As about 300 Compostmodern participants sat in the Green Room in San Francisco's Herbst Theatre, Joe Khirallah, CEO of Green Bear Group and our moderator for the day, led us in an exercise to extract 50 different topics that would be discussed in breakout sessions throughout the Unconference session. The assumption being that if "you gather a group of passionate people who have a shared interested, the conversation is destined to be fruitful."
Discussion topics ran the spectrum of sustainability and design, from big picture ideas to those seeking answers to project specific questions. How can we harness creativity collectively for solutions? How do we make sustainability desirable for the mainstream? How can we use design thinking to reconstruct curriculum in our K-12 schools? How can we radically rethink the way companies are structured to foster environments for greater creativity and productivity? How do we put design tools in the hands of communities so that they can design their own solutions? What will be the physical manifestation of our memories if everything is digital? How do you change the mindset that new is always better than used?
Before breakout sessions were formed, we were reminded of 5 key tenets of the unconference: the people who come are the best people who could have come, whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened it starts when it starts, it's over when it's over and the Law of Two Feet (if you aren't learning or contributing, it's your responsibility to find a better session for you). Once topics were displayed on the "marketplace," we were tasked with finding those in which we were interested.
As a newcomer to the unconference format, I found it incredibly exciting that we would be able to harness all of the inspiration from the previous day and take that to approach real, substantive questions.
As a student in California College of the Arts MBA in Design Strategy program, I was eager to sit in groups with equally motivated designers to come up with solutions. It was there that I saw how important it is to ask the right question in the first place. I was more compelled by conversations that encouraged us to look at the larger system and underlying motivations behind people's behaviors and then asked what sort of mechanisms we could put into place to change habits. Less successful groups ignored systems thinking because it seemed to be too daunting of a task.
I was reminded of a quote from Albert Einstein which essentially states that we cannot solve the significant problems that we face using the same thinking that created them in the first place. As designers, we are being given the opportunity to redesign the world in which we live, but it will not happen unless we ask the big questions. For instance, rather than simply finding ways to reduce packaging, we should look at recreating the system that requires an excess of packaging. Dan Phillips of the Phoenix Commotion challenged us to examine why we all assume that new is better than old and to create systems that encourage reuse rather than consumption. This thinking is what will change the world.
It is time that we all start acting like 4 year olds again by asking "But why?" ad naseum to our social and environmental paradigms. Instead of lauding design solutions that create a more efficient office chair, ask "but why do we need an office chair?" I am not implying that small steps aren't important because obviously small steps in the right direction are better than no steps at all. However, let's ensure that these small victories are not simply quick fixes, but rather are laying the groundwork toward a collective shift in thinking.
If you are interested in learning more about the solutions proposed in each of the breakout sessions, notes will soon be added to the Compostmodern Unconference Wiki.
Jessica Watson is completing her second semester of the innovative MBA in Design Strategy program at California College of the Arts' where she is focusing on sustainability and social entrepreneurship. This is her first Compostmodern conference, but she is sure it will not be her last.