Final Report:


What is the future of Utica?
— Alternative Futures and Design Opportunities for a Rust-Belt Community


Many of the United States’ once booming industrial communities have been devastated by the migration of manufacturing out of the Northeast and Midwest. The cities of the US rust-belt—spanning from Central New York State, through parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois—are heading down the path to a bleak future. This thesis focuses on a case study of one such rust-belt city, Utica, NY, as a way to examine the unique past, present, and future problems and opportunities of these communities. The concept of wicked problems is used as a conceptual framework for the study and the research will take a holistic approach to framing issues and designing solutions. This study uses participatory design methods as a way of collecting data and employs scenario planning tools to craft alternative future scenarios. These scenarios are the foundation for discovering design opportunities for the Utica area. The results of the study include media-based narratives of alternative futures and recommendations and design solutions for the local residents and government.

Thesis Statement:

We are living in the post-industrial age. For many communities in the US who grew from dependence on industrialization and manufacturing, the utopian state of the 1950s is a distant dream or forgotten memory (Wilson & Wouters, 2003.) Once thriving communities have become depressed cities riddled with abandoned factories, condemned buildings, poverty under-employment and unemployment. They have a large population of jobless, skilled and unskilled laborers and have few opportunities for those with professional skill and advanced education. What is the future of the growing numbers of rust-belt cities in the United States? Although there are some cases that provide hope for these cities, too often, we turn our backs on these small cities and dismiss their recovery as being too economic and resource intensive and therefore beyond saving. But there is rich history and culture worth preserving and opportunity in these communities for revitalization. Citizens of these communities need partners to assist them in identifying, envisioning and implementing theses opportunities in order to grow and move into the future (Spinuzzi, 2005.)

Design Problem:

Large-scale issues facing urban areas can often be described as wicked problems (Rittel and Webber, 1973.) Problems within rust-belt communities are compounded by economic depression, lack of opportunities and, at times, loss of identity. Due to their inclination towards a human-centered approach and non-linear process to addressing problems, designers are an appropriate choice for leading multi-disciplinary teams attempting to tackling wicked problems (Buchanan, 1992.)

Design thinking, a concept integral to design management, begins with a holistic examination of the system to gain understanding before converging to a more narrow focus. It is made successful by knowing the driving forces, organizational objectives and the motivating factors behind decision-making. Design management tools and processes—divergent, convergent and lateral thinking, mind mapping, affinitizing and judgment-free brainstorming—seek to foster new perceptions and continuous renewal of the points of view of industry, partners, customers, and community. It is this design thinking approach that will be used to address the revitalization of rust-belt communities in this study.

Statement of Purpose:

The purpose of this study is to identify opportunities for transforming the growing number of rust-belt communities by conducting a case study on the city of Utica, located in Upstate New York. This inquiry will explore the history of the city as well as global and local trends and use scenario-planning tools to propose alternative futures for the community. The study will also examine opportunities for growth and design solutions for revitalization.

Research Questions:

  1. What is the rust belt?
  2. How might opportunities for economic growth and revitalization in rust-belt communities, specifically Utica, be identified? What are the obstacles?
  3. How have changing demographics shaped the history, culture and community of Utica? How might this change affect the future of the city?
  4. Given current global and local trends and forces, what possible alternative futures could exist for Utica?

Value Proposition:

For citizens, politicians and stakeholders of rust belt cities who wish to revitalize and rebuild their communities, this study will provide design solutions and recommendations for growth and opportunities for social innovation.

We do this by partnering with citizen through the use of participatory design methods along with implementing scenario-planning tool to craft alternative futures with the goal of discovering opportunities and creating a vision for the future.

Unlike other research addressing rust belt revitalization, which often takes a singular focus and point of view,  this study will use the concept of wicked problems as a theoretical framework and lens through which to view the issues in the rust belt communities. The research process, synthesis and analysis will take a holistic approach to finding innovative solutions and empowering community members.



One response to “Thesis

  1. Tom Martin

    I am hopelessly addicted to “all things Utica” but in particular Urban & Downtown Development. Not into the sniping and random tearing down – big into sharing good ideas and progressive improvements.

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