From the issue feature, "Empathy Fire and Spades: Design for Social Innovation."
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© Lance Rake, Industrial Design, University of Kansas

Back in 2007 when HERO launched a campaign to assist poor residents in Hale County purchase water meters, it was on the cusp of changing the way a community comes together to create positive change. As stated on their website, HERO (Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization) “works as a catalyst for community development in the Alabama Black Belt to end rural poverty.” To this end, helping residents gain the most basic necessities, such as access to public water supplies, was a first step. Next came the idea to bring the community together through food; soon Pie Lab opened, a pie shop located in Greensboro, Alabama, (the heart of Hale County) that was designed to inspire community engagement. After a hearty helping of pie, another fitting idea took root—promoting a culture of bike riding. Given the health benefits of cycling, the ease of transportation it provides and the possibility it offered to support a small bicycle industry in Hale County, creating a project with bikes became a favorable concept.

Working with HERO, Project M instigated the water meter campaign and Pie Lab as an outcome of its yearly, two-week immersive design program in Greensboro. With projects around the world, Project M is designed to encourage young creative professionals to use their skills for good. The M’ers were brainstorming with HERO about more ingenious ways to engage the community when the idea to focus on bicycles emerged. During one session, Project M’s founder, John Bielenberg, led students to ask: “How can we catch and ride the fixie wave to get more people on bikes for everyday transportation?” Inspired by HERO’s mission to provide economic development, the design team sought to make bikes relevant to Hale County through job creation, the use of a local renewable resource, such as bamboo, and communicating the benefits of bike riding to the community. HERObike, an offshoot of HERO’s social and economic development initiatives, was born.

HERObike sketch

© Lance Rake, Industrial Design, University of Kansas

In the South, bamboo grows easily and quickly. To take advantage of this resource as a manufacturing material, the team needed expertise. They enlisted the University of Kansas’s Lance Rake from the school’s industrial design department. Lance’s skill in combining natural commodities like bamboo with durable fabrication processes, coupled with his interest in bringing high design to craft-based industries, made him a natural fit as a collaborator. Utilizing clever fabrication techniques, such as combining carbon fiber and bamboo into hexagonal tubes, the group was able to design a durable yet beautiful bike. After a year of experimentation and prototyping, in 2014 the team launched HERObike’s first model, The Semester. With a recent successful Kickstarter campaign, HERObike hopes to hire employees as they begin to market the new bike. Still in startup mode, they are focused on stocking up tools, building out the shop, located in Greensboro, and teaching workshops on building the bamboo bikes.

HERObike Workshop

Today in Greensboro, Pam Dorr, the executive director of HERO, sees how design bridges social and economic divides: “Partnering with design programs helps bring new perspective and talent, creating new opportunities for rural areas. Universities can bring technology and expertise. Working together we can support change in communities that need it most.”