Image courtesy of Living Principles.
President of Emergent Structures, a 501c3 non-profit organization dedicated to reducing the landfilling of building materials, Scott Boylston teaches in the Graphic Design, Design Management, and Design for Sustainability programs at the Savannah College of Art and Design and is the founder of the Design Ethos Conference. It is impossible to measure the impact of Boylston's work, but Design Ethos showed us the tip of the social innovation iceberg Boylston has brought to the city of Savannah.
Core77: How did you get the idea for Design Ethos?
Scott Boylston: The first one was in October of 2010 and that was really a result of a conversation that was probably five years old by the time between a number people who were speaking via the internet about changing design and design education. Most of the people I had never personally met; I knew their work and corresponded [with them]. We shared our work, we shared our students' work, and we said, 'Alright, what would be the best first step in terms of getting together?' 'Well, how about a conference?' In any case, the seeds were sewn about five years before.
During the first one, we were talking about the need to challenge ourselves to kind of 'walk the walk'—not to say, everyone here [the Do-ference participants themselves] isn't already walking the walk in their own cities—but the idea was having a convention with a 'designed function.' When you have people sitting there, talking about the importance of engaging with community, and then you have a conference where everyone goes right to that little sweet spot and doesn't go anywhere else, there could be something else.
So, that's the conversation we had. Let's try to do something different with a conference. There could be something else totally. That's where the Do-ference idea came from. I was like, 'Alright, let's ask them to come and show what they do rather than talk about what they do.'
How did you go about structuring the Do-ference?
The idea had been floating out there, but, really, when you talk about conferences, they pour more energy into old conversations. So that conversation had been out there, and we all came together and were like, 'Maybe we should try this.' A conference is a design; it's like anything else.
I started going to a lot of people I know, just through projects in Savannah, city folks, MPC (Metropolitan Planning Commission), locals and all that and that's when we focused on what was happening.
So, looking at a conference as a design, how did you approach that as a design problem?
Re-design the idea of convening so that they are doing.
In Sustainable Design, we talk a lot about 'wicked problems.' Design for Sustainability is very much about entering into a system in a way where you first assess. I use a web as an example, all these strings being not people, not organizations, but the relationships between them. So, if you imagine a cobweb, those are relationships. Those are the intangibles, and we just happen to get a glimpse of those.
Pluck a string. Assess the system. Know you'll never understand it fully. Know that you might not be able to effect change; the frustration is built into it, but somebody has to be addressing it. Someone has to be looking at it with a tolerance of discovery, being able to really wade through all the complexities, manage the ability to explore that without too much frustration, but with all the human complexities.
The Do-ference was this idea that you have in every city, you have archetypes, in terms of problems. You have poverty, you have racism, you have social inequity, economic inequity, you have all of these problems. This is the South, so you have another layer of social dynamics. It's historical and it's typical. Yet, it's Savannah, so Savannah is it's own unique mix of those things.
The composition of the Do-ference teams.
How has it been organizing and facilitating all these different 'strings'?
When you facilitate with designers, it's really challenging, but when you facilitate with locals, when I say locals, with non-designers, it's both more challenging and less so; it's more challenging because you can't talk the way designers talk. You just can't. It's like a different language. It's less challenging because once the trust is there, they realize the value of the designer thinking. Now, that sounds a little cliché, but they realize the value of changing perspective, of all of these silly things we do in terms of putting maps up and iterating ideas and listing things that most of us know as somewhat unrealistic just to have it on the board to remind us of what could be.
So can we, as designers, learn from each other in our own context? Now I'm kind of a host now, but, hopefully, I'll be challenged to go to a city that I don't know, and will try to play that same role and really ask whether or not that is something that design wants to do.
In each group you've assigned leadership roles for design, business, community, municipal, and regional leadership. What sort of thought went behind assigning these roles and organizing the various groups?
From Peter Senge to Fritjof Capra, all of these writers—to even USGBC [U.S. Green Building Council], I wanted to convene the system, bring the system into the room. That's really the idea. Not only that, but if you can't have somebody in the group, because you can't have the whole community in the room, then the question is, does everybody in the community feel like they have representation? Does government feel like there is representation, do the citizens, do the churches? Do they feel like they're represented or that their values are represented?
With this year's Do-ference, conference participants looked at a set of issues plaguing Waters Avenue in Savannah, GA. How do you see this evolving in future years?
In future years, we hope to build upon the success of this year's Do-ference in Savannah by taking it forward and repeating it again here. By maturing the form, we can carry this year's work forward. We are convinced that another Savannah iteration of the Do-ference could provide us with an opportunity to see what occurs as the result of this first event, and to carry the work and the relationships forward.
Maybe next year we go to Providence, maybe the following year, we go somewhere in California. We do the same thing. We develop a new way of talking to each other, a new way of considering.
Boylston making closing comments at the end of Design Ethos.
What is the final product of all of this?
On one side, for the design world, and for the people who are here, is the support. Sometimes when we get into groups like this, you think everyone thinks this way, but then you go back home and you realize, "Wow, we're still kind of weirdos." So there's a support system.
There's also the training ground thing as we test our own hypothesis about what design can be in terms of addressing wicked problems. Then, of course, there is how do you make sure that design is serving the community through social innovation. You can create new habits and design can help. Design has always made new habits. We can create new habits, maybe for institutions, but it has to be meaningful to the institution. That's the defining of value for all stakeholders.
Why should the community want to be involved here? We have to make it meaningful. Why should the institution want to support it? We have to be able to make it meaningful. Just because the way in which we talk to both of those groups is different about meaning, doesn't mean that it's not all one in the same. So, for us, the other part of that is to figure out how we can be here. We being SCAD, meaning professors, meaning students, and genuinely contribute.
The process in itself is of high value, but, what you see here, is the result of work done starting 14 weeks ago. This was the "Role of Design and Social Awareness" [a fall course taught by Boylston], a ten-week project. It made use of the HDC toolkit IDEO put together, but the idea was, and the idea of the whole conference, is that there are a lot of things that are bad about Waters Avenue, in the community, but one frustration that they had was that people weren't celebrating what was already there. Not only that, but what was already there could be threatened if the place is gentrified. The role of Design Ethos is to tend to the soil so that when new trees and shrubs come along, what is there already doesn't get choked out.
And lastly, funding. Some people look for funding so they can do something. I say, why don't we do something, so that when we look for funding, we have something to show for it to prove our case. So, the idea is to put some of these things together and put in an application for funding. It might be a city collaborative that puts in with a SCAD professor for a large-scale grant. We're looking at a diversity of options.