Meet Our Vanguard: Liz Ogbu – Next City

Meet Our Vanguard: Liz Ogbu

Next American Vanguard, the only annual conference dedicated to enlightening, inspiring and networking the next generation of urban leaders, will kick off on Thursday in St. Louis, Mo. In anticipation of the two-day event, NAC will run profiles with several members of this year’s Vanguard class. To read about past Vanguard members, click here.

Liz Ogbu
Oakland, California
California College of the Arts
Visiting Artist / Scholar in Residence

To Liz Ogbu, sustainability goes well beyond green design. As scholar in residence at the Center for Art and Public Life at California College of the Arts, Ogbu’s design principals for a sustainable world marry economic pragmatism, social justice and environmental stewardship.

Her desire to engage social issues with architecture and design started in her teenage years with a visit to her parents’ home country of Nigeria. There, she was exposed to radically different urban architectural styles that brought up the question of how design organically manifests itself across cities and cultures.

A fellowship brought her back to sub-Saharan Africa after she completed a cross-disciplinary architecture program at Wellesley. She spent the year travelling across 10 countries, apprenticing in architecture firms in Ghana and Ethiopia, and studying the impact of urbanization and globalization in the region. Along the way, she noted that some of the most vibrant regions were those existing outside of the formal urban economy. Small-scale trading platforms used by street traders and entire squatter settlements had an organization and creative energy underlying what seemed like chaos.

After an architecture degree and a few years at SMWM, Ogbu moved on to Public Architecture, a firm committed to putting the power of architecture and design into the service of human interest projects. There she worked on one of her signature pieces, the Day Labor Station, an innovative design and advocacy campaign addressing the discomforts and dignity issues arising from the daily ritual of waiting for day work on street corners. Though never built due to the economic downturn, the station illuminated one of Ogbu’s core design principals — co-creation, or co-design, a process of engagement combining the community expertise of the end user with the designer’s knowledge.

As a Global Fellow with IDEO.org, Ogbu worked on creating sustainable social enterprises that applied human-centered design to social change. For instance, by working on the ground in Tanzania, her team developed a consumer-based five-part strategy for understanding and increasing cookstove adoption. Over a period of eight weeks and 68 interviews, the team realized that the stoves were not being used to their full potential, in part because of high fuel costs, an inability to cook large quantities of food and an educational campaign that focused on future health concerns and not on present economic realities. The human-centered process allowed them to understand fundamental elements of human behavior and design accordingly.

In her current position at the Center for Art and Public Life, Ogbu continues her work to leverage design to address social, economic and political issues, and is helping to turn the center into a community resource with global connections.

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