off topic: A Better World by Design ’09

The Association for Community Design has posted my article about “A Better World by Design” conference that happened last month! Re-posted below:

The 2nd annual “A Better World by Design conference” hosted by RISD and Brown University from Oct 2-4, 2009 in Providence, RI surpassed expectations, particularly for a first time attendee. The conference was fully organized and run by students, who are already actively engaged with projects that change our world. With a diverse speaker list and panel discussions, conversations ranged from affordable housing and architecture in the developing world to clean energy, emerging markets, and social entrepreneurship. As described on the website, “A Better World by Design brings a global community of innovators to Providence, Rhode Island, to reach across disciplines and unite under a common goal. [The event] is an immersive experience that deepens our understanding of the power of design, technology, and enterprise to reshape our communities and sustain our environment.” Themes of cross-disciplinary collaboration, contextual projects, and the future of community empowerment were apparent.

Social entrepreneurs, green-thinkers, artists, and students are only a handful of attendees represented at this event, which epitomizes the idea of cross-disciplinary collaboration. William Drenttel of Winterhouse and DesignObserver spoke about the importance of interdisciplinary work and embracing collaboration, where design is beyond form and aesthetics. This new type of design is transformative, going beyond a great weekend project or 1% of an architect’s work dedicated to social work. Drentel sees transformative design as the next generation of design, where the essence of the profession is not aesthetics, but instead is centered on collaboration. The big obstacle with collaboration discussed during the Social Entrepreneurship panel is communication. Different professions, as we know, use different languages and vocabulary. The panel discussion suggested that if we build connections based on the simple fact that we are all people, communication would be straightforward and easily understood, even across disciplines. For instance, engineers are used to speaking with others in the engineering world, but when working with other disciplines, we should communicate in a way that anyone can understand.

There were many opportunities to get to know other conference attendees besides the typical networking lunch break. In addition to interactive breakout sessions, the industrial design blog Core77 hosted a ‘1-hour design challenge’ during lunch on the 2nd day, reinforcing collaboration among attendees. Participants were directed to classrooms, where 3-4 groups of 5 people worked together to develop a new concept that rethinks the ‘TV dinner,’ within the 1-hour time limit. Many of the groups generated ideas that embraced the systems approach of growing locally and engaging the consumer with an understanding of food sources, eating sustainably, and education. The outcome was a great way to meet fellow attendees and immediately interact and work on a project with a diverse team.

The Emerging Markets panel focused on the organization Aid to Artisans, where designers collaborate with local, low-income artisans to help develop “profitable businesses to sustain their families and their communities.” Emily Pilloton, founder of Project H design, a “charitable organization that supports, creates, and delivers life-improving humanitarian product design solutions” presented the credos that govern her organization, with emphasis on designing “WITH, not for” communities and users. For example, the Furniture For Rural Schools project in Mexico City worked with a local elementary school’s community of teachers, parents, and students to restore and transform old broken furniture into enough new tables for 2 classrooms. This reinforces Project H’s goal of developing projects at the local level that are easily scalable to a global level at multiple locations.

Keynote speaker, Jan Chipchase, principle researcher at Nokia, couldn’t share any project specific research results due to intellectual property and confidentiality agreements; however, his process is nonetheless interesting. Drawing many parallels and patterns between seemingly different environments and cultures from around the world, Chipchase uses an ethnographic research process that enables him to bring ideas back to Nokia for the team to create and develop products that are up to15-20 years in the future. Evident is the indication that Nokia is moving into the space of mobile transactions. Leveraging wireless technology, software developer Ken Banks created an open source tool called FrontlineSMS that uses text messaging as a means for mass communication for non-profits and NGOs working in developing countries.

With such a diverse range of speakers focused on ‘design for a better world,’ the conference embraced the real focus of being involved with communities. Evening events were hosted in venues located in downtown Providence, supporting the presentation by Vivian Loftness of Carnegie Mellon who stressed the importance and future development of living in cities to promote sustainability. Everyone in attendance was eager to share ideas, stories, and encourage each other to take action at both local and global levels to make a positive impact that ranges from community empowerment and environmental issues to social change. Truly beyond an inspiring weekend, hope to see you there next year!

Review Twitter posts from this years event by searching #BxD09.

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