The Designers Accord Global Summit on Sustainability & Education held October 23rd & 24th in San Francisco, marked an important step forward for the sustainable design movement. For two days a high-powered group of about 100 designers, educators, writers, business strategists, technologists, and futurists were assembled by the leadership of the Designers Accord to "tackle the critical issue of sustainability, consider how best to prepare our educational community to make real change, and imagine what's next in design education."
The summit took place in the AutoDesk Design Gallery, a gorgeous flowing space overlooking the Embarcadero Plaza, which is full of physical and virtual examples of how design constructs and transforms the world in which we live. The week leading up to the event had been marked by anticipation for the 350.org day of climate action on October 24th—an historic event, as it was the first ever coordinated, international grassroots action focused on issues of climate change and sustainability. The sights and sounds of a climate action rally being held in the plaza below us lent a sense of both festivity and gravity to the summit.
It struck me that in trying to define how to teach sustainable design, we were ourselves taking on a fairly meaty systems-level sustainable design challenge: How should we design the social machine of education such that everyone who participates in it becomes an agent for sustainable outcomes?
As Valerie presented the topical and facilitation framework that would guide us all through the next two days, I was struck by the vision and care that had already gone into the planning and experience design of the summit.
The choreography of the event would cycle us through phases of focused work in breakouts, casual conversations over breaks, and inspirational presentations. The overarching topic had been broken into eight sub-topics, ranging from the practical to the visionary, yet each critical to generating a comprehensive and actionable toolkit. These included the definition of a common language through which we could discuss sustainability concepts across disciplines, the outlining of a core sustainability curriculum, the identification of techniques for transitioning legacy curricula, and the formation of strategies for turning theory into action—both in education and in design practice. The final topic was a synthesis of all the others, in which we were to envision what the future of design education—with sustainability principles deeply integrated—might actually look like. We were to be broken into groups, and as the event progressed each group would tackle each of the eight topics using different "lenses." Each group building upon the work of the previous group, by the end of the second day every participant would have contributed to every topic.
As the first breakout session got underway, our group had to start getting to know each other and learning how to work as a team. As the day progressed our group dynamic began to emerge. Personalities and passions were revealed, alliances began to form, and frustrations began to simmer. It was clear by the end of our first breakout that this was to be really hard work, and to tackle it we would need to set aside our egos, place our faith in each other and in the structure of the facilitation framework, and become - in effect - peers before our task.
After a snack we broke into our groups and plunged back into the second breakout session. I noticed that the consideration of cultural relevance—a concept to which we had all just been exposed—started to surface in the ensuing discussions.
Deb's accomplishments around creating sustainable change at Pratt were very inspirational, but her sights were set on an even grander vision. She proposed that to truly disseminate the practices and principles of sustainability across and beyond educational institutions, an open-source, freely accessible "Sustainability University in the Cloud" would need to be established. This would be a global repository into which best ideas, practices, and curricula could be contributed, refined, and accessed. The idea that sustainability education needs to be freely available, generative, and open to the commons for contribution and improvement was a powerful and challenging theme emerging from Deb's presentation.
The following breakout sessions, while challenging, seemed to fly by all too quickly. Our timekeeper/cat herders would walk about ringing a cowbell, signaling that we had 5 minutes to wrap up our session and move on to either the next session. They meant it, too. No matter how invested we had become in our current topic, we were not allowed to keep working after the bell; we had to surrender the work in whatever state we were able to leave it, hoping that we had done our part. This was really tough for a bunch of overachiever/perfectionists to handle. As much as we all came to resent that cowbell however, we grudgingly recognized that without it, there would have been no way to keep the process on track.
Gil challenged us to move beyond teaching the design of products to teaching the design of systems modeled on natural laws and design principles, and this shift of emphasis from the production of artifacts to the architecture of systems and provision of services became a repeating theme throughout the event.
We worked through our final topic with some difficulty as our group became irritable and, frankly, a bit mutinous. We got through it, and with no hard feelings, but let's just say the cocktail hour did not arrive a moment too soon.
Our fourth and final breakout session of the day was where our group to hit the proverbial wall. I could feel my synapses groaning under the weight of all of the newly acquired information and connections, and was struggling to remain engaged and positive. We worked through our final topic with some difficulty as our group became irritable and, frankly, a bit mutinous. We got through it, and with no hard feelings, but let's just say the cocktail hour did not arrive a moment too soon.
Day TwoSaturday morning, October 24th, International Day of Climate Action.
We began our second day—again over excellent free-trade coffee and organic pastries—to the sound of music, cheering, protest, from the climate rally in the plaza below our space. Someone had taped a big "350" to one of the windows overlooking the plaza to show our solidarity with the protesters. It made me happy.
The AutoDesk Design gallery had by this point been utterly transformed by layers and layers of notes and scribbles and ideas. It felt like our space now, and we—yesterday 100 strangers—now felt like a group with intense shared experiences and resolve to continue tackling a common challenge.
In her opening remarks, Valerie Casey again rallied us to our task, encouraging us to stay focused, and reminding us that this work must be in a near-publishable form by the end of the day. To go from piles of post-its to a polished and coherent framework in 8 hours seemed impossible, but we put our faith in the cowbell and moved on to the first breakout.
The breakout work seemed harder and slower at the on the second day. Our group had to now work through the collected content of all of the groups from the previous day, so getting things started was more difficult. The facilitation seemed more challenging, as well, and by the end of the first session we were actually relieved to hear the cowbell; we were ready for an infusion of positivity and inspiration from our next speaker, Allan Chochinov.
Allan's students learn to apply both their skills and their ethics in creating impact. He teaches students to approach design as the creation of consequences, rather than simply of artifacts. His students learn that design should start with a definition of a problem to be addressed, and that a well-designed solution should be appropriate to the scale of the problem. Problem seeking and solving are only a part of the story. Allan also challenges his students to explore their personal values, to declare a perspective on a problem, and then to intentionally design around that perspective. The resulting works produced by Allan's students were examples of thoughtful, mature design, which any institution would be proud to see emerging from its halls.
As we returned to tackle our second breakout of the day, one of Allan's examples kept resonating for me. He had presented some beautiful, empathetic, functional concepts for prosthetic arms that a group of his graphic design students had created. These were students who "had no business designing prosthetic arms," and yet had stretched themselves and risen to the challenge—bringing creativity, craft, and real compassion to the task. He called this work an example of "punching above your weight," and pushed the idea was that we can all stretch ourselves to take on problems that are outside our comfort zone.
This notion was very reassuring, and helped to buttress us as we grappled with questions that seemed so large and problematic on so many levels. In a sense, the whole event represented an embodiment of this ideal: we were all taking on a task that was bigger than we were, and for which we were unevenly and imperfectly prepared. And so I felt that Allan's real gift to the event was to give us all the permission to continue to "punch above our weight."
The Forum for the Future works with executives in public and private settings to collaboratively envision future scenarios that are both believable and desirable. Peter emphasized the importance of developing scenarios in collaboration with stakeholders - so that they feel a sense of pride and ownership over the vision. In his work, he has found that helping organizations create a long-term vision for a positive future they can believe in motivates them to take short-term actions that will help to manifest that future. To create these visions, and produce the artifacts through which they are communicated, Peter's organization uses a variety of techniques, which include scenario planning, back-casting, modeling, and storytelling. The Forum for the Future also requires that any content they generate to be made publicly available. In closing, Peter encouraged us to really paint a picture the future we want and are designing towards, and offered us some intriguing new tools from his toolkit for how to do this.
Cameron Tonkinwise offered that much of what passes as "sustainable design" today not only fails to fundamentally address the way food, transportation, and housing systems are organized, but actually aggravates the problem by making it more comfortable and stylish to continue to live in fundamentally unsustainable ways.
Embracing a Critical Stance, Demanding Excellence, and the Political Nature of Design: Cameron Tonkinwise, Parsons The New School for Design
Our final presenter, Cameron Tonkinwise of Parsons, rather quickly deflated the joy I brought out of the previous breakout. He presented a sharp reminder of the heroic scale of our collective task. He reminded us that meaningfully tackling sustainability is not a matter of good intentions and hemp fabrics; rather, it is a meta-level design challenge that demands excellence and critical rigor from educators, practitioners and students alike.
He discussed the systems of human activity that are actually causing the bulk of climate change and environmental damage: food, transportation, and housing. He offered that much of what passes as "sustainable design" today not only fails to fundamentally address the way these systems are organized, but actually aggravates the problem by making it more comfortable and stylish to continue to live in fundamentally unsustainable ways. Cameron proposed that to really do "sustainable design," the design community would need to be willing to propose deep changes in how we organize our lives. These are fundamentally political discussions for which designers Hve previously had little stomach. To really make a systemic change, Cameron urged us to be willing to take a real political stand and deal with the systemic issues. If the design of our societies today is fundamentally broken, no amount of well-designed eco-trinkets will ever make a dent, he argued.
Beyond encouraging critique of the way modern life is currently organized, Cameron called upon us to promote and help materialize new ways of living sustainably. He challenges us to always be asking ourselves: How do we want to live?
Throughout the event, we were continuously exposed to some of the most contemporary thinking available on teaching, promoting, and communicating principles of sustainability—from the perspectives of business strategists, design leaders, design educators, and futurists. The speakers proved essential to keeping everyone operating within a common conceptual framework. Still, moving so many passionate and opinionated people through so much challenging material had required ruthless timekeeping, skillful facilitation, and regular infusions of food and coffee. The design of the event—which had seemed awfully ambitious and complex when it was first presented to us—had been nearly flawless.
There was a subdued elation in the room as Valerie delivered her closing remarks. We had actually done something; we created a starting point, a framework that would organize and support future layers of thought and refinement. It felt good.
Perhaps most importantly, I now carry a tangible sense pride that my signature will be included on this historic piece of work.
Andrea Mangini is a Lead Experience Designer for Adobe Systems, where she has spent the past decade specializing in "design for designers". Her professional focus is understanding and supporting support the work of designers, builders, and creative professionals. Andrea is co-founder of Adobe's employee Green Team, and an advocate for sustainable design and innovation on behalf of her employers and users. Follow Andrea @jingleyfish.