Harbinger Consultants

Culture + Complexity + Change

IDEAS | Rural Design

Given our work in regional and rural communities, we’ve been considering Australian applications of and interpretations of America’s ‘rural design’ research and practice agenda. Our work involves infrastructure and planning studies that result in community, economic and cultural development. Presently John is working with architect Jason Haigh to develop a small cultural heritage facility for a rural community. Drawn out of our previous work with this community, including a visitor experience study, strategic planning and feasibility studies, we are considering some questions of design in rural contexts, which has led us to the ground breaking rural design work in the USA. The consideration is not just the design of a structure or facility but the design of other experiences and opportunities in the town; how design can enhance lives, liveability and opportunities in rural places.

The Centre for Rural Design (CRD) at the University of Minnesota was founded by Dewey Thorbeck who describes rural design as:

a vision for a sustainable rural future—a vision that provides a way of thinking about rural regions and their relationships to the states, the nation, and the world. Rural design incorporates methodologies that connects environmental, cultural, and social issues with educational, technological, and organizational research to formulate innovative solutions for a healthy and prosperous future for rural areas. Rural design, as a problem-solving process, is a proven method for resolving issues and making wise land use and architectural decisions that protects the rural environment and promotes economic development as it enhances rural quality of life. “Rural Design: Shaping Rural Future”

This does more than traditional regional development and provides a framework for integrated thinking. For the CRD, rural design is an interdisciplinary process for managing rural change, defining rural issues, and creating solutions to resolve them. In other words, ‘rural design’ is broadly engaged with design thinking, integrative thinking and problem solving. Another organisation, the Citizen’s Institute on Rural Design (CIRD) is attentive to design and design thinking for building resilience in and with rural communities. CIRD is based upon the idea that design can be a powerful tool for rural communities to build upon existing assets and improve the way a community looks, its quality of life, and its economic viability.

In Australia, there are a range of exemplary initiatives which seem more focused on innovation than design. For example, Ian Plowman undertook a study of innovation in rural Queensland to ascertain why some towns thrive while others languish. Recently we became aware of an initiative in the Wide Bay and Burnett region to establish a Centre for Rural Innovation. QUT’s School of Design also led a bid to establish a Resilient Regions CRC (though sadly unsuccessfully). Ideas about rural design spark with other emergent ideas from the social innovation and social design arena. For example, Desert Knowledge Australia delivers a program founded on Collective Impact.

We believe there is a place for the ‘rural design’ ethos in Australia that engages the diversity of rural and remote life, including deep respect for Aboriginal traditional knowledge, culture and experience, and that shifts beyond traditional regional development. This post is the first of several indicating our intention to track with ideas and debates about ‘rural design’ and integrate them into our work with rural and remote communities in the Australian context.


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