William Drenttel | Essays

Project M

Project M, Buy A Meter Project, 2007.

During the recent Live Earth Concerts for A Climate in Crisis, I was struck by the tension between the initiative's global aspirations and the small, personal lifestyle changes suggested during every intermission — use electronic bill paying to save paper and mail, buy CFL bulbs, turn showers off while you soap up. It's the old "Think Globally, Act Locally" maxim applied to a huge media event.

Project M works on the "act locally" level. This innovative summer design camp was created by John Bielenberg in 2003 and was inspired by Samuel Mockbee, who founded The Rural Studio for Architecture in Alabama and won the MacArthur Prize for his work. Every year Project M brings together 8-10 young designers for an intensive design experience: the designers have to conceive and develop their own project. To date, projects have included work in Costa Rica and Ghana, an expedition to deliver donated supplies to Katrina victims, creating new parks on abandoned urban lots in East Baltimore, and, now, the Buy A Meter project in Hale County, Alabama.

Project M, Buy A Meter project newspaper, 2007.

Hale County was the home of Mockbee's Rural Studio, so Buy A Meter is a fitting fifth anniversary initiative for Project M. Working with Pam Dorr, who gave up a career at The Gap to work with the rural poor, eight students created this project and a newspaper to announce the initiative. (If you want to be inspired, watch the video interview with Pam Dorr on the project's blog.)

The facts are simple: one in four families in Hale County are not connected to the municipal water system. Without this service, these families often get water contaminated with sewage. It costs $425 to bring clean water to a single home. It is clear that in the last decade, the rural poor in America have gotten poorer. But having safe water is not something most of us think of as a problem in our country. Let alone a design problem.

Comments [5]

During the recent Live Earth Concerts for A Climate in Crisis did you see that sign in the audience for the aircar?
"Yes, the air car is real."
Perhaps John Bielenberg's summer design camp Project M should take the air car under its wing and design a commercial for it with Bob Dylan.

Yes, 'n' how many times can a man turn his head,
Pretending he just doesn't see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.
Carl W. Smith

For what it's worth, you've been tagged with a Thinking Blogger Award for your consistently intriguing and thought-provoking work. Cheers & best regards.
Red Tory

Really... I was struck by the huge hypocrisy of having giant concerts with power hungry equipment, flying globally, and the amount of garbage created in the name of conservation... but hey I guess thats me.

Everyone can do their part... to bring awareness to a campaign on a local level, directly involving people in THEIR community does more than these LIVE-Anything concerts.

Good post.

The M Project is very moving. It amazes me that in our own backyard we have the same issues we are trying to fix everywhere else in the world. It's good to see that Mockbee's work is still having an impact.

I watched a presentation made yesterday by one of our students from NID, Ahmedabad who had worked as an intern on Project M and she gave me a copy of the broadsheet that the team had produced on the "buyameter" initiative as part of the project. It was interesting to see the awareness building efforts made in the USA to issues of poverty and deprivation and how little we know about these things in spite of the rich media coverage that comes to us each day from the organised media - press, TV and internet - sources. Sagarika Sundaram made this presentation in the NID, Ahmedabad auditorium as part of her experience sharing after her return from a semester away from our school here in India. Design can play a critical role in addressing such situations all over the world but I am not sure that the design schools are preparing our students to face these challanges competently and that any efforts are afoot to change local content and pedagogy of design education in order to introduce such abilities as well as attitudes that may be needed going forward. I would be happy to hear of any other such initiatives from around the world and I have been trying to share our own experiences in India through my blog called "Design for India" and I find that we will need to network more vigorously if we are to make an impact in changing the perceptions about what design can offer in situations such as this one. I must congratulate the Project M for having achieved a platform that can sensitise students and professionals to such pressing issues in society where the non-business use of design thinking and action can make a real difference, and I wish to see more such activities in the days ahead. Prof M P Ranjan from NID, Ahmedabad
Prof M P Ranjan

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