How do you make communities more sustainable and resilient through good design? This is the question that three professors from IADE, part of the Universidade Europeia in Portugal, set out to answer through a project known as L3. The collaborative initiative has grown to include more than 500 students, two other universities in the city, and countless community members. What started as a mostly academic exercise has now become a well-known program in Lisbon that is making major improvements while providing students with an education in how a multidisciplinary approach can produce creative, thoughtful design.
When the project started in July 2015, the team at IADE collaborated with two other universities as partners, Instituto Superior Técnico from University of Lisbon and NOVA School of Social Sciences and Humanities from Universidade NOVA de Lisboa, and was funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon. They began to do research into where in the city social challenges might exist that could be solved by design. This is how every L3 project begins, with ethnographic research by students in partnership with community members.
“Students begin to see the problems they may have been missing in communities,” said João Bernarda, a research fellow of L3 and design lecturer at IADE. “Then they start to understand that they have knowledge and skills that they could and should use for the well-being of society.” Often, this awareness comes because of the close contact students are able to have with community members during the initial research process as they work to co-design with the local area.
The two other coordinators of L3, Ana Margarida Ferreira and Emília Duarte, both assistant professors at IADE, stress that the goal of the collaborative is not just to generate solutions but also to track why these issues exist and solve them mindfully with local stakeholders. This is done through a multidisciplinary approach from IADE and their university partners and leads to solutions that are “owned” by the local community, not just brought in from the outside. Professors at IADE often integrate L3 projects or needs into their courses and in this way create a sort of “layer system” that involves the entire university community in the problem solving.
“We are building new solutions to help populations achieve greater economic, social, and technological value,” Ferreira said. L3 groups have carried out more than 120 projects, focusing on everything from maintaining local culture and traditions to branding communities and events to creating spaces for youth to learn about employability and activism.
“We get a lot of happiness when we see students understanding that they have the power to change the world,” Ferreira said. She knows that these empowered students are learning this lesson in the communities right outside their walls and that they will take this new knowledge into whatever work they decide to do next.