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How socially conscious design can help solve the country’s toughest problems

Perfectly timed for campaign season, the exhibit “By the People: Designing a Better America” showcases creative solutions to entrenched issues

When Cynthia E. Smith, the curator of socially responsible design for the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum started formulating and planning an upcoming exhibit on how design can help communities across the country, she planned an extensive research trip. But the journey almost reads like the schedule of a progressive politician trying to rally a country looking for change.

Her on-the-ground research for "By the People: Designing a Better America," which opens at the New York museum on September 30, took her to areas across North America facing big challenges: post-industrial cities, sprawling cities, struggling rural towns, border regions, and areas impacted by natural and man-made disaster. The results of her explorations and investigations, an exhibit focusing on dozens of noteworthy projects and community initiatives, some of which are highlighted below, shows a union with challenges, but one where design has been leveraged to provide grassroots solutions.

"There’s this continued interest in socially engaged work, and more and more designers and non-designers are interested in working in this arena," Smith says. "There are entrenched issues that design alone can’t solve, but it’s an important tool."

Smith was struck by the vastness of the country, the myriad of challenges it faces, and the inspiring nature of the solutions that will be on exhibit. This show is the third in a series (which stretches back to 2007’s "Design for the Other 90%"), examining how socially conscious design can impact the built environment and our homes, and Smith believes the show can become a catalyst for even more change in the U.S. A slate of speaking events stretching into 2017, as well as a 256-page book covering the lessons of the exhibit, will help amplify the theme of enlightened design as a tool for tackling tough problems.

"That’s our role at the Smithsonian, to convene a conversation around the subject and disseminate knowledge," she says. "It’s raising public awareness of the issue, of how many people are living in and struggling with poverty, and looking at the structural reasons of why one of the wealthiest nations in the world still struggles with the issue."