51 Futures: Community Design Studio

51 Futures
Jul 21 · 5 min read

The partnership between Urban Juncture (Boxville) and the Institute of Design at Illinois Tech began during the Spring semester of 2019. Students from the Product Design Workshop, led by Professor Martin Thaler, worked with Urban Juncture’s President, Bernard Loyd, to design new ways to connect Urban Juncture with the varied resources and populations in the surrounding community areas. The class spent 15 weeks exploring the assets of Urban Juncture, primarily focused on Boxville, understanding the context of the Bronzeville/Washington Park community, and surrounding institutions. ID conducted research at a local university to better understand students’ knowledge about Bronzeville and Boxville, their experience exploring the Bronzeville community, and determining what attracts them to explore neighborhoods surrounding their university.

We found that 55% of students “have not explored the neighborhoods around campus.” There are 3 main reasons why these students did not feel empowered to explore the neighborhoods around campus:

  1. Safety concerns
  2. Limited time to explore while at school
  3. Lack of information about what to do

These findings led students to reframe the original challenge and focus on how to inform expectations, generate excitement, and ease safety concerns. The final prototype is a multipurpose set of wooden box structures that can be used in isolation for sitting or as a unit to create tables, a stage, or signage. Students created two additional recommendations for continuing the partnership and project.


Signal Post + Passport

What it is: A Bronzeville Culture Passport entices users to have joyful explorations in Bronzeville by giving them a sense of accomplishment. Signal post is a wayfinding piece located throughout Bronzeville. It also serves as an information hub for the attractions.

How it would work: Passports will be co-created and distributed by IIT and Urban Juncture. Inside the passports will be a list of attractions in Bronzeville along with brief descriptions and map locations. There will be a spot for a stamp for each attraction. The goal would be for each participant to fill up every stamp spot by visiting and experiencing each attraction. Stamps will be available at each attraction during business hours.

Design Lab

What it is: A dedicated space at Boxville for collaborative design projects between local universities and Urban Juncture.

How it would work: By creating a partnership between various local groups, we begin to inspire a reciprocal sense of pride in the communities represented. Participants from IIT, University of Chicago, UIC, and others all come together to generate ideas and develop solutions related to the betterment of the Bronzeville community.

51 Futures

Urban Juncture and ID agreed to advance the project this summer by having a community-based design studio in the Boxville marketplace from June 19th through August 17th. During the engagement ID will bring the basic tools of a typical design studio (designers, post-its, sharpies, and methods) and make these tools available to the community. ID entered the project interested to:

● Understand how the community engages with the box structures created in the spring semester,

● Introduce design methodologies and frameworks as an approach to address the challenges facing the Bronzeville/Washington Park community, and

● Add support to Urban Junctures understanding of their users (qualitative research).

ID also hopes to better understand how products, such as the wooden box prototype and other physical elements in a public space, can become civic infrastructures that support community development and connectivity.

We entered the project from the perspective of an academic research institution and our approach was going to take the form of a living lab. A Living Lab is a research concept that is user-centered, operates in the context of the user and aims to make all participants equivalent.

Almost immediately we realized that the intent of this project was not to conduct research on people and that calling our design box a lab was completely wrong. Communities are not laboratories and people are not just users to be studied. With this understanding, the goals, approach, outcomes, and outlook of the project almost completely changed and we were able to start a community-centered, community-empowering design process.


The purpose of any lab is to extract from the participants, it may happen in various forms such as knowledge, biological, and psychological extraction. We want to understand current value exchanges that exist in the Bronzeville community and co-design new value exchanges through our presence and interactions with the community. We have identified a couple of ways in which to add value to the local economy and to participants of 51 Futures.

Community members weighed in on what they think needs to change.
  1. The 51 Futures design box is a tool for the community to use to explore and design 51 new futures for their community. We have not defined a problem statement or design challenge. We created futuring prompts and tools for residents to decide what new futures should be created.
  2. All of our work, similar to a Living Lab, is done in the design box. We do this to create transparency with the community. Instead of doing our design research in the context and then going back to our design cave to synthesize and “make sense” of what we see and hear, we do all the work in plain sight. We invite residents to join us and we have our design tools available for them to synthesize and make sense of the information. This allows for a robust conversation about the issues and information received, which leads to deeper and more authentic understanding of the situation. Co-synthesizing with residents provides new language for us to understand what is actually being said and designed. Speaking the same language is crucial for communication and our increased ability to communicate properly with our co-designers creates a more horizontal design studio.
  3. We try to engage, through actual dollars, with local vendors as much as we can. The production of the logo for the 51 Futures design box was manufactured by two local artists. Instead of giving out Starbucks gift cards to residents who participate, we are giving out Boxville Bucks a local currency to be used within the Boxville Marketplace.
  4. All work produced at 51 Futures by residents is owned by the resident. ID is only asking for permission to share their work. This part was big (for me). We worked on multiple drafts of a consent and release form trying each time to better understand our own values and principles to make sure that they are reflected in everything that we do and create.

Through these efforts, the 51 Futures team seeks to provide real value to Urban Juncture, business owners at Boxville, and the greater Bronzeville community. By putting design tools and resources in the hands of community members, this living design studio will yield truly community-driven results.

The 51 Futures team is Chris Rudd (Faculty), Denis Weil (Advisor), Matt Impola, Justin Walker, and Yuqing Zhou.

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