LUCITOPIA RURAL DESIGN CHALLENGE 2018
Qingliangshan, Zixi County, China
The Lucitopia Rural Design Challenge 2018 is an international student design competition in the Qingliangshan National Forest Park, Zixi County, Jiangxi Province, China. Jointly organized by "Xiamen Mexdia Creativity & Technology", a Chinese design company, C-Platform, an NGO dedicated to the meeting of art, design and technology, and Creative Cooperative directed by Andrew Robert Bullen and Janine Huizenga this challenge brought together in China several dozens of students from France, Holland, Italy, Sweden, Georgia, Italy, Sweden, Georgia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xiamen.
Challenge: Gather designers together from around the globe to design a new form of rural town and community, based on the organic unification of environment, production, and living, in a remote, beautiful, and unspoiled corner of China. The aim is to stem rural depopulation through cross-cultural collaborative design, whilst promoting a new, environmentally friendly way of life and production. Our Chinese partners call it Lucitopia – ‘ a lucid utopia in the real world’.
By Anna Pelgrim
On Friday 18th of May we set off to Schiphol airport with the Dutch team: Jan, Ella, Jeremy, Leyla, Maarten, Moze, Dick, Janine, and Andrew. Little did we know that twelve hours later after boarding the place, being sent off, boarding again, and then having the flight cancelled for the day, we’d actually only leave the next day. Yes, that happened!
The original schedule for our trip would include a rest day in Xiamen in between all the traveling, which by the time we arrived in China we had obviously missed.
In the end we traveled for thirty-eight hours straight. Our flight left from Schiphol and landed in Hong Kong. We took the next flight to Xiamen, riding the bullet train for five hours to Nancheng, ending with a three hour bus ride to arrive in the intended town; Qingliangshan. Honestly, I think I forgot about most of the trip after drooling over the lush mountain ranges on the train.
In the end we managed to make it on the same day as the rest of the teams as we had missed the rest day in Xiamen. For our first night we stayed in a hotel called the Wolf Hotel named after a man who is trying to encourage tourism by bringing wolves to the area (yup… read more here).
After a short sleep, we started the tour of Qingliangshan, which was about thirty minutes over the mountains by bus from the hotel. It was obvious that the locals are heavily invested in growing their own crops by the large amounts of vegetation ranging from large rice fields to patches of cabbage, bean, and potato fields. It was already thirty degrees with eighty-five percent humidity early in the morning, yet farmers were already plowing the soil and harvesting crops. Along the sides of winding mountain roads, you could see various unique plants that were intentionally and recently planted there (maybe to make the roads even more attractive for tourists?). Something I did not expect to see was the red Lucitopia banners hanging on each lamppost. It was quite confronting seeing the banners as I was already quite worried we would be making too much of a statement coming to this remote area of China that we knew nothing about. One of the most important things for me during this trip was to listen and observe without interrupting the daily life of the people, wildlife, and nature. When we arrived to the town, the first buildings in sight were the newly renovated Lucitopia workspace and sleeping quarters. It was quite a shock to see the recycled shipping containers and smack-in-your-face white ‘modern’ office area still majorly under construction in this amazingly green forest area.
The first walk through one of the villages was mesmerising. The sound of birds, crickets, and bees was overpowering. It smelled like heat and grass. I cannot express how hot it actually was; by midday it was thirty-four degrees and every part of my body was dripping in sweat (sorry for the image, but it helps paint the picture...). We walked past beehives and bamboo trees and over rushing rivers to arrive at an elderly woman’s home.
Yu Qing Xiang opened her home to us without hesitation. Her home was simply decorated and furnished, except for the large red and gold cross and Catholic calendars on the wall. In this area of Qingliangshan with a population of one hundred, there are two distinct sets of people: the original locals and the immigrants. The immigrants were moved from another town nearby during the 1950s due to a lake project in the area; you can tell the difference between the immigrants and the original people from the architecture (white houses commonly belong to the immigrants and wooden houses to the original people). Also the local religious practices are mainly Buddhism, Catholicism, and the worship of local gods. Yu and Pei have four children, one of whom lives with her as she is mentally ill and needs medication often. The rest live in neighboring cities and are studying or working. By speaking to them with a translator, we learned that Yu and Pei do not want their children to come back as in their opinion there is nothing for them to do. They would rather know that their children are working and getting an education than have them close by. This is the issue of the area I started to realise slowly. Although there is a lot of richness in nature and vegetation, the locals are mainly elderly who often are too old to work to generate enough income to pay for things like healthcare or advanced machines used for farming. Additionally, if young adults do want to stay, there are not many attractive opportunities available such as higher education or a variety of career options. Something that was not missing, however, was contentedness. Everyone we met was friendly, satisfied, and modest. It was definitely hard to grasp what really (if it did) needed to be changed here.
We traveled to a waterfall that had already been designed more for tourists with paved walkways and informational boards. We visited a local craftsman who carved very rare wood from the area into magical sculpture and visited the local water station where the water bottles that were provided for us designed with Lucitopia labels were made (another strange thought that made me feel too privileged). *One thing that struck me this day was that it was very common for locals to have and use smartphones
Since the sleeping quarters were not ready yet for us, we stayed in the Wolf hotel for the duration of the challenge. After a fun evening winding down with our team members from across the globe, we started the next day with a workshop on various topics from local experts that would help us design solutions for the area (no pressure). The topics ranged from geological expertise to information on environmental policies to the importance of ecology within the area. Questions such as ‘is the town ready for modernisation?’ came up and ‘how can we turn what is already available into something profitable and attractive for young people?’. It was an intense time as translation was a major barrier between the local experts and us.
The next three days were so intense that intense is understatement. Working in groups of four within our country teams, we worked through a design thinking process to come to our problem statement as a group by creating design values, stakeholder maps, personas, user journeys, and field research. My group consisted of Jan, Ella, and Jeremy. We worked incredibly well together and were patient enough to really take time to understand our surroundings and our mission. Our problem statement became: ‘Qingliangshan locals face difficulties expanding their business due to lack of consumers and online presence’ and our mission statement became: ‘With respect to the surroundings, we strive to preserve the authenticity of Qingliangshan while providing opportunity to stimulate growth’. Later on, we visited Yu Qing Xiang in her home again to speak with her in detail about her life and routine and also visited a local beehive farmer to discuss his plans for the future. Serendipitously, we spotted local tourists stopping at a shop nearby asking to use the bathroom. We found this unique, as we did not know that local tourists even visited the area. This is how our concept started. With the help of our team translator, Jack who lives in Xiamen, we managed to obtain a crazy amount of information about young Chinese adults and the needs of the locals in Qingliangshan. The main takeaways were that it is common for young Chinese adults to go on road trips and for them to use WeChat, the more advanced Chinese version of Whatsapp, and that locals actually did want to expand their businesses.
To expand business in Qingliangshan due to a lack of consumers and online presence, we propose designing a WeChat Mini-Program named Seek, which uses gamification to attract domestic tourists to the area. Seek helps users plan a road-trip itinerary through notifying them of nearby landmarks and then rewarding them with points for visiting them. Additionally, user’s friends are notified when someone in their network has visited a new destination, creating a country-wide competition within the app. Seek starts small by adding points of interest in Qingliangshan and rewards users for continuing to add new destinations to the map. Seek is scalable to all rural areas within China and even around the world.
‘Exploring nearby areas is fun and rewarding. Earn points for traveling to specific locations, share photos with friends, and level up to become road trip expert!’
The last day of the challenge was presentation day. It was amazing to see the concepts of all the teams since we researched for four days and only had one day to come to a concept or solution. The concepts ranged from a designed bamboo container with Lucitopia branding to an app to connect local buyers and sellers to an artist residency program in the workspace with use of local materials. To conclude the challenge there was an award ceremony with first, second, and third place. Our app won third place, the second place went to public art concept focused on showcasing locals through photography, and first place went to a research lab concept that connects with the Xiamen university and a biotech company! We ended the day and challenge with a big party with the locals and set off the next day to return to the motherland with (this time) a rest day in Xiamen.
Lucitopia designer team: Jeremy Raider, Jan Andre Köhler, Diego Grandy, Ella Hebendanz, Anne-Lies Pelgrim, Leyla-Nour Benouniche, Maarten Keus, Moze Maaike Mertens, Danish Sami Malik, Jordan Evans Aman, Juan He, Jiajin Li, Kunal Ashok Gujar, Olivia Flouty, Yuen Wei Han, Sandro Baracaglia, Gianmarco Carlucci, Ivan Cernuto, Francesco Scardigno, Cassandra Lorca Macchiavelli, Lisa Berkert Wallard, Oskar Henrik Lundgren, Erik Hidemark, Khatuna Sandroshvili, Tamar Bagashvili, Nana Bagashvili, HSIEH chia yi, TING hsuan, LIN Jiayu, CHEN Yiting, LIN Huimin, LIN Xingtong, LIU Shuoshi, HAN Yuli.
I want to say thank you to Janine and Andrew for the invitation to join the challenge, everyone who was involved in making it happen, our incredible team who worked their butts off for this project including the amazing Jack and Lin, and all the people I met during the trip, from the designers to the locals. It was an unbelievable experience that I am still reflecting on and understanding but will never forget! To end, here is our team's promotional video for Seek:
This video was shot, edited, sound designed, and translated using an iPhone and in one day. Thanks, Jan Kohler, Lin, and Jack!
photo credit: Jeremy Raider