By now nearly everyone concerned is frustrated by the lack of concrete outcomes at the United Nations’ Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development—and the lack of firm resolve on the part of most of the participating national governments. Yet a lively engagement on the part of the public and organizations at the edge of the conference indicates a huge global commitment to addressing the urgency of climate change, environmental degradation, and unsustainable models of growth, particularly in fast-growing cities like Rio de Janeiro.
MoMA was invited to present the recent work of its Department of Architecture and Design in a display titled Museum as Design Laboratory: MoMA and the Art of Advocacy. A series of panels and screens provided capsule introductions to the 2008 exhibition Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling (featuring Lawrence Sass’s House for New Orleans), the 2010 exhibition Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement (featuring the work of Jorge Mario Jáuregui in Rio de Janeiro’s Manguinhos district), and two recent design laboratories, Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront (2010) and Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream (2012). We hoped not only to enter the debate—and we did, judging from tweets and comments heard and read in the halls and beyond—but also to highlight the role of design as a partner with policy, rather than a belated response to policy formulated apart from concrete solutions. We also hoped to draw attention to MoMA’s exhibition websites and how they make these experiments available to audiences across the globe, only to discover that, indeed, Foreclosed was already known to many, including one of the key social organizers in Rio’s Asa Branca favela.
One of the most notable experiments was a series of 10 dialogues organized by the Brazilian government at the United Nations in order to channel voices from civil society into the official proceedings. I participated in one of the dialogues, on the theme of Sustainable Cities and Innovation, which was noteworthy in its focus on cities, which, as recent UN statistics have shown, now house for the first time in human history more than half of the world’s population. A group of figures from NGOs along with individuals who have made design central to transforming everything from housing to mobility in cities—including architects Alejandro Arevana from Chile and Shigeru Ban from Japan, and Jaime Lerner, former mayor of Curitiba—guided a public discussion (which had already begun weeks earlier on an Internet platform), working with over a thousand members of the audience to propose recommendations to the national delegations. Tellingly, of the proposals agreed upon by the Sustainable Cities panel, in addition to the urgent need to covert waste to energy, was the idea that each nation should designate one city in its region where innovation is noteworthy and which might serve as a model for others.
While the conference was deemed by most a colossal lost opportunity on the global level, it is clear that on the municipal level leadership emerges from citizens, mayors, and designers. Cities that were seen a half century ago as nearly beyond repair are now setting the bar higher for innovation. MoMA was honored to be at the heart of the conversation.