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UW-Madison students re-engineer cities through community ergonomics

Ergonomic design usually means creating a functional fit between office workers and their working environment. But a group of industrial engineers at UW-Madison is putting the concept to a larger test: If it works for office and industrial environments, why not for entire communities?

The National Laboratory for Community Ergonomics, a part of UW Madison's Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, is designing reinvestment programs that help improve the quality of inner cities.

Community ergonomics uses engineering principles to solve urban problems by looking at human needs and values as a central part of the solution. The engineers essentially develop "human systems" by bringing together a wide variety of professionals, neighborhood groups and public agencies to tackle problems collectively.

"A lot of research on economically disadvantaged areas never goes beyond aspirations, because most of the time is spent chronicling what's wrong rather than finding solutions," said John Smith, a doctoral student in industrial engineering and architect of the Milwaukee Community Investment Partnership (MCIP). "The wish to get something done gets confused with a solution."

The MCIP involves leaders from civic and community groups, businesses, schools and municipalities. After coming up with a list of nearly 200 ideas, the group narrowed its agenda to three areas rooted in improving the credit environment: establishing financial and lending institutions in target areas controlled by minorities; developing a private loan agency that could make loans available to people normally considered risks by banks; and creating a community investment bank to support civic projects.

William Cohen, an industrial engineering PhD candidate and co-director of MCIP, has been working with the group for more than a year. "Our approach is exactly the opposite of most, in that we don't prescribe solutions to people," Cohen said. "The group decides on its own what it wants to do, and the practical design emerges from there. Many of these people have seen 30 years of programs come and go, millions of dollars poured into their communities, and still seen very little change."

The Milwaukee project will be the focus of the September conference of the American Society of Ergonomic System Engineers, which will meet at UW-Madison.

For more information, call department chairman Michael J. Smith at 608/263-6329, or send e-mail to mjsmith@cae.wisc.edu.

 

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2/5/1996