The Merced Project

The City of Merced, known as the “Gateway to Yosemite,” is home to a population of nearly 80,000 individuals, about 30% of which are currently living below the poverty line. Homes at the median level in Merced saw a dramatic loss in value, 62%, the biggest drop anywhere in the country, according to data from Forbes. According to Zillow, by the end of 2009, house prices in Merced had returned to the levels seen over a decade earlier. This crisis has established a strong community of individuals and organizations that are actively seeking rich new ways of thinking about commerce and innovation, in order to transform the community into a rich space for survival, ingenuity, and break through.

Several organizations within Merced decided to take action on these aspirations by developing a town-hall meeting of sorts to bring leading voices from around the nation to lead the community into new modes of thinking. I was fortunate enough to have been approached to develop a workshop for the community of Merced at this gathering.

The attendees of the gathering were a richly diverse audience of about 100 individuals that collectively represented the community of Merced. From farmers to students, all cultures and professions within the community were accounted for, making it a rich space to design a workshop that was very specific to the context and histories of Merced.

In this space, I piloted a version of my Serendipitous Business Plan Generator (SBPG) that was designed specifically for this gathering. The SBPG works by juxtaposing three components: Scenario, Opportunity, and the Modify Element. In this exercise, one component from each of these three decks are drawn by the participant, often resulting in a bizarre mashup of ideas that are then played straight through the development of a business plan.

Scenario: The situation (i.e. Growth, Collapse, etc.) in which the participant is starting their business. This element is  designed to give insight into the resources they will be able to leverage for their business plan.

Opportunity: The emerging opportunity (i.e. Augmented Reality, Cyborgs, etc.) that the participant can take advantage of and consider when conceptualizing their business plan.

Modify Element: The specific space, industry, product, or service (i.e. Coffee Shop, Lamp, etc.) your business plan is in conversation with, adapting, or transforming.

While the Scenario and Opportunity decks were only slightly developed from earlier iterations, the Modify Element deck was completely re-visited to speak to this specific community. For the Modify Element deck, students from UC Merced were prompted to explore the community, and take photographs of spaces that illustrated both an essence of the community, and prominent issues at hand in the county. By getting the students (residents of Merced) involved in this preliminary aspect of the experience, the system became specifically designed for the City of Merced as a way to tease out ideas and concerns unique to this community.

These images were placed on 10 different roundtables around the community center, and participants were prompted to select their seat based on the space depicted in the photograph, assuming that the participants would select based on some kind of prior experience or emotional connection with the imagery depicted in the photo.

Shortly after, the additional two cards (opportunity and scenario) were administered to the participants along with a business plan template, and full instructions for the exercise.

In 30 minutes, the participants were prompted to develop a concept for a business that would exist in Merced that considered all three of the generated components as restrictions in the making process. In order to foster a bit of friendly competition amongst the groups, the community was informed half way through the exercise that some tables were given the same opportunities to capitalize on, thus creating direct competition between the groups in order to push the ideas beyond the top-level, initial, concepts.

After 30 minutes of rapid business generation, each group delivered a pitch to the audience as a whole, presenting the details of their business plans while their ideas were noted on a series of posters. After each presentation, the posters were pinned to the walls of the community center, and the community was asked to vote on the venture that would best benefit the community at large.

The problem with Social Innovation is that it puts the entrepreneur(s) on a pedestal. In doing so, the process of innovation becomes framed as for the community as opposed to with the community, inevitably neglecting the edges of an issue at hand, resulting in a lot of clean looking shiny things that impose a set of values and beliefs around a community’s problems. I am interested in how The Merced Project was able to leverage corporate innovation tactics within a specific community as a way to tease out information about the culture of this space of crisis. Ethnographers often work with entrepreneurs in communities to seek new markets and opportunities, but what if the end goal was not to walk away with a set of solutions to capitalize on? The Merced Project begins to explore design’s ability to shift the role of an entrepreneur away from solving problems, focusing instead on working with a community to tease out new problems specific to their interests. I am interested in how this trajectory could be pushed even further through the development of a series of design interventions inspired / informed by the results of the workshop in order to bring the ideas to the forefront of the community at large.

Special thanks to Kate Slovin for the great photography work.

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2 responses to “The Merced Project

  1. Very interesting exercise Matt and the room was a buzz with ideas and solutions surrounding a number of community issues.

    Thanx,
    Dennis

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