geodesign, the people of a city

(by Sergio Chiamparino, mayor of Turin. In: Torino Geodesign: mobilizing the collective intelligence, Stefano Boeri, Stefano Mirti, Lucia Tozzi, Editrice Abitare Segesta, Milano 2008)

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In a city like Turin, and in a region like Piedmont, design can be seen as one of the key ingredients in the process of reshaping identity. Whether it is design in its material form or in its many “immaterial” versions: the design of goods, or the design of services, institutions, and modes of relating socially. A full-spectrum design can create a gentle overlap between the worlds of industrial production and contemporary arts. The Geodesign project is important because it puts the issue of identity at the center of the cultural discourse. It operates on a two-sided question: the meaning of contemporary design and Turin’s identity at the beginning of the 21st century. I’ll leave it to the industry experts to describe the landscape of contemporary design. What involves me most closely is understanding what Turin is now and how it is changing.

Geodesign gives us an opportunity to think about the city’s conceptual and symbolic changes beyond its physical ones. The starting point was necessarily the city and the people who live here. The first step was to map it into about forty communities of groups of people different from each other and with highly diverse needs and wants, such as the elderly who play bocce ball, boaters, and vendors at the Balon market, as well as the Peruvian community and the Rumanian one. Nearly forty specific identities, whose individuals parts come together to form a new image, one that is different from the mere sum of its parts. This images becomes a fascinating possible representation of what could be considered Turin’s overall identity.

We can say “identity” about a person, a product, or a company, and likewise we can talk about national “identity” or that of a particular region. Identity results from a series of ideas, thoughts and actions that mingle and overlap. In defining a city’s identity, generally we think about its history, its past and the mechanism that brought its social structure to the present day. It may be more interesting and meaningful to consider the points in which identity is defined by the projections of future desires. The desires of capoera devotees, of Turkish bath regulars, of city cyclists. What kind of city do these people envision?

Conceptually speaking, the real work that the city administration does is envisioning and developing an identity that can be shared by the city’s diverse social components. An identity design made this way must intelligently operate on the plane of relationships between the past, present and future. This is an extremely delicate operation, and necessary for building the foundations of the future of the city community.

Defining a strong identity, in which the people of the city can recognize themselves, is a long-term project involving a great many diverse subjects, with often dissimilar cultural, social and economic backgrounds. It is a difficult, complex undertaking that should lead to forming a positive identity, which, most importantly, must be clearly perceived by the local people, even more than by the outside world. This is an exciting undertaking, through which to interpret needs and aspirations, explicit desires and those still unexpressed, grappling with the economic, technological and relational complexity of the real world in order to achieve a tangible goal.

If “Turin” were a company, this would be a problem for marketing experts. But, as it is a city with a long history and tradition, rather than marketing, our model could be that of “design creativity”. This is one of the few areas protected from political, social and economic differences. It is defined by a mix of material and immaterial ingredients, such as imagination, the ability to take risks, working with local resources without fear of influences from cultures and knowledge from other places, other countries. These are the principles at the foundation of disciplines like design, architecture, contemporary art and film.

These disciplines merge and cross-pollinate with each advertising, craftmaking, graphics, publishing, television and radio.

In a city like Turin, we can’t forget to add the music scene (in all its manifold expressions), the visual arts and the world of new technologies and production, needless to say, the true center point of the whole system.

This makes Geodesign an impressive inside view of the forces that are currently working hard to redefine the city’s identity, setting the past aside for the moment, to focus energy on the relationship between the present and the future.

George Orwell wrote on this topic: “Who controls the past, controls the future. Who controls the present, controls the past”. Geodesign mixes up time relationships, starting from the “future”. This is a future that is already making its way into our daily lives.

It is already here with us.

Companies, communities of all kinds, and local designers working side by side with international guests. This process brings together the needs and wants of many players, bringing them into accord with highly sophisticated design skills, merging habits and customs (local ones and newly imported ones) with advanced experimental work in design, architecture and other planning disciplines. The folklore of ethnic groups overlaps with the studies of top centers of technological knowledge in the world; as seen in the food containers for the Peruvian communities and the ideas of MIT of Boston. This renders Turin both a stage and a breeding ground.

As Sophocles said long ago: “The city is not made of rocks and stones. The city is made of people, heats, thoughts and desires. It is a community, and then is this community that creates the city, that creates the structures and buildings”.

This project is one that has to do with goods, objects and physical products. Public toilets for the Murazzi arcades and laundry drying racks for working-class apartments. Yet, all these incredible and intelligent objects are means to an end. That end are the people, their desires, and the communities, which together form the whole city’s identity. This is an identity of the present that makes a major contribution to reshaping Turin’s face in the near future.

I don’t know if all this will be seen as innovative and interesting in the world of design. From my perspective as a Torinese, it is a rare privilege to project this image of the future on the present., working with the tools of design. As major of Turin, I am left only to thank the designers, companies and communities involved for having given us the gift of a vision of our city that is so amazingly diverse and unexpected.

For all of us, it is an inspiration, an infusion of energy and excitement. In the name of Turin, I thank all the people who worked on this project over the last eighteen months.

And, it must be said, if design is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, Turin is without question its perfect capital.

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(image on top: Carlo Mollino driving his Bisiluro, 1955)

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