Aspen Design Summit Roundtable:
What to expect when you're effecting (change).


The Aspen Design Conference, begun in the 1940's and right around the corner now, takes place June 20-23, 2006. Only this year, it's not the Aspen Design Conference; it's the Aspen Design Summit. More than a name change, this year's gathering will move from enlightenment to engagement, organizing participants into groups of "change agents" across 3 themes: Education Innovation, Sustainable Community Development, and Social Entrepreneurship.

Featured Presenters will share knowledge and insights. Studio Leaders will facilitate intensive design charrettes--each springboarded by a "Design Challenge". And Summit Participants will immerse themselves in a 3-day, proactive experience culminating in a Big Idea presentation.

Since this is a new charter and a new enterprise, Core77 invited representatives from this year's Summit to an online roundtable discussion, focusing on the legacy of the event, the goals for its new embodiment, and the hopes and dreams of some of its leaders.

Around the (virtual) table are Dorothy Dunn (Summit coordinator), John Thackara (Summit moderator), Adam French (Studio leader, social entrepreneurship theme), and Mark Randall (Studio leader, education innovation theme). (All bios here.) The roundtable is moderated by Core77's Allan Chochinov.

We determined that while the International Design Conference at Aspen influenced the launch of many diverse and successful design conferences in the 20th century, IDCA did not need to continue as a conference. "Summit" seemed more appropriate as a context for participation, engagement and action.

Allan Chochinov: Greetings everyone. Dorothy, I'm wondering if you could start us off by providing a brief overview of the Aspen conference, how it's changed over the years, and what your ambitions are for next month's Summit. It seems that the mandate for the thing has jumped a valance shell or two.

Dorothy Dunn: In the 1940s, the enlightened business leader, Walter Paepcke, established Aspen, then a derelict mining town, to be America's Salzburg--a place where leaders from society would meet to share ideas and address issues, a destination for understanding and renewal of body, mind and spirit. His initiatives included The Aspen Institute, The Aspen Music Festival, a retreat for physicists, and the International Design Conference at Aspen (IDCA). Since then, the IDCA has served as the preeminent international gathering for design leaders. The IDCA Board and volunteers organized one thematic conference each year. (This list of past conference themes and a brief history of IDCA can be found on the Aspen Design Summit web site.) As I have become involved with Aspen, I have talked to many, many past Board members and participants. And the stories about life-changing presentations and experiences--along with the history of the organization and conferences--are low ripe fruit for a book...a novel!! It offers a terrific context for understanding the evolution of design in society during the 2nd half of the 20th century.

In 2005, at the request of the IDCA board, AIGA, the professional association for design--whose leading members have a long association with IDCA and which has a substantial financial and institutional base--assumed responsibility for sustaining IDCA well into the future. AIGA is committed to harvesting the strengths from IDCA's past (and there are many) as we launch a new era for the program.

Allan Chochinov: And so what happened once you assumed responsibility?

Dorothy Dunn: We took advantage of 2005 as a transitional year and invited stakeholders from IDCA's past, present and future to participate in a summit, to explore the potential and the possibilities for IDCA. Moderated by John Hockenberry, working closely with Ric Grefe (executive director, AIGA) and Agnes Bourne (president, IDCA Board) along with me as director of programs with David Kelley (IDEO) as advisor, the group was enthusiastic and full of great ideas.

We determined that while IDCA influenced the launch of many diverse and successful design conferences in the 20th century, IDCA did not need to continue as a conference. "Summit" seemed more appropriate as a context for participation, engagement and action. And, literally, as Aspen is in the mountains, we can claim the "summit" as central to the program identity as well as to its mission. As a program, the International Design Conference at Aspen is now the Aspen Design Summit.

Our goal is to position the Aspen Design Summit as a context, catalyst and incubator for presenting design as a tool and process to inform and inspire innovative leadership across society--business, education and culture--on a global scale. At the Summit, design and design thinking will be applied to solving complex problems of global significance. To quote Ric, "It is the evolution of the IDCA to the 21st century--a post-industrial, innovative economy--in which our real challenges are those that effect the next generation, the billions on the bottom of the pyramid around the world, and the future of the planet."

John Thackara, Doors of Perception founder, and author of In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World, will moderate the Aspen Design Summit. He has stated: "No longer defined by objects and aesthetics, we are moving towards a new era of design that places people firmly at its core."

My favorite current definition for DESIGNER is someone who redefines "problems" as "opportunities." This is our collective opportunity at Aspen. Every participant will bring their ideas and expertise to complex and authentic global problems and understand, through direct experience, how design thinking can foster new creative insights and solutions.

Mark Randall: My history with the conference goes back to the early 80s. In 1983 (or maybe 1984), I made my one trip to the Aspen Design Conference. A group of us from the design program at the University of Washington in Seattle piled into an old rust-bucket of a car and made the 1,200-mile journey into the mountains of Colorado. It was our first excursion into the world of professional design. And a memorable one at that. It was one of the first screenings of the movie Koyaanisqatsi; the entire conference illuminated the exciting possibilities that we had ahead of us when we graduated.

Now that I am considerably older--and I guess more jaded--I feel like it is harder to find those moments of exciting possibility. I do think that Aspen can illuminate again. By turning it from conference into a summit--from a passive experience into an active experience--I think we can recapture excitement of possibility that I felt back in the early 1980's.

This is a fantastic opportunity for us, as the design community, to demonstrate how we can take the problem-solving capabilities that we utilize every day and apply them to some significant issues. I think that it is an opportunity for us to experiment and expand what the definition of design can be, and how it can serve the greater good.

I believe that as contributors to the material world, and to the world of ideas, we can make a difference. And, it is our responsibility to do so.

The Summit is about cooking up projects that will happen in the real world. If you're a launch-and-learn kind of person, I hope you'll join us.

John Thackara: I usually have mixed feelings about people (like me) who go up mountains to think deep thoughts about design. Sea-level, and downtown, is more typical of how most people live. But I'm inspired by the vision of Ric and Dorothy that this year's event is not about introversion; it's about cooking up projects that will happen in the real world. If you're a launch-and-learn kind of person, I hope you'll join us.

Adam French: I love the "launch-and-learn" as a descriptor for a category of people! It appears robust as a verb as well--notably a substantial improvement over "fail-early-fail-often" as a prototyping mantra.

Allan Chochinov: Let's talk about the actual mechanics of what's going to take place during the summit. How is this whole thing going to work?

Dorothy Dunn: Unlike the usual conference model (a series of main stage speakers and special events) we decided to put the design process in play as a framework for the actually practice what we preach. There will be Featured Presenters who will share the great good work they do as global change agents, and present an authentic design "Challenge" they face in their work. This challenge will be addressed by multi-disciplinary studio teams--we're calling them "Aspen Action Studios"--each lead by prominent designers. The Studios will take place over two days--offering approximately 12 hours of contact time--and culminate in a 3-minute "Big Idea" pitch. Throughout the studio process, featured presenters will share their experiences, answer questions, ask questions and offer insights. As "clients" they will also respond to the ideas and proposals presented by each Studio.

There will be three featured Themes at the Aspen Design Summit:
1. Education Innovation
2. Sustainable Community Development
3. Social Entrepreneurship

There will be three or four concurrent studios for each of the themes, adding up to a total of 9-12 Aspen Action Studios.

Allan Chochinov: Are people going to be able to choose which theme they participate in, or will they be assigned?

Dorothy Dunn: When Summit participants register, they will be asked to indicate which theme/issue they would like to focus on in Aspen.

Allan Chochinov: So I guess one of the questions for people is whether they should sign up for the area they have expertise in, or the one they'd like to.

Dorothy Dunn: In many ways, each issue is interrelated. Most important is the opportunity to address an authentic issue through the context and experience of design. I am also a believer that remote contexts offer immersive experiences and the opportunity to think in new ways about issues, gain new experiences and consider new recipes for action and strategic partnerships.

Allan Chochinov: Indeed, but what can participants expect in terms of the nuts-and-bolts experience of the Summit? Mark and Adam, what are you planning for your studio experiences, and how will you be organizing them? How do you put a bunch of people in a group and have them effect change? And I guess this brings up the question: Who should go to the Aspen Design Summit? Who is the target audience?

Mark Randall: That's a good question. I think that each team is going to react differently based on who the team members are. Some teams may be more "design-driven" if they're stacked with designers. Others may have government officials who are not so sure about how the design process works. At this point I'm not really sure how I plan to organize my studio. Once I learn more about the specifics of the challenge I'll be able to decide. I don't want to over-plan, since that might lead the team down too much of a predetermined path. The key is to have some structure, but keep a framework that allows for free-flowing ideas.

John Thackara: I agree with Mark that we do not need to over-plan the studios in advance. But once we're there, Dorothy and I will try to be precise about what kind of deliverables we will expect at the end-of-event plenary. For me, the challenges the summit puts before the world, as a result of our work at the summit, are the main way we will stimulate change.

Lately I've been thinking about it like designing a really wonderful sandbox. If it's over-constrained we'll be bumping into each other, stepping on shovels, and knocking over castles before they're complete. Under-constrained and we're just a bunch of people on a beach, doing our own thing.

Mark Randall: I think one of the main roles the studio leaders can play is to make sure that the ideas presented are truly viable. I've done similar exercises--although not on this scale--and it is easy to go off the deep end with really BIG and unrealistic concepts.

Adam French: As for nuts and bolts of what we'll be doing, I don't want to give too much away about our thinking for the Social Entrepreneurship section just yet, but we've been having a really good time figuring it out. Between dinners here in the Bay Area with Paul Polak, Jim Patell, the Cronans, and Mohan Uttawar, and conference calls with the other Action Studio leaders, we're crafting something that will give attendees a great experience working in multi-disciplinary design teams, while at the same time contributing in a real way to Paul's work with IDE (International Development Enterprises).

Designing design problems is actually a great challenge. Success rides heavily on identifying the right constraints. Lately I've been thinking about it like designing a really wonderful sandbox. If it's over-constrained we'll be bumping into each other, stepping on shovels, and knocking over castles before they're complete. Under-constrained and we're just a bunch of people on a beach, doing our own thing. But if we get it right? We'll stand back when we're done and see a set of ideas that have grown in response to, and support of, their neighbors.

And 12 hours of design-time is a really interesting scale to work in. If it was an hour you would simply define the problem and brainstorm. 4 hours and you could research a little, define, brainstorm, have lunch, and sketch out a plan for action. But how to make the most of 12 hours? It's a great question.

Mark Randall: You bring up a good point. Especially 12 hours for a 3-minute presentation. I think that this is where the Featured Presenters can participate more. They can give feedback and direction to the ideas that are in play. Perhaps this is factored into the schedule in an organized way, setting up some milestones.

Adam French: In the social entrepreneurship theme, we feel the principal challenge is this: How can successful designers, business people, politicians, architects (what flavor of Aspen Participant am I missing?) participate in a meaningful way in creating solutions for the developing world? Which is to say, we won't spend 12 hours designing water pumps; we'll spend 12 hours designing new strategies for developing and delivering innovative income-generating technologies to farmers in the developing world.

Allan Chochinov: "We won't spend 12 hours designing water pumps" might make a nice t-shirt for the Summit! :)

Adam French: I agree with the milestones, Mark. The fun part here is coming up with context-independent milestones that fit into a truly fast-paced design environment. As an example, my friend Chris Flink has a nice presentation prototyping tool he calls FlinkPoint. He starts with a stack of 8.5" x 11" paper and a pen, and sketches out a quick stick-figure-and-block-letter presentation in no time. If I ask a team to make a digital presentation there's no telling how much time they'll spend choosing the right font, browsing the image bank for the right photos, and adding animations. And if it's a multi-disciplinary team, there's only one mouse to click, so things get a little dull for everyone else. But when we run FlinkPoint we can usually gather back together in 15 minutes for the first dry run. What's more, FlinkPoint is running open source on the p.a.p.e.r OS.

Mark Randall: I think that the actual challenges are going to be key to the success of this enterprise. We want a challenge that forces us to think outside the box and to deal with issues that we don't normally deal with, and one that is big enough to start to impact change. But, we also want a challenge that can be addressed by design thinking. We certainly don't want to be asked to design a poster series, nor do we want to be asked to develop alternative forms of energy. Like the Buddha says we want the middle-way. I love the "FlickPoint" example. There is still nothing like a pencil and a piece of paper. It is the "idea" in it's purest form.

Dorothy Dunn: The "challenge of the challenge" is a key area that sets the Aspen Design Summit apart from the design conference model. We are determined to pose challenges that are viable within the context and parameters of the Summit and that serve as catalysts for real work resulting in real action. Obviously, we cannot present challenges that would be best served through a semester course or through contracted design work. The Summit's challenges (date, resources, multi-disciplinary teams, etc.) need to become our opportunities. I have been reading with interest Jan Abrams' excellent review of Radical Craft, the second Art Center Design Conference, on the Core77 web site. The thorough review concludes: "...I found myself pondering what Maurice Cox had said, in his talk, about using design to stir unrest, dissatisfaction with the way things are, and of making access to design one of every citizen's "inalienable rights." Could a design conference truly galvanize, challenge its audience, provoke us into action, spurred rather than dazed by the stunning variety of its speakers' agendas and accomplishments? Now that would be radical." Jan's conclusion is an arrow pointing directly to the Aspen Design Summit.

It's taken us a while to learn, but finally we've figured out that having doctors hammer nails is a bad idea. It turns out that innovating in the developing world is actually more difficult than people thought, and what we really need is to recruit the best people we can find for any given job.

Adam French: Dorothy, I think you're exactly right about the summit's challenges being opportunities. I'm inclined to think of them as resources. We have 12 hours over 2 days to work together without responsibilities from our work and home lives. How far can we take that?

What does output from the Social Entrepreneurship track look like? As we see it, in their 3-minute "Big Idea" pitch, a successful team from the social entrepreneurship track will present not just a proposal of what they will do, but the story of what they have already accomplished. A "hot" team will present innovative strategies, new partnerships, funded proposals, effective organizational identities, and a road map to move forward that's rooted in the real world and tempered by the collective experience of all the participants.

My sense from the program, and from talking to other studio leaders, is no matter what they choose, this definitely won't feel like just another day at the office. Come to think of it, there is actually a very real and interesting question here that participants must answer for themselves. Interestingly, it's the same question many development organizations must also answer: How can an individual make the greatest contribution towards effecting change?

My own answer to this question comes from witnessing the recent death of the Appropriate Technology movement. Thirty years ago pioneers in the use of technology in development like E.F. Schumacher popularized the notion of "lending an able hand." As a result many people have in their mind's eye the romantic image of a professional from the developed world contributing outside of their field--doctors hammering nails, for example. For some, this was one of the core tenants of the Appropriate Technology movement, which essentially said "Whoever you are, just do something."

It's taken us a while to learn, but finally we've figured out that having doctors hammer nails is a bad idea. It turns out that innovating in the developing world is actually more difficult than people thought, and what we really need is to recruit the best people we can find for any given job. The truth is, any carpenter worth his salt can put up a building faster than a doctor. For that matter, I don't know any Kenyans hoping to have their appendix taken out by a carpenter.

Mark Randall: Your point that doctors should not necessarily hammer nails to effect change is a good one. As communicators I think we find it hard to address large issues from just a "design" standpoint. From my own experience we decided to tackle the issue of the lack of diversity in the creative professions. We could easily have taken the approach of developing communications on the importance of diversity, which inspired others to do the actual work. But, we chose to develop a scholarship program to give money to students to go to art school with the idea that they would then graduate and populate the profession. This falls outside of the parameters of what designers usually do. But, I think that our success with the program was due to the fact that we are designers--we used our problem-solving techniques to work outside our own box. We could have left it up to other administrators to do the work, but we took it on ourselves.

Dorothy Dunn: Summit participants who are not designers will have opportunities to develop a personal understanding of "design" through direct experience. They will understand that as business, civic, educational and cultural leaders, they will contribute in important ways to the process (defining and addressing the problem as well as developing proposed solutions.) They will also know and articulate how design is most relevant to their work and, it is our hope, serve as ambassadors for new relationships between society and design.

Allan Chochinov: Of course, one thinks of the old saw, "when your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" here. Ralph Calpan, Core77-fave and Director Emeritus of the Aspen Design Conference, sums it up perfectly in an I.D. Magazine column from 1987: "The lecturing I've done has entailed spending a lot of time in hotels, which turned out to be instructive. It also meant spending time in that curious gray area known as the question period. That was instructive too. There is a pattern to the questions people ask about design. They ask what design is, and what designers do. They ask how to tell good design from bad. They almost never ask what design is for." Now, obviously he's referring to laypeople here--but I'm not so sure. John, this is a bit like your "think about the consequences of design actions before we take them" from In the Bubble. And I think we need to be especially careful when we're looking to designers--to fulfill Adam's "the best people we can find for any given job"--as problem-solvers, (though many or most would cite that as their defining charter).

What are some of the techniques for raising the "consequence volume in the monitors" (rather than the crap-generation volume)...especially when we're talking to designers? Is the simple answer design strategy? How do we get people to think about services before artifacts? How can we do that in Aspen?

John Thackara: Well, it could be an interesting exercise to ask, "what would a consequences audit audit? how would it work?". In a recent UK project to design a new research organisation, we proposed something similar--we called the idea a "Con Lab". People thought the idea had potential, but we never got around to fleshing the idea out.

Adam French: Allan, there's a short answer, which is we'll be focusing on the work Paul Polak has done, and on how we can develop new ideas that support the mission of IDE. The slightly longer answer comes down to the meaning of Social Entrepreneurship. As I think of it, "social" in this context, means deeply empathetic. We have some practice creating environments for people to develop a similar kind of empathy at Stanford since we're in our third year of conducting classes engaging in design work for developing countries. Whatever format that takes in Aspen, the ingredients will include making use of video, leveraging a large photo database, and surrounding participants with experts.

Who are the experts? In addition to Paul Polak, who has been leading this field for 25 years, we'll have Jim and Debbie Taylor, who are currently launching IDE Myanmar, Bob Nanis, who directs IDE's Nepal effort, and Mohan Uttawar, a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur who grew up in a village in India. I won't put myself in the expert category, but I have started two development organizations, and have worked on design and development projects in a number of countries in Asia and Africa. As Paul put it on the phone last week "We'll bring the village to Aspen."

All of which is to say, we won't talk about being Social Entrepreneurs; we will be Social Entrepreneurs. What could come out of that? What if a team decided to develop a curriculum about development and technology for students in Aspen middle schools? What if they called up the principal and pitched the idea? What if they presented a prototype of the curriculum to several students that included a hands-on lab explaining the benefits of LEDs for developing countries? Could we write the grant and develop the framework for a branded organization that would see it funded and distributed to teachers around the US? Can that all be done in two days? Would that create value for IDE? Absolutely.

Allan Chochinov: And how about the non-studio hours at the Summit. Will there be some lanyard-making, Kumbaya-singing, shortsheeting-the-bed kinds of activities? What can attendees expect when they're not doing their darndest to be effective change agents?

Dorothy Dunn: Many special events, installations and activities will be offered during the Aspen Design Summit. Participants are encouraged to arrive early to take part in Design Expeditions that will be offered during the day on Tuesday, June 20. Design Expeditions constitute "design studio-meets-National Geographic mini-expedition" as they offer hikes, bike tours and photography workshops that make the most of the magnificent recreational, wilderness and historical destinations accessible in and near Aspen. Expeditions will give the participants opportunities to get to know and work with each other within the context of discovery and adventure.

On the Summer Solstice, June 21, the Aspen Design Summit will celebrate curiosity and creativity through the Darwin Dinner. Our menu will reflect Darwin's culinary experiences in South America as Niles Eldredge, curator of the Darwin exhibition currently on view at the American Museum of natural History, shares anecdotes and sketches from Darwin's journals and journeys.

The Design Explorers Studio will offer Summit participants and their families opportunities for on-going hands-on engagement in design activities developed to enhance teaching and learning across the curriculum and throughout the community.

In the installation, What Moves You?, Summit participants will encounter photographic portraits and interview texts reflecting real people's statements to the United Nations and the Millennium Development Goals. "What Moves You?" shares how the private sector and civil society can impact policy at national and international levels and engage in innovative collaborations to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. Participants in the Aspen Design Summit will have the opportunity to respond to the project and send their recommendations to the United Nations.

And then there's star gazing, of course. And did I mention the pool and spa at Aspen Meadows?


For more information and registration, visit the Aspen Design Conference website: