If You Build it is documentary about a social innovation project aimed at cultivating design skills with youth to tackle education and social issues in a economically challenged community in North Carolina. The well-intentioned, well-developed story is not unfamiliar to those interested in social innovation, but while inspiring to some these stories mask bigger questions about the viability, opportunity and underlying systems issues that factor into the true impact of these initiatives. (Note: Spoiler alert > this essay will discuss the film and plotlines, yet hopefully won’t dissuade you from seeing a good film).
Last week I had the opportunity to see Patrick Creadon‘s terrific new documentary “If You Build It” at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto as part of the monthly Doc Soup screening series. It was a great night of film, discussion and popcorn that inspired more than just commentary about the film, but the larger story of social innovation that the film contributes to.
If You Build It is the story of the Project H studio that was developed in in Bertie County (click here for a film outline) and run for two years by Emily Pilloton and her partner Matthew Miller. To learn more about the start of the story and the philosophy behind Project H, Emily’s TED talk is worth the watch:
It’s largely a good-news kind of story of how design can make a difference to the lives of young people and potentially do good for a community at the same time. While it made for a great doc and some inspiring moments, the film prompted thoughts about what goes on beyond the narrative posed by the characters, the community and those seeking to innovate through design and education.
Going beyond the story
Stories are often so enjoyable because they can be told in multiple ways with emphasis placed on different aspects of the plot, the characters and the outcomes. For this reason, they are both engaging and limiting as tools for making decisions and assessing impact of social interventions. It’s why ‘success stories’ are problematic when left on their own.
One of the notable points that was raised in the film is that the cost of the program was $150,000 (US), which was down from the original budget of $230,000 because Emily and Matthew (and later on, a close friend who helped out in the final few months) all didn’t take a salary. This was funded off of grants. Three trained designers and builders worked to teach students, build a farmers market, and administer the program for no cost at all.
The film mentions that the main characters — Matthew and Emily — live off credit, savings and grants (presumably additional ones?) to live off of. While this level of commitment to the idea of the Bertie County project is admirable, it’s also not a model that many can follow. Without knowing anything about their family support, savings or debt levels, the idea of coming out of school and working for free for two years is out of reach of most young, qualified designers of any discipline. It is also — as we see in the film — not helpful to the larger cause as it allows Bertie County to abdicate responsibility for the project and lessens their sense of ownership over the outcomes.
One segment of If You Build It looks back on Matthew’s earlier efforts to apply what he learned at school to provide a home for a family in Detroit, free of charge in 2007. Matthew built it himself and gave it to a family with the sole condition that they pay the utilities and electricity bills, which amounted to less than this family was paying in just rent at the time. That part of the story ends when Matthew returns to the home a few years later to find the entire inside gutted and deserted long after having to evict that original family 9 months after they took possession when they failed to pay even a single bill as agreed.
From Bertie County to Detroit and back
The Detroit housing experience is a sad story and there is a lot of context we don’t get in the film, but two lessons taught from that experience are repeated in the story in Bertie County. In both cases, we see something offered that wasn’t necessarily asked for, with no up-front commitment of investment and the influence that the larger system has on the outcomes.
In Detroit, a family was offered a house, yet they were transplanted into a neighbourhood that is (like many in Detroit) sparsely populated, depressed, and without much infrastructure to enable a family to make the house a home easily. Detroit is still largely a city devoted to the automobile and there are wide swaths of the city where there is one usable home on every three or four lots. It’s hard to conceive of that as a neighbourhood. Images like the one taken below are still common in many parts of the city even though it is going through a notable re-energizing shift.
In the case of Bertie County, the same pattern repeats in a different form. The school district gets an entire program for free, even to the point of refusing to pay for salaries for the staff (Emily and Matthew) over two years after the initial year ended with the building of a brand-new farmers market pavillion that was fully funded by Project H and its grants.
The hypothesis ventured by Patrick Creadon when he spoke to the Doc Soup audience in Toronto was that there was some resentment at the project (having been initiated by a change-pushing school superintendent who was let go at the film’s start and was the one who brought Emily and Matthew to the community) and by some entrenched beliefs about education and the way things were done in that community.
Systems + Change = Systems Change (?)
There is a remarkably romantic view of how change happens in social systems. Bertie County received a great deal without providing much in the way of support. While the Studio H project had some community cheerleaders like the mayor and a few citizens, it appeared from the film that the community – and school board — was largely disengaged from the activities at Studio H. This invokes memories of Hart’s Ladder of Participation, (PDF), which is applied to youth, but works for communities, too. When there is a failure to collaborate truly, the ownership of the problem and solution is not shared.
At no time in the film do you get a sense of a shared ownership of the problem and solution between Studio H, the school board, and the community. While the ideas were rooted in design research, the community wasn’t invested — literally — in solving their problems (through design, at least). It represents a falsehood of design research that says you can understand a community’s needs and address them successfully through simple observation, interviews and data gathering.
Real, deep research is hard. It requires understanding not just the manifestations of the system, but the system itself.
What Lies Beneath…
Very often that kind of analysis is missing from these kinds of stories, which make for great film and books, but not for long-term success.
In a complex system, meaning and knowledge are gained through interactions; thus we need stories and data that reflect what kind of interactions take place and under what conditions. Looking at the systems iceberg model above, the tendency is to focus on the events (the Studio H’s), but often we need to look at the structures beneath.
To be sure, there is a lot to learn from Studio H now and from the story presented in If You Build It. The lesson is in the prototyping: Emily and Matthew provide a prototype that shows us it can be done and what kind of things we can learn from it. The mistake is trying to replicate Studio H as it is represented in the film, rather than seeing it as a prototype.
In the post-event Q & A with the audience, a well-intentioned gentleman working with school-building in Afghanistan asked Patrick Creadon how or whether he could get Emily and Matthew to come there and help (with pay) and Creadon rightly answered that there are Emilys and Matthews all over the place and that they are worth connecting to.
Creadon is half right. There are talented, enthusiastic people out there who can learn from the experience of the Studio H team, but probably far fewer who have the means to assume the risk that Emily and Matthew did. Those are the small details that separate a good story from a sustainable, systemic intervention that really innovates in a way that changes the system. But it’s a start.
If You Build It is in theatres across North America.