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PieLab is a pie shop in Greensboro, AL which used a community built around pie to inform designers as they worked to design and implement solutions to community problems. This project can serve as a valuable case study to shape new initiatives.

Photo of Alix Gerber
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Although I believe it has changed since its inception, the original concept of  PieLab by Project M was a cafe which used a community built around pie to inform designers as they worked to design and implement solutions to community problems.

This was their theory:
PieLab = a neutral place + a slice of pie
A neutral place + a slice of pie = conversation.
Conversation = ideas + design.
Ideas + design = positive change.

I have no personal experience with this project, but from the NY Times article, it looks like we could learn some things from its downfalls as well as its successes. Rapid, devil-may-care prototyping had its hand in both. The first iteration was "Free Pie Day", when designers simply handed out pie to passers-by, spurring "community and conversation, ones slice at a time" Then, they opened a pop-up shop called PieLab, put together in only 3 weeks. The speed and excitement surrounding these endeavors surely lent to the excitement and participation of the community. " For the socially engaged members of Project M, PieLab was a clubhouse. For small-town characters, it was a magnet." This was a huge success.

But the article sites two campaigns that sparked tension between PieLab and its community that led to its loss of exciting innovative power.
1. The Buy-a-Meter project, pictured above,  drew attention to area families who lacked access to the municipal water supply. This campaign raised $50,000, but it was not considered a success in Greensboro. Community-members resented slogans like,  “In Hale County, Alabama, Water Is Not a Right,” and descriptions of Hale County as an “impoverished population that suffers from substandard housing, education, health care and job opportunities.” They responded,  “What does some guy in Maine know about my life in Alabama? Who gave him the right to speak for us?”
2. The “Poster Incident.” PieLab designers created a poster that shouted “Eat pie!” Stacked beneath, in far smaller type, was a command that began with a sexually explicit four-letter word and ended with the word “cake.” The Greensboro community was outraged, and viewed the poster as a symbol of the group’s cultural insensitivities.

Lessons learned:
- Prototype rapidly, but test on low-risk territory first. The successful Free Pie day was on one street corner, just between whoever stopped by and the designers. The tension-building Buy-a-Meter project achieved national press during the campaign, and the pie posters were distributed around the entire town. PieLab designers had an amazing resource at their fingertips: the community of people in their shop. If these ideas had been checked through with this smaller sounding board first, they probably would have played out better.
- Design with, not for. This seems to have been the original idea behind the community involvement, but it was clearly lost somewhere along the way. As we design for this challenge, people who live in regions of economic decline need to be involved in creating unique interventions that work with their region's specific personality, problems, and assets.


Join the conversation:

Photo of DeletedUser


This is great!

Sharing food
= sharing idea space
= making time for conversation
= nourishing local connections

Here are more food-as-community-lab projects that resonate:
Bread Houses - international network that builds inter-religious dialogue through traditional bread-making practices.

And Conflict Kitchen, which serves up food and facts about countries the U.S. is in conflict with:

Photo of Alix Gerber

Oh my gosh, those are so cool! Makes me want to start something in Portland... The Conflict Kitchen reminds me of Marije Vogelzang's Eat Love Budapest "If you've had that experience, and someone shared her food with you and her story with you, you cannot hate that person, you have to like that person."

Photo of DeletedUser


I LOVE Marjie's project. So beautiful, intimate and transformative. Also love her quote that 'if you break bread with someone, you won't break that person's neck.' I'm going to add an example of Souk el Tayeb in Beirut that builds on your contribution. Thanks for the inspiration!

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