Articles from ARCADE Issue 32.2 will release online over the following weeks. Subscribe to receive ARCADE in print.

empathy fies and spades illustration

Illustration: Tom Eykemans (detail)

It is said, “no good deed goes unpunished.” Simply put, good actions may result in unwanted or negative outcomes. While the sentiment is a warning to the well-intentioned, it also underscores the hesitancy of individuals in our society to act freely on their benevolent impulses. Sure, unintended consequences are a fact of life, but a culture that inhibits transformational ideas is the death knell for many of our greatest social innovations. So why not be optimistic rather than pessimistic about outcomes and fervently challenge prevailing views? After all, optimism loves company just as much as misery does. In the ARCADE feature, “Empathy, Fire and Spades: Design for Social Innovation,” we examine the inherent, powerful role community plays in the design process. We find that through a potent mix of collective action, creative thought and unbridled experiences, we can inspire each other to reach higher levels of social consciousness and ingenuity.

Albert Einstein said, “It is nothing short of a miracle that modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry.” This quote from a 1949 New York Times article about scholastic endeavors provides commentary on the state of education at the time. It also reminds us how far we have come in redefining curiosity, passion and resourcefulness as important means to challenge, deconstruct and reimagine the status quo. In the realm of design for social change, a case in point is the work of firebrand Lonni Tanner. In her ARCADE essay, she shares how she immersed herself in the world of NYC probation centers and inspired a team of designers to reimagine what a waiting room could be.

Yet, to define “design” by its physical end-product is limiting. Though not always included as part of the formal design process, a transformational experience is often the source from which great design blossoms. Select articles in this issue explore ideas of collective experience that are shaping a still unwritten future. Sebastian Jones recounts an outing with the Midnight Ridazz, a growing community of Los Angeles cyclists in it for the thrills but aware of the influence they have on the city. In Greensboro, Alabama, we discover how “thinking wrong” at Project M leads a group of young designers to imagine bikes as engines for social and economic progress.

We also learn of communities where people are rolling up their sleeves and taking spade in hand to realize challenging projects together. In one article, we visit Braddock, Pennsylvania, once the model for a company steel town but now down on its luck. In this hardscrabble community, we find the old Carnegie Library standing in all its faded glory, simultaneously telling a story of the past and inspiring a new generation to remake the town. Just a short walk from the library, Kevin Sousa’s Superior Motors is shaping up to be the sustainable model for revitalizing this Rust Belt community. In another essay, Lauren Iida shares how she inspired her artist friends and colleagues to work side-by-side to design culturally relevant reading material for a small Cambodian community she knew and loved, helping students gain important English language skills. And from close to home in Seattle, we hear a story of hands-on commitment and dedication in designing and building housing for the homeless—where common decency and long-term thinking is putting the cycle of homelessness to the test.

And in the spirit of solidarity, in the issue we’ve included a look at the design manifesto. Andrew van Leeuwen’s taxonomy of 20th-century architectural design manifestos provides a glimpse into the social and cultural underpinnings that shaped design over the last century. This fold-out infographic presents in-depth research for design aficionados and the uninitiated alike. And of course, pondering this history inevitably brings into question the future of design manifestos in a time when community voice can set the agenda instantly through our ever-expanding social media channels.

As a young boy, I loved to play with fire. Though my family generally discouraged this behavior, under the watchful gaze of my grandfather, I was allowed to tend the campfire. Fortunately, his ability to refocus my potentially dangerous obsession into something useful resulted in many wonderful fireside meals and the best s’mores ever. Thinking back, his willingness to help me turn what could have been a negative into a positive was one of his ways of getting to know me. My grandfather’s show of empathy was most likely a response to a grandson’s need for attention. But more simply, I wonder if his curiosity in my plight is what transformed my experience?

So, as we gather around the fire to recount tales of derring-do and best laid plans, let’s get down to the business of cultivating our good intentions—naysayers and skeptics move aside. And if “no good deed goes unpunished,” then the optimists must prevail—fear be damned!