The Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI) is a nonprofit design and community development organization based in Los Angeles, CA and Nairobi, Kenya. Throughout Africa, Latin America and the U.S., their work emphasizes an extensive process of community engagement which reveals underlying systemic needs in a particular community and subsequently enlists the community in the design and construction of solutions.
Contrary to typical NGO work, KDI never goes looking for a problem to fix. Any ‘problem’ which is eventually addressed by design is first uncovered through conversation. KDI seeks to create ‘productive public spaces’ wherever they work.
The group began its work in Kibera – a large slum in southwest Nairobi, Kenya. Beginning in 2006, a community process revealed a tryptic of urgent problems: youth unemployment, water pollution and flooding. KDI began by cleaning the rivers that lace the settlement. Research found that 80% of the trash was compostable, and another 15% was recyclable. This mere fact gave rise to possible businesses and income streams associated with cleaning the river. Such an approach can also free up a considerable amount of space – most of the riverbanks were considered unusable because of pollution. However, they were commonly owned, so once clean, could be put to productive use with new facilities.
Their work has since expanded to the U.S., Haiti, Ghana, Kenya and Morocco, while maintaining the same commitment to community development.
For example, in 2011 the group began working with residents of the St. Anthony trailer park in the Coachella valley. In this agricultural hub, trailers are the only available means of affordable housing. Because of a lack of oversight, planning and regulation, these trailer communities have difficulty securing access to quality water, sanitation systems, and other public amenities we take for granted.
KDI worked with the residents to create a community hub in the center of the trailer park. The hub includes safe play spaces for children, as well as a community garden, among other amenities. The intent is to create a space where new community interactions can flourish, especially where the formal systems of the city are unavailable. KDI’s work illustrates for us how designers can catalyze new developments in public space – often with minimal resources.
We had a chance to speak with Chelina Odbert and Jennifer Toy on Social Design Insights on June 15, 2017. Join us for a revelatory conversation.