being kind towards other people and things. The book that accompanies this exhibition is  a collection of these stories and some images of the artefacts in his collection. Some of my favourite quotes from this book are:

「世の中では’エコ’なる言葉が流行しているようだが…次なる世代に引き継ぐものは、物でも材でも、大きな墓でもない。それはやさしさであると[カッカは] 教えてくれたのだ。」p. 44

Trans: ‘The word “eco” is becoming popular … but [my mother] taught me that the most important thing to pass on to future generations is not objects or money, or even a large grave, but kindness”

「日本では、人は死ねば山へ行くと言われていた。その死んだ人が、春になれば山菜になったり木の実になって、子孫の体に戻っていく。みごとなリサイクルである。だから、先祖に感謝しなければならないと考える。山も大切にしなければならないと考える。… 日本に仏教が入ってきたのはたかが千五百年前。それまで日本人は、自然そのものを神と考えていた。だから、神である山を荒らしてはいけないと考え、そこで得られる食べ物は先祖の化身だと見なした。」p.51

Trans: “In Japan, they say when people pass away, they go to the mountains. In spring, they become shoots and nuts, returning to nourish their decedents. A wonderment of recycling. This is why we need to be thankful of our ancestors. We need to treasure the mountains … Buddhism’s arrived in Japan only 1500 years ago. Before then, Japanese people worshipped nature. Mountains were not to be desecrated because food harvested there was part of the gods and ancestors.”

Social Innovation in Cape Town, District Six
Sunday September 06th 2015, 5:37 pm
Filed under: Participation, Social design

In 1966, District Six was declared a ‘white group area’ and over the next 15years, 60,000 people were forcibly removed, their property, belongings and social relations were demolished, leading further to ethnic segregation. The Group Act policy was enforced in a staggered manner, making it harder for communities to stand together and fight. These forced removals were happening everywhere in South Africa with harsh measures taken against various ‘African’ squatter communities and many failed to secure the right to stay. ‘Coloured Labour Preference areas during the Apartheid meant employers were obliged to hire ‘coloureds’ in preference to ‘Africans’, breaking up families, livelihood and dignity.

The District Six museum tells this sad history, but also attests to the human resilience and resistance to oppression. The displays are a bit haphazard and hard to take in the jumble of photographs, quotes, installations and drawings but this is social innovation at work. It powerfully demonstrates community, layers of everyday interactions, pride for their neighbourhood and people’s connection to place and one another.
“Hanover street runs thorough the heart of District Six, and Along it one can feel the pulse-beats of society. It is the main artery of the local world of haves and have-nots, the prosperous and the poor, the struggling and the idle, the weak and the strong… It’s life blood is the hawkers bawling their wares above the Jazz from the music shops: ‘Aartappels, ja. Uwie, ja’: ragged youngsters leaping on and off the speeding trackless- trams with the agility of monkeys: harassed mothers getting in the groceries: shop assistance: the Durango Kids of 1956; and the knifes of loungers under the balconies and in the doorways leading up to the dim and mysterious rooms above the rows of shops and cafes” (Alex La Guma, New Age, 1956)

Resistance movements of Apartheid are documented during this time, and also, 1763 former District Six residents succeeded in claiming their land back, following seven years of negotiations between District Six Beneficiary Trust, the City of Cape Town and the Western Cape Land Claims Commission. Community consultation formed the backbone of the redevelopment and restitution. The District Six Civic Association was the main catalyst behind the emergence of the District Six Restitution Front, which gave rise to the Beneficiary Trust to transition from resistance to restitution.

Meditative waterfall
Monday May 11th 2015, 10:15 am
Filed under: no category

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Rehearsed protests
Sunday March 15th 2015, 5:25 pm
Filed under: Participation

I read an interesting article in the Saturday Paper by Sam Cooney (March 14-20, 2015) about a training session by CounterAct on NVDA (Nonviolent Direct Action), which is described as a way to learn about ‘methods of protest, resistance and intervention without physical violence. Participants practice scenarios of their arrest, such as the ‘ability to become a total dead weight’, so that it’s ‘much more difficult for police officers to drag me away’. Another scenario he describes is to chain someone to the front desk of a hypothetical drone manufacturing HQ, while filming the scene of any altercations with the police. It all sounds hands-on, pragmatic and somewhat polished. It is a strange rehearsal in nonviolent protest, I assume, so that the protesting can be done well, with professionalism and confidence. The author shares how the NVDA training was ’super affirmative … too much about storytelling and sharing and famous proverbs repeated with gravitas’, and notices that ‘any discussion of politics was shunted aside.’

Apparently, involvement in activist action is increasing and public interest in it, in mainstream media and social media, is also growing. It reminded me of the ‘Occupy unmasked’ documentary that was aired on SBS a while back. The documentary revealed that, despite Occupy’s appearance as a mass movement of US public frustration with the government, financial crisis and corporate greed, the individuals who were participating had little political reason why they were protesting, or were misled to come to a gathering (eg. false rumours of Radiohead’s appearance). The Brooklyn Bridge mass gathering, which was catalytic to starting the Occupy movement, is alleged to have been orchestrated by the hands of a few journalists pulling strings. One person interviewed in the documentary says ‘…they got one thing that Occupy needs to get media … they don’t get media unless there is arrest or violence’, and such stunts achieved the publicity they wanted. This is reminiscent of the NVDA training. Protesters at Occupy are interviewed why they are there. Some are unemployed and are paid to attend. Others talk about the wealthy not being taxed enough, and look sheepish when they corrected on their facts. The documentary also show how many of the active and vocal protesters have a college trust fund (so not poor, under-trodden, or marginalised). It’s a carnival, vapid on a major scale.

Occupy Melbourne (and I think there was a camp also at RMIT University campus) just sounds like a mass youth tantrum, and I’m still not quite sure what they were protesting about. Their blog seems largely about their conflict with the police, and not much on what they actually achieved. Though the consequences for the City of Melbourne has been phenomenal – clean up, damages to public spaces, police and emergency personnel, and legal bills etc. – costing the tax payers $1 mil. You’d think that it would’ve been better spent on much needed services like education, healthcare, public transport – such a waste.

Protest as a forceful expression and participation in political issue, seems so fake, when viewed this way. Its bizarre phenomena when you know what it was like in the ‘old days’, when it was still considered genuine. I  used to work for human rights organisation whose tactics was their only way to get their voices heard, for example, at Rio Tinto’s AGM to speak out on their abuse of land and human rights for indigenous peoples. These protests, vigils and boycots got the attention of the press and raised concerns for shareholders, so they can in turn, demand change in the company’s conduct. If protest is now viewed so cynically, what avenues are left for change?

Embarrassing politicians
Saturday December 27th 2014, 9:41 am
Filed under: Some ranting

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Public figures in Japan continue to shock and entertain me… here are two highlights of 2014!

Hyogo Councillor, Ryutaro Nonomura cries hysterically and shouts incoherent excuses at a press conference in July 2014. He is one of many public servants suspected of mis-using funds. Since then, several other prominent ministers, including Yuko Obuchi (Trade and Industry) has resigned over alleged misuse of public funds in the Ministry of Trade.

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While Ayaka Shiomura MP took the floor to report recent findings in Tokyo on the increasing trend of infertility, women delaying childbirth and lack of maternal support, she was rudely heckled by Akihiro Suzuki MP who shouted ‘Hurry up and have a baby yourself!’ 「早く子供を産め」. He then denied all knowledge of this incident, to later admit and publicly apologise for his behaviour. Oh my goodness… only in Japan?

Multi-generational interaction in high-rises
Friday December 26th 2014, 6:57 pm
Filed under: Social design

Screen Shot 2014-12-26 at 8.00.52 pmOn the Japanese public broadcast network – NHK (Nippon Ho-sou Kyoku) today, there was a brilliant social innovation story between university students and the residents living in a large high-rise estate. Rent have been subsidised by a partnership between local Universities, resident groups (自治体) and councils, to let them out cheaply to students with the plan to re-invigorate an ageing community. Other modifications are being made to the larger apartments to enable multi-generation families to live, or help exchange students to house-share. Students are then invited to community meetings to proactively contribute to the community.

Ageing and de-population are affecting regional towns like Kasukabe, where my parents live. What was once a popular high-rise apartments now have more empty rooms. Seeing this, social innovation initiatives like ‘Neighbourhood festival’ 「隣人祭り」are bringing in new residents and fresh ideas to stimulate engagement and exchange. Partnering universities (eg. 日本工業大学と埼玉県立大学) are incorporating such community engagement initiatives as assignments to support a ‘real-world’ classroom.

One student living in a high-rise estate in Takesato (武里団地), Kasukabe, initiated a food event, noting how many people were eating alone. Heart warming scenes were observed where senior residents taught the younger ones how to wrap dumplings and cook traditional food.

A failed experiment?
Friday May 09th 2014, 12:49 pm
Filed under: Communication Design, Some ranting

One of my Honours student talked about Field Experiment in our class. He is Indonesian, studying communication design in Australia. His Honours research explores how communication design creates contemporary understandings of Jakarta’s culture, and how its citizen can participate in its making. To summarise, the Field Experiment is led by designers (from the West) who take a ’sabbatical’ from their usual work to fly to Bali, Indonesia, and undertake arts + craft based projects using local products and craft technique. The root of its interest / popularity is because it was led by Stefan Sagmeister (aka the David Carson of the 00’s naughties) and I was quite surprised to know that Sagmeister needed a sabbatical away from ‘client work’. The general perception by design community has of his practice is a feeling of envy of the amazing projects his studio undertakes, so the client-driven-nose-to-the-grind-stone is not an image that comes to mind…

As the class looked at the Field Experiment website and the associated interviews, blogs and general PR, we couldn’t help but feel that, here is yet another ‘cool’ project for designers and the design community – a self-indulgent, object-obsessed, white-middle-class entertainment, exploiting ‘local culture’s exoticism for their own gain. Just last week, we discussed and similarly, critiqued Jimmy Nelson’s TEDxAmsterdam talk, ‘Before they pass away‘, where he photographed and documented the last of the remaining indigenous tribes during his travels around the world. There were lots of resonance between Nelson’s photography that we saw in Field Experiments too. While the Indonesian Honours student who showed Field Experiment was excited by what Sagmeister and the other designers had done in re-appropriating the traditional arts and crafts of his culture as something interesting and novel, there were more troubling questions afoot. In class, we discussed its equivalent in Australia – designers / artists going to Arnhem land to ‘collaborate’ with Indigenous communities to design products for market. Dot Dot and bark paintings on scarfs and flip flops. Commercially viable, yes, but what does that do to their culture, their voice, their representation, their future…?

Similarly, who benefits from these design ‘experiments’? Clearly, its been a big ‘hit’, with an exhibition coming up in May 2014. But what about the local villagers and craftsmen and women who generously shared their skills? What do they learn or gain from this experience? How does the local community benefit, other than the small amounts of tourism dollars dropped into their businesses (and the $ goes a long long way in Indonesia). Is there any meaningful and mutual cultural exchange for them? What about the local environment? Are the things made sustainable to produce where it is, or does it rely on foreign manufactured and imported items? Can the craftsperson who weaves a basket, can they now make an additional living out of turning the basket into a lamp, and sell it through exclusive shops in the West? And if so, what does that mean for their business – would they need to learn how to be web-savvy and earn more to afford that extra technology…? Strangely, these systemic implications were not evident in the Field Experiment documentation, indicating that perhaps, the considerations weren’t there for the designers either. Field Experiments’ blog and Tumblr pictures are beautiful – products photographed in a white studio or carefully curated against local nature. They overwhelmingly demonstrate the designer’s obsession with craft, novelty of the created item and also of themselves (self-portraits). The interview with one of the designers, Paul Fuog, who accompanied Sagmeister is also illuminating in that regard. Much of what he speaks about is the familiar desire beind ‘Designer Authorship’ – to be creative, expressive, experiment, risk-take, playful etc – and little awareness of the impact of their interventions in a small, Asian village. It looks like colonialism all over again.

ServDes 2014
Thursday April 24th 2014, 5:31 pm
Filed under: Service Design, User/Human Centred Design


(from the CASS Foundation travel report – apologies for the rather ‘formal’ tone!)

The Service Design and Innovation (ServDes) conference is the premier research platform for bringing researchers and practitioners together to exchange knowledge and evolve the emerging domain of designing services. It is one of the most highly regarded conferences in this area and hosted at one of the foremost service design research centres, Imagination Lancaster, UK. Having presented a paper in their 2009 conference in Oslo, I have been impressed by the quality of papers, choice of key-note speakers and the general organisation of the conference. With the CASS Travel Grant, I had the opportunity to travel and present a paper again in 2014.

My paper’s presentation drew on my principal research focus since PhD completion. Forecasts of increasingly destructive natural disasters, such as bushfires, droughts, earthquakes and floods mean that more research is needed to ensure communities, services and systems become more resilient. This is a global concern and design can play a key role in this arena, funded by the Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre (CRC). As a Chief Investigator I explored a variety of community-based methods for engagement and preparedness, enabling  adaptive capacities to plan collectively. My paper, ‘Passing on, handing over, letting go – the passage of embodied methods for disaster preparedness’ explores  the complexities of how design can catalyse transformation for communities in a political, emotive and challenging terrain. It aims to contribute knowledge to this nascent field, highlighting the lived realities of practice that are often over-looked in theoretical or overtly methodological / instrumental discussions in service design.

Service design research, being a field of inquiry that is shifting its focus from designing ‘products’ (tangible, technological and artefact-oriented) to systems of interactions (intangible, relational and experience-oriented), I noticed how many papers were tackling this paradigm shift. It raised interesting questions regarding the problem of setting artificial boundaries around ‘service implementation’ and where a project begin and ends, literal distinctions between ‘goods’ and ‘services’ and the lack of awareness by designers who are stepping into change (and to change whom and what?). There were excellent discussions that reminded us all that the process of designing systems is far more complex, entangled and plural, only achieved through gradual change and enacted by people. Pelle Ehn’s (Malmö University) wonderful keynote elaborated, humbly and warmly, his research that spaned over fifty years in participatory design, an area that service design must learn more from. He called attention to the danger of creating artificial boundaries around projects, time, and future, describing key ideas like ‘thinging’ and ‘infrastructuring’ that sees design as an assembly of people to coalesce concerns in an on-going, evolving manner in manifesting multiple future-making. Other presentations that were also memorable include Alison Prendiville’s (London College of Communication, University of the Arts London) discussion on the danger of commensurating qualities into quantities – a trend that we see often when justifying public service support. In her case study of working with ageing people in the UK, she discussed how place-making, as an active, embodied gathering supported the elderly community to build their social relations and contribute to their well-being. Place-making in service design is often poorly acknolwedged, and all too considered as ‘space’ instead – a blank, static, neutral backdrop for design. Furthermore, Janette Blomberg (IBM Research) pointed out the current limitations of the service design discourse, echoing Pelle’s point, and the need to recognise the complexity often concealed in the service provider and recipient relationship, and the instrumentality of design in intervening in change. She asked us to consider the ethical and political concern when we perform in this arena.

Given my presentation attempted to highlight similar concerns about lived realities of transformation, embodied entanglements and dynamic complexities of designing with people, I thoroughly enjoyed my conversations with Pelle, Alison, Janette and many others during lunch, drinks and dinner. I have to admit that there were several who didn’t like or ‘get’ the argument I was putting forward – I think the concerns I raise are actually difficult to grapple with.  I was also introduced to several researchers who I am delighted to acquaint with in Korea and Japan, and we discussed the possibility of co-convening an Asia-Pacific symposium on service design in 2015/16 to further build stronger relationships in this area.

Bento-box and the arrows in-between
Friday August 30th 2013, 12:28 pm
Filed under: Some ranting

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In the event last night, Andy talked about the classic art-school exercise where students in their first week had to draw the ‘negative’ spaces to switch their perception from looking at objects. Its similar to how I to learnt typography or composition in my first-year undergraduate,  drummed into seeing the white space in-between the letterforms to understand kerning, leading and layout.

Andy’s talk highlighted our conditioning, as industrialised cultures, that makes us focus on objects, and that it is problematic because it doesn’t make us aware of the in-between connections that are there that is almost as important, if not more. This in-betweenness is where we find things like relationships, engagement, movement, experience… Andy used, as an example, an organisational chart of a management structure in an organisation, and talked about the ‘arrows in-inbetween’ that often become neglected, or perhaps, treated as ‘objects’ in an effort to control it.

In parallel, there’s a conversation that I’ve been having recently with my colleagues in Japan, based on that works with a community in Kesennuma, devastated by the 3.11 Great Eastern Earthquake, in an attempt to catalyse empowerment and transformation through participatory social innovation. And in this conversation, we touched on the ‘bento-box‘ activity as it was one of the things that the high-school kids designed by re-discovering their traditional food cultures and to share and celebrate that within the community and beyond, and potentially re-generate local businesses again. And whilst we were talking, it was a delightful surprise when we stumbled on the ‘bento-box’ as a metaphor for the project. The culture of bento-box in Japan is creative and playful, often incorporating regional ingredients and flavours that allow its diversity. Its limitless possibilities, combination and variety are its charm. In contrast to western notions of a ‘box’ that gives it a restrictive, bounded, ‘boxed-in’ feeling, a ‘box’ (hako) in the Japanese context is almost its opposite. Here, a ‘box / hako’ is, in fact, a receptacle that has the capacity to be filled with anything. It is openness.

Relating this back to Andy’s talk about the ‘in-between spaces’, to the notion of a ‘bento-box’ as a open and limitless possibility, I was suddenly struck by its similarity. The ‘bento-box’ as a metaphor for a receptacle, suggests that the thing that is being designed is the scaffolding itself, borrowing a pedagogic terminology. So if we designed the ‘bento-box’, the in-between space inside it can become anything, supporting the ‘liquid network’ of people’s relationships, movements, experiences…

And there must be something in the universe… serendipitously, Kenya Hara is coming to Melbourne, because Muji is just about to launch its flagship store next year, and I’ve been asked to host and introduce his lecture next week at RMIT Design Hub. And his talk will be on ‘emptiness’, a classic Japanese, zen-buddhism philosophy that underlies the concept of what he does. Hara-san’s philosophy, emptiness, is empty space to attune our sensibilities towards how we ‘notice’ it but can’t ‘grab’ it, how we attempt to create it by clearing it, and by clearing it, help something enter. But its not the ‘less is more’ modernist philosophy: “The roots of expressions like … ‘less is more’ are subtly different than those that underlie emptiness. Emptiness does not merely imply simplicity of form, logical sophistication and the like. Rather, emptiness provides a space within which our imaginations can run free, vastly enriching our powers of perception and our mutual comprehension. Emptiness is this potential.” (Hara 2010). This is all tied with ancient ideas that were developed through Japanese tea-ceremony, the aesthetics of simplicity and nature, and further still, to Shinto, where gods are invited to reside – in the shrine, in the landscape, in ourselves. He talks about the Shimenawa as the lines that invoke such spaces – made of rice-stalks twisted as a rope – marking the lines where people and spirits crossed over and entered hallowed spaces. Thomas Kasulis, in his book Shinto, interestingly talks about these as ‘bookmarks’.

Returning back to Andy’s talk again, he referenced some ideas to his life in Germany and German language, and how adjectives were harder to learn because they are culturally contextualised. The example he gave was Shadenfreude, a term borrowed from Germany  because there is no English equivalent. After the talk, we briefly discussed how interesting it is that such words exists in different cultures. I related it to my own culture, where there are many words in Japanese (but not in English) that refer to people’s relationships. Japan is a small, mountainous, island country leaving little choice but to live closely with one another – so its no wonder it had to create words to consider and be more aware of the in-between spaces among people. Nonaka’s contribution to the knowledge management discourse, through Ba, is one such example, and because this word exists, in a Wittgenshtinian way, we can actively create its relevance to and meaning in our lives. Similar to how the notion of a ‘box’ connotes restrictiveness in the Western context, but in total contrast, means openness in the Japanese context, and that there is the idea+word existing in the first place can help us talk about it and consciously ‘design’ it too. Its a bookmark!

Perhaps the tangent with Hara-san’s emptiness has taken me too far away from Andy’s talk on the ‘arrows in-between’, but I reckon there’s something here worth thinking about more…!

Graphic design thinking – beyond brainstorming
Tuesday July 23rd 2013, 2:13 pm
Filed under: Communication Design, Thoughts on readings

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Jeremy had lent me this book the other day. Its one of those ‘pop’ books that Ellen Lupton is really good at  churning out these days – she’s done a suite of these among things like ‘DIY’ creativity books. Out of curiosity, I sat down and read it cover to cover (easy reading on the train) and its actually very good examples of framing problems, idea generation and creating form visually. It is solidly wedded to the ‘graphic’ form of designing as a medium and a tool. In fact, ‘design thinking’ here is done through form-making – sketching, compiling lists, diagramming relationships, mapping web of associations. Let me list what it contains in the Contents that relate to it:

• Mind Mapping - or ‘radiant thinking’ a ‘mental research’, starting with a central term or idea the designer quickly plots out associated images and concepts.
• Visual Research - a study of brand space of a client/product/ service by looking at logos, names, promotional language, colour and other aspects of a brand
• Brand Matrix – uses x-y axis to cross two values eg. rational /emotional and elite / popular to plot the brand and where it would like to be
• Brand Books – ‘a way to visualize the personality and life story of a product, company, organisation. The designer uses a selection of colors, shapes, textures, photographs, words, and photos to set a mood… as a narrative’ (p. 46)
• Visual Brain Dump - sounds like another form of mind-mapping but the process is not to stop drawing
• Forced connections – eg. visual puns like crossing iconic products with unpleasant forms
• Action verbs – visually explore applications of different verbs, eg. magnify, rearrange, alter, adapt and forces a fresh view of the idea
• Everything from everywhere – looking beyond the familiar
• Rhetorical figures - using structure of language / words as forms of inspiration
• Semiotics – this rich area of linguistics has been boiled down to the visual exploration of logo design
• Visual Diary - emphasis of this is on ‘unguided creativity’
• Concept presentations - the example they showed here was interaction and service design mock-ups and storyboards

Graphic designers seems to have cornered the market with this many repetoire of visual thinking, and the examples Lupton shows are pretty diverse. Though, given its meant to be ‘beyond brainstorming’, this book doesn’t go past the initial stages of ideation, which is a shame. I only found a couple of pages (11 pages in total) on research that aims to generate well-rounded understanding of audiences / problem context (as opposed to other forms of research they discuss that only looks at something one-dimensionally), which may give a rather poor impression for the profession.

There’s also a section on ‘collaboration’, which I thought was very odd (its a bit like ‘breathing’ or ‘eating’ – don’t we all collaborate as part of our job?). ‘Sometimes, designers let their individuality get in the way of teamwork. Effective collaboration yields something new, not a Frankensteinian mash up of parts’ (p. 92) was very reveling. Are graphic designers poor collaborators? Are they too ego-centred, and are these individuals celebrated too often in the profession?

Interestingly, there’s a section on co-design that references Liz Sander’s work. Given my lament on the lack of any kinds of research being demonstrated here, this shows promising signs of designers actually involving people in the design process. ‘Designers today have learned that users are experts in their own domains. Many designers now view themselves as not controlling an end result but as putting a process into play that actively involves an audience’ (p. 96). Despite this grand gesture of equal footing, the ‘how to co-design’ is a rather disappointing account of gleaning insights from the users through visual / tactile mediums. It actually sounds more like user-centred design rather than co-design, as the designer is still designing the final outcome on behalf of the users.

The case studies that showed signs of extending beyond the visual thinking stages of a project was the PieLab – a 48hr public event that morphed into a pop-up shop called PieLab in Greensboro, Alabama that then became a permanent storefront. This is more than baking, it brings people in the local community together to talk and share. Bielenberg says ‘Conversations leads to ideas, ideas to projects, and projects to positive change’.