Demographic change and peripherisation – neither of these two catchwords bode well for towns and smaller municipalities. Economists, town planners and architects are thus coming up with differing solutions in their areas of specialisation to try and keep regions and settlements from entering a downward spiral, and to help them once they do. In the following, Thomas Bade, lecturer at the Chair of Industrial Design at Munich Technical University and founding director of both iF Universal design GmbH and the iF Universal Design Association, explains how design and design methods can serve as a tool to contribute to alteration and upgrading processes in urban districts and towns.
"Smart Communities in an Era of Demographic Change" initiative:
The initiative, which was initiated by the Hans Sauer Foundation and which involves Bayern Design GmbH (a Free State of Bavaria company), the Chair of Industrial Design at Munich Technical University, iF Universal Design & Service GmbH and Kermi, a Plattling-based firm, takes new approaches in which design and participatory means and methods are used to create impulses that will help small and mid-sized towns to develop their potential in an effort to counter critical trends.
Thomas Bade sees design solutions, which tend to be small in scale, as having an advantage over architectural or urban development strategies, namely that of swift visualisation. This often facilitates implementation, plus the small impulses concerned can have a signalling effect in municipalities and among residents and local businesses and thus arouse enthusiasm. Three differing approaches, as exemplified by Plattling, Coburg and Minden, three German towns with populations ranging from 12,000 and 80,000 inhabitants, have come about in this way. Despite differences in terms of size, historical development and infrastructure, the three municipalities have certain aspects in common. Large successful companies such as Kermi, Melitta or Edeka are based or have large operations in Plattling, Bavaria, and in Minden in North Rhine-Westphalia, but the respective towns are noticing the increasing peripherisation of their respective regions – a development that is resulting in lack of skilled workers. As Bade notes, "Skilled workers play an important role in the viability of a town as a place for setting up or maintaining a business. If the outlook in this respect is not positive, a location will be decided against". It is thus no surprise that business enterprises in both towns turned to the experts in the "Smart Communities in an Era of Demographic Change" initiative to gain fresh impulses for their locations and to also integrate locally active entrepreneurs. As in the town planning sector, Bade and his team of academics and students start out with an analysis phase in which a major role is played by communication and the integration of the public and local decision-makers first and foremost. With the help of simulations of demographic development and differing life scenarios and a mix of decision-making and moderation tools, best practice examples and in situ measures, the unique selling points and potential of the respective settlements are detected and can then be acted on with the involvement of the population, the town council and the local business sector. In future, for example, an interactive information kiosk will be providing details of regional companies and their products and services at the railway station in Plattling, while a 48-hour design marathon in Minden resulted in an exhibition involving 25 implemented projects. Several aspects are decisive for the acceptance of measures and projects and also for their implementation. First and foremost the enthusiasm and participation of the public in a town or region are vital if changes are to find widespread support, be achieved in a common effort and be continued on into the future. In this respect communication and the network-oriented and moderated pooling of town fathers, the local community, the academic sphere and the business sector are indispensable if measures are to enjoy long-term success. Non-profit organisations and local stakeholders have to be marshalled to the same extent as differing political protagonists. However, as Bade points out, the current short-term nature of financed projects involving runtimes of two to three years at the most is not particularly conducive to achieving developments that have a lasting effect. "We don't need individual projects but long-term implementation by experts working intensively on the task in hand in a sustained effort". This is indeed highly desirable, if only to make sure that invested funds and the activation of the public are not frittered away.