Five Wild Ideas to Make Indy Better

A few of the city’s smartest urban thinkers give their take on what would improve the city.

An All-Night Projection FestivalBy Scott Stulen, Curator of audience experience and performance at the IMA

Screens are a ubiquitous presence in our daily lives, providing a constant backdrop in public spaces and a beckoning distraction on our smartphones. Our screen-filled environment provides a stream of vital information, but also becomes white noise, ever-present but unconsidered. What if, for one night, our screens became more than hosts for endless replays of SportsCenter and cat videos? Imagine a night illuminated by 10-story video projections on downtown buildings; secret, location-based cell phone viewing parties; stadium scoreboard takeovers; and entire sports bars becoming art-house cinemas. My idea is to launch an innovative, flagship cultural event for Indianapolis that becomes a source of civic pride.
The projection festival, titled Project/Project, would fill the city with videos, images, and light installations from sundown to sunrise. Inspired by the Nuit Blanche (“all-nighter”) format originally conceived in Paris in 2002, it would be an attempt to bring contemporary art to the masses. The Parisian festival—which simply opens cultural institutions at night and does not focus on video—now attracts a million people to the streets each year, and has led to similar happenings in Toronto, Chicago, Miami, Minneapolis, and San Francisco.
What makes Project/Project unique? We would concentrate on a specific, accessible, and democratic medium: the screen. The public, as well as artists and filmmakers, would create content, activating thousands of projection devices throughout the city. From cinemas to cell phones, the festival would incorporate programming by national artists, while encouraging drop-in participation from the public, including backyard movies and pop-up theaters. Related programs, originating at the IMA, would include midnight bus and bike tours. Plans are already underway to make this a reality. I’m partnering with local visionary Michael Kaufmann, and we’re in the early planning stages, with our eyes set on a 2016 debut. Indianapolis deserves an arts event that draws people from across the country, blows up social media, and makes residents see their home in a new light. Project/Project would bring wonder and joy to our city.
0814-TimCarter-cropA New Kind of Museum
By Tim Carter, Director of the Center for Urban Ecology at Butler University
Without realizing it, we’re constantly developing personal hypotheses about how our city works. “This is the fastest route to get to work,” for example, or “My gas bill must be wrong.” We may even collect data and test these concepts. “Go straight instead of right” or “Turn down the thermostat.” Could we design Indianapolis to create more of these informal science-learning opportunities? In other words, could we curate the entire city as a science museum, where people learn more about their immediate surroundings in ways that are relevant to their daily lives?
I have an idea for a new kind of institution called the MUSE: Museum of Urban Science and Ecology. While the MUSE would borrow from traditional museums with curatorial responsibilities and interpretive elements, it would be a radical departure as well. For example, it would be dispersed around the city rather than concentrated in a single building. MUSE sites might take a variety of forms. Imagine a public sculpture that moves a certain way based on the energy use in your neighborhood. Or a street-corner musical recording that plays in different pitches based on the air quality in the area. All would respond to scientific content and the place in which they’re located. In these ways, the city could study itself, respond to itself, and potentially act to change itself based on this new way of learning.
Where could you discover the MUSE? Along the Indianapolis Greenway System or the Cultural Trail. In Butler University’s Holcomb Gardens. At Fall Creek Gardens in Mapleton–Fall Creek. Anyplace people in Indy have identified as meaningful. San Francisco has begun to experiment with Living Innovation Zones—basically art, tech, or science-museum exhibits on city streets—in partnership with the Exploratorium, but no one has tried this on a city-wide scale.
Of course, the MUSE would take resources for new commissions. But there are many opportunities to retrofit what is already here. Murals and public art are expanding throughout the city, and adding a virtual MUSE component could be done at minimal cost and quickly allow for the brand to proliferate. City planners could insert the MUSE criteria in core development plans, as it serves a public good. The hope would be that the city becomes a learning opportunity of the public’s creation. In short, the museum becomes your MUSE.
David Harris Mind TrustAutonomy for Public Schools
By David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust
High-poverty urban school districts are failing far too many of our country’s most disadvantaged students. The reason: Districts have delivered education from a top-down model, in which central offices, rather than schools, make key decisions and control the majority of resources. Indianapolis Public Schools has been no exception. But earlier this year, IPS did something dramatic to flip that on its head. At the urging of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, Indiana passed Public Law 1321, allowing IPS to launch Innovation Network Schools with autonomy from the central office but access to district buildings. This is a historic shift. It transfers control to the school level and empowers talented teachers and administrators to run their local institutions.
So my big idea: Let’s maximize the potential of this new law. Together with IPS and the mayor’s office, The Mind Trust has created an Innovation School Fellowship designed to attract best-in-class educators to start the new schools. Fellows will receive a full salary and benefits, so they have a year to design and launch those schools as well as the opportunity to consult with national experts and travel to high-performing districts to learn best practices. I can imagine building on this by adding a program to identify promising teachers within IPS and train them to be Innovation School Fellowship candidates. That move would ensure a rich pipeline of applicants. And if the initial schools show great results, The Mind Trust also could go beyond the nine fellowships we’ve aimed to create and support many more.
With these changes in place, IPS could one day become a rare urban district with mostly autonomous schools, giving students a much better chance of success. I envision other districts across the country following IPS’s lead to forge a new model.
Mali JeffersThe Rebirth of Indiana Avenue
By Mali Simone Jeffers, Executive director of Mosaic City
From the 1920s to the 1950s, Indiana Avenue was the center of entertainment, business, and pride for the city’s African-American community. Residents in zoot suits and hand-sewn dresses would flaunt their way down the street to vaudeville shows at the Madame Walker Theatre or dance performances at the Cotton Club. Jazz was just starting to swing, and soon-to-be legends like Wes Montgomery, J.J. Johnson, and David Baker all found gigs on the strip.
Today, the cultural district is home to one of the nation’s fastest-growing college campuses (IUPUI), but very little of the area’s prestige remains. My vision for it starts with reviving that rich history. Imagine the People Mover monorail clad in a colorful historical mural. Imagine walking along St. Clair to West Street, where sensors trigger music from the ’20s and ’30s playing from repurposed parking meters. Imagine binoculars atop steel beams that, when looked through, show images of old Indiana Avenue.
What’s more, we need to build on the tradition of innovation that Madam Walker established with her beauty-products company. The 16 Tech project—a west-downtown life-sciences and technology district introduced by the mayor a few years ago—already has made streetscape improvements to Indiana Avenue, but a critical determinant of the area’s long-term success will be how well it attracts employees of those technology businesses to the nightlife that has always been the neighborhood’s strong suit. And the Madame Walker Theatre Center and Lockefield Gardens can act as incubator spaces for those thinkers. I dream of a district that educates the public on its significance and becomes relevant to its users today. That is the new Indiana Avenue.
Nikki SuttonAn Urban Design Center
By Nikki Sutton, Principal for interior design at Blackline Studio
Having worked with our tech sector for years, I’ve noticed something unique about that industry. Rather than isolating themselves and jealously guarding clients, startups here participate in an open-door culture. They meet at co-working spaces both to socialize and share ideas. Compare that with our design community, which tends to interact only in the 15 minutes before the occasional lecture and in the comment sections of blogs. We’re a group that tends to err on the side of competition despite the fact that we all aspire to elevate the look of this city.
I have an idea for an Urban Design Center that serves as common ground for local architects, engineers, and designers of all types (industrial, fashion, graphic, interior). This wouldn’t be a product resource center for a specific subdiscipline. (We already have one of those for interior designers in Carmel.) This would be a gathering place with guest speakers, seminars, and pitch competitions. I’ll be the first to admit that this is not an entirely new idea. For a short stint, the IMA hosted a small design lab—a great concept, but they did a poor job of engaging local designers. And the fashion community started The Bindery, intended as a kind of pop-up sewing lab. But that space ended up attracting a motley crew of just about everyone looking to get out of their home office.
The Speak Easy, on the other hand, got nearly everything right for the tech sector. Broadly designed to be a space to network and learn, it was not specifically programmed, but grew into what the users needed. This is where we in the design community should start: a place we collectively identify as ours; a place where we set aside our titles and engage one another; a place where we find the support we currently lack to produce ambitious projects. I envision a spot in the industrial northwest quadrant of downtown Indy—funded by membership dues, leasing for events, and grants—committed to inspiring the people who define the look of Indianapolis.
This article appeared in the August 2014 issue.