2020What design can do during an era of change
Good Design Award Gold Award Winner: The [Design Movement on Campus] Project

Transforming Public Spaces with Powerful Vision and Invisible Design

Text by
Tamaki Sugihara
Edited by
Tomoyuki Miyahara (CINRA.NET editorial team)

Awarded the glittering accolade of the Good Design Award Gold Award this year, Taiwan Design Research Institute’s Design Movement on Campus project attracted considerable attention during the selection process. The project radically rethought school spaces and introduced design focused on enhancing aesthetic aspects.
How did the Institute manage to bring to fruition this project, which involved a wide range of stakeholders, namely the administration, schools, designers, and the public? Focused Issues directors Yuma Harada and Yuki Uchida quizzed Ai, Shu-Ting (Vice-president, Office of the President, Taiwan Design Research Institute (TDRI)), who played a central role in the project, About her various interests.

Considering the abstract meaning and impacts behind spaces and improving them

UchidaFirst of all, please give us an overview of the project.

AiTaiwan Design Research Institute (TDRI) was founded this year as the successor to the Taiwan Design Center (TDC), which served as a design promotion organization. In undertaking our reorganization into a design body with a very large budget from the administration, we decided to focus on implementing more challenging projects than we had in our incarnation as the TDC.

AI, SHU-TING/Vice-president, Office of the President, Taiwan Design Research Institute (TDRI)

AiAccordingly, we talked to the Ministry of Education to see whether we could contribute to Taiwan’s public schools and public facilities via an aesthetic approach. There were three factors behind our proposal for campus renovation.

The first is that, like the rest of the world, Taiwan faces the challenge of an aging population and a declining birthrate. This makes it difficult to attract new students and schools feel a sense of crisis as a result.

Second, education has, until now, been focused on linguistic aspects, such as lesson content, but little attention has been given to the perspective of the innumerable impacts that the education space has on students—environment-mediated education, if you will. We wanted to change that.

The third factor was that the administration regulations conventionally applied when using large budgets for schools and other public institutions made it hard to pursue things in their ideal form. We launched this initiative because we wanted to take this opportunity to enable schools to benefit from outstanding designers and designs.

Central corridor revamp—Fenglin Elementary School, Miaoli County(Before)
Central corridor revamp—Fenglin Elementary School, Miaoli County(After)

AiIn terms of the process, we first of all gave the schools the opportunity to offer proposals listing issues with the school identified by students and other stakeholders and the requests they had made for addressing them. Then we formed study teams that included school representatives and design professionals, to investigate what problems the schools actually had. In some cases, they found that the things the schools had identified as problems actually weren’t major problems at all, while in others, the problems were bigger than the schools had realized.

We were convinced that having experts cast an eye over these surveys would ensure we had an accurate understanding of the problems. We then refined the list of issues, issued a public call for design proposals, and selected the optimal plans. As design researchers, we served as overall project managers (PMs) in this process, with responsibility for driving the whole project forward.

The biggest achievements of this project lay in providing the schools’ teachers, students, and students’ families with an understanding of the power of design and the importance of environment to education. In this, the first year of the initiative, we renovated a total of nine schools and, as the project has been well-received by the Ministry of Education, we plan to expand it to cover 25 schools next year. We recommend that this approach be adopted throughout Taiwan and also in other countries that might be interested in it.

HaradaThank you very much. You used the term “environment-mediated education.” Do you mean the physical environment?

AiIn short, we believe that “environment-mediated education” means placemaking. Schools have a variety of spaces and each space has a meaning to the people who inhabit it. For example, passing through the school gate affects students’ sense of pride in their school.

The most symbolic feature of Taiwanese schools is the teaching dais. Teachers stand on a platform About a meter high and speak to the students below. This structure designed to confer authority is clearly at odds with modern educational philosophy, which emphasizes equality.

Revamp of a teaching dais—Shanfeng Steiner School, Yunlin County(Before)
Revamp of a teaching dais—Shanfeng Steiner School, Yunlin County(After)

AiThe classrooms, which ought to stimulate students’ imagination, were very dirty and drab. In our view, environment-mediated education means considering the abstract meaning and impacts on students that lie behind such spaces and improving them.

HaradaI think in this day and age, it’s particularly important to think About the meaning of each and every place. It’s a discussion that can offer hints for Japan, as well.

Classroom revamp—Beigang Elementary School, New Taipei City(Before)
Classroom revamp—Beigang Elementary School, New Taipei City(After)

Aiming to enable stakeholders to take the initiative and work together

UchidaLooking at your application documents, obviously this was a project focused on the design of places, but it also included an educational program. Could you tell us specifically what happened in the actual initiative?

AiWhat particularly impressed us was teachers’ feedback that the change in the environment had resulted in changes in students’ behavior. We also noticed that awareness of design increased, not only in schools, but throughout society as a whole.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Education established a system called the self-directed learning curriculum in 2019. It gives teachers greater autonomy to design curriculums and, as a result, teachers have started to take students out of the classroom and into surrounding neighborhoods frequently.

As part of this, many teachers visited an exhibition that we held to communicate basic approaches to design. I think a lot of teachers gained a fresh awareness of design and began to think About the possibilities for linking schools to design.

We also undertook an initiative in which we worked with students to think About the design of signage in their schools. At the first lecture, they learn why signage systems are important and then, through workshops, students and designers sit down together to consider what signage is suitable. We also got students to check the signs actually installed at various points in their school and follow them to see whether they provided efficient guidance.

Signage revamp—Zhudong High School, Hsinchu County(Before)
Signage revamp—Zhudong High School, Hsinchu County(After)

UchidaSo the project not only changed the actual environments, but was also incorporated into an aesthetic education program through discussions between designers and students About sign fonts, shapes, and colors.

You managed to involve a wide range of stakeholders in the project, from the administration and schools to designers and the public. Why do you think you were so successful in doing so?

AiThere are four key points to it, I think. The first is that, when approaching the schools, we went directly to the individuals with decision-making authority, such as principals and heads of administration, rather than approaching the office for general inquiries.

Second, we were meticulous About incorporating design thinking techniques into all processes. If all the stakeholders understand that design is for people, it becomes easier for them to share the values of our initiative.

Third, we at the TDRI attached great importance to maintaining an impartial stance as an intermediary between the designers and schools. Where there were differences of opinion, we intervened and endeavored to reconcile them.

Finally, we devoted our energies to introducing our activities to the public from the initial stages of the project. Highlighting these activities provided both designers and schools with a chance to promote themselves with a view to securing future opportunities. They know that creating something excellent will ensure that word spreads through a wide range of segments of society, so they are enthusiastic participants.

UchidaWe can see that you painstakingly created processes for all aspects, from forming teams to motivating the participants. Tell us a bit more About the background that led to your approaching educational institutions when the TDC became TDRI.

AiWhen we established TDRI, we set ourselves the mission of focusing on issues with more of a public service element than before. We created new departments to handle public innovation and service innovation and our research team has, in About one year, identified the problems that Taiwan faces today.

As a result, the first issue that we identified as needing to be tackled was the redesign of spaces used by large numbers of people. Specifically, this meant the spatial design of public facilities such as schools and other educational settings, hospitals, and modes of transport, including everything from vehicle bodies to station buildings.

Cable management—Shalun Elementary School, New Taipei City(Before)
Cable management—Shalun Elementary School, New Taipei City(After)

AiWe believe that top-down is the quickest approach if you want to bring About change. So when we decided we wanted to transform education, we submitted our proposal to the then Political Deputy Minister at the Ministry of Education.

Although we could only accept 10 schools, we received applications from 172. What we realized from those numbers was how great the need was among schools.

Naturally, the fall in administration subsidies is a factor behind this, but even where budgets were forthcoming, schools tended to go no further than purchasing some kind of equipment or carrying out construction work. I’m sure that the reason why our project achieved such great results was that we attached greater importance to the process than to the final results and, by having schools and designers learn together, we succeeded in ensuring that they shared in the co-creation process.

UchidaIn your application documents, you noted the issue that professionals are not keeping up with the reality of the problems. Amid this situation, TDRI’s initiative has become a policy design based on a long-term field survey.

We can see that everyone engaged with the project with a strong sense of motivation right the way through from the outset. At the same time, it’s astonishing that the Ministry of Education accepted such a bold proposal.

I can easily imagine that anyone trying to implement a similar initiative in Japan would face a variety of obstacles. I feel that Taiwan is devoting its energies to pushing ahead with democratization and bolstering the social sector.

AiJust as you said, Taiwan has a highly democratic environment and young people’s views in particular are receiving a great deal of attention right now.

While the importance of design was acknowledged in Taiwan before now, there was a tendency for this to overemphasize the technical aspects. It was difficult to garner attention for invisible design.

Recycling system revamp—Tatung High School, Pingtung County(Before)
Recycling system revamp—Tatung High School, Pingtung County(After)

AiAmid this situation, we’ve seen the creation of the Presidential Innovation Award in recent years, so experimental initiatives are being proposed. The administration is open to such new initiatives and creates a supportive atmosphere for them.

People in Taiwan also have a shared awareness of the importance of human resource development. Since around 2013, the Ministry of Education has advocated an open, innovative approach to education.

We were fortunate enough to be able to catch that wave. The timing was right, so we were able to secure the backing of both the administration and the private sector. I think another key factor was that, since our days as the TDC, we’ve submitted support proposals to various private sector industries and gained their trust through our strengths.

Nevertheless, things were really tough while the project was underway, to be honest. Dealing with the coordinators on the ground was hard work. We were only able to overcome these challenges because we had a common goal.

Specifically, this was our conviction that our initiative was a crucial activity that would foster the human resources Taiwan will need in the future, and that such wonderful environments will cultivate the mayors and presidents of tomorrow. This sense of pride buoyed our efforts.

Uchida I’d like to hear more About what kind of changes the project brought About among the teachers and students at the participating schools.

AiIt’s still only the first year, so there’s been little change as yet, but going forward, we want to set benchmarks like KPIs (key performance indicators) so that we can verify the results. Another thing we want to do is to follow up on the schools which would like to know About our initiatives after seeing the changes in the schools which participated in our program this year.

Even now, positive effects are emerging. For example, some companies and school PTAs that have found out About our initiative have been kind enough to make donations to us. Our aim is to spread awareness of design not only within schools, but also outside them. We want to expand the scope of these effects in the future.

Canteen revamp—Xindong Elementary School, Tainan City(Before)
Canteen revamp—Xindong Elementary School, Tainan City(After)

AiWhen talking About change, we’re seeing moves by some schools to ask the designers they worked with on this project to help them solve other problems outside the scope of this initiative. That means they’ve forged a relationship of trust. I think this is a positive impact.

In addition, through the introduction of the initiative via social media and the like, which I talked About before, social awareness of the existence of projects like this is growing. As a result, we’re receiving a growing number of inquiries from schools which did not take part, wanting to know About our methods. Many of the people getting in touch are parents of schoolchildren, so I think we’ll see schools that fail to undertake some kind of reform being weeded out in the future.

UchidaI suppose what this project aims to do is to have schools, designers, and the public sector work together without TDRI’s intervention.

What’s needed is a powerful vision to unravel huge mechanisms and motivate each individual

HaradaMy Focused Issues theme “Design for creating a place for distanced people” relates to designs that offer places for everyone. I feel that TDRI’s activities are also relevant to that theme.

So far we’ve asked you About schools, but what kind of possibilities do you think there are for redesigning other public spaces?

AiThere’s an initiative About to be announced in December 2020, focused on local health centers, which are facilities informing people About public health. The Japanese equivalent would be the public health centers set up by each local administration body.

Local health center

We plan to adopt the same approach as with schools, conducting research and surveys, incorporating design thinking techniques, and optimizing the content of their services.

Recently, we’ve also worked on designs for station buildings and firefighting equipment, such as fire hydrants for public spaces. Rather than using set techniques for each project, we adapt to the needs of each, while reaching out to the relevant competent authorities. We at TDRI call our techniques “destructive innovation.”

Firefighting equipment

Harada I’d like to spread the word to a wide array of people in Japan About not only TDRI’s ideas, but also your attitude. Listening to what you have to say, I can see that, just like how rivers flow from the mountains to the sea, clouds form and rain falls, the people of Taiwan are trying to restructure a whole ecosystem through design. I’m very impressed.

Uchida My Focused Issues theme is “Design for weaving systems together.” I decided on this theme because I wondered how we can weave back together the social systems being torn apart in various ways right now. Your initiative was very much at the heart of that.

What I want to consider through this theme is the question of what kind of people should lead such initiatives that will transform society.

AiI mustn’t neglect to mention the involvement of TDRI President Chang Chi-Yi in the Design Movement on Campus project. He previously served as deputy magistrate of Taitung County, so he has a good understanding of how administrational organizations think.

Lobby passageway revamp—Mingli Elementary School, Hualien County(Before)
Lobby passageway revamp—Mingli Elementary School, Hualien County(After)

AiIt was Mr. Chang who gave us the opportunity to get involved with administration organizations. I think we got the balance just right, with one of us handling communication with administration bodies, while the other—me—took care of planning the framework from a design perspective. Of course, we couldn't have done it without all the team members implementing the project on the ground.

UchidaThe fact that you’re truly doing work to shape the future comes across clearly. I can see that, with this in mind, you’re creating an engine to unravel huge mechanisms and motivate each individual, and I gained a very real sense of the struggles you faced, being in the middle between the stakeholders. What you have is a powerful vision.

Ai (Raising her fist) I’m fueled by strong convictions (laughs).

UchidaI think there are common elements in the problems faced on the ground that transcend national borders. It would be great if Taiwan and Japan, as neighbors, could continue to learn from each other, while considering what kind of message we can spread from here in Asia. Once we can travel freely again, I’d very much like to see the project’s results on the ground.

AiPlease do come to Taiwan. We can visit the schools together.

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