The US Peace Corps was birthed on this very day in 1961—mere months after then-candidate John F. Kennedy riled students at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor at an impromptu campaign stop, inadvertently calling for the establishment of an international service corps. Kennedy’s promise for such a program sealed the fate of his presidential campaign and elicited 25,000 letters from young Americans.
Early Peace Corps volunteers were focused on two primary activities: education and community development. While the prior logically involved teaching in schools, the latter was more of a catchall—ranging from improving irrigation for farmers to the construction of schools and other buildings.
Although its ranks today are significantly smaller than they were in the 1960s, the Peace Corps remains the centerpiece of America’s civil service to the world. Over 200,000 Americans of all ages have served. Yet the United States’s service corps programs have long struggled to attract and effectively utilize volunteers with specialized skills, such as those from my own field of architecture.
Small numbers of architects, designers, and engineers have been involved in such programs, but the field has far more to offer. The quality of our lives, after all, is inextricably tied to the design of our homes, our schools, our workplaces, and our public spaces. Since the late 1970s, geographers have argued that “place identity” becomes a kind of cognitive “database” against which every single physical setting we encounter is experienced, and conceptions of our own self-perception and potential are shaped.
Unfortunately, only a sliver of the world’s population currently benefits from well-designed spaces in which to live their best lives. In fact, the most vulnerable of the world—the poor, the homeless, the elderly—are the least likely to have access to dignifying physical spaces. The same goes for vital public services. They’re also the least likely to have their voices heard in decisions made on their behalf.
We need to reverse these decades-old trends by creating a global design service corps. Modeled on the best practices of the Peace Corps, this pipeline could place our country’s (and ultimately others countries’) most promising young architects, designers, and engineers to work in community centers, health clinics, libraries, schools, social service agencies, even governments, and other mission-driven entities around the world.
Myriad skill-specific corps programs have emerged in recent years. With over 7,000 members in classrooms today, the largest among them is Teach For America, and now its international counterpart, Teach For All—and both are supported by a mix of corporate, government, and private funding. Equal Justice Works and the Skadden Fellowships are but two examples in law. And perhaps one of the fastest growing fellowships programs is Code for America, which places tech graduates in municipal governments to improve the delivery of public services.
There are roughly a dozen post-graduate fellowship programs geared toward designer types; collectively, however, they provide only a few dozen opportunities for well over 10,000 graduates annually. Among architects, for example, the Enterprise Rose Fellowship is a decade-old program focused on the development of affordable housing. It has placed nearly 40 recent graduates in community development organizations for three-year terms. A related program, called Design Corps, has trained several dozen fellows since its founding, including one this year. Combined, these programs elicit approximately 100 applications each year, with approximately four to six slots between the two of them.
A greater indicator of interest can be found in newcomer IDEO.org, which elicited well over 500 applications in only its second year of running a fellowship program, and from which six candidates will be chosen next month. This week a small team of IDEO.org fellows are on the ground in Tanzania, working with more than 100 families on the development of clean cook stoves.
In short, there is a massive appetite for these kinds of opportunities among the next generation of designers, but precious few opportunities. With enormous pressures on governments and NGOs, as well as substantial unemployment in the global building industry (15 percent in the United States by some estimates, although skeptics believe it could be much higher), this jobs-creating program is more needed than ever.
A large-scale design service corps could provide many times the number of fellowship opportunities as these existing programs, concentrating them in targeted cities where they could benefit from peer support and cutting-edge leadership development. It could offer a wide array of design expertise to a broad range of entities, and leverage local networks of professional service firms, building material manufacturers, and foundations. Profiled in the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog previously, MASS Design Group did exactly this, employing fellows through Global Health Corps in the construction of its Butaro Hospital in Rwanda, uniting the interests of the Clinton Foundation and Partners in Health.
The key for this global design service corps will be imparting on its members and its host a clear set of values around the contextually appropriate, culturally sensitive design of both services and spaces. Living on the ground, embedded in communities, the corps also will gain the opportunity to learn directly from everyday people about the true social impact of design. And its members will see and show the world that design and service are not mutually exclusive, but instead a viable career path through which architects, designers, and engineers can put their skills to work for the public good, for once, and for all.