Sunday, January 30, 2011

The City as a Teaching Tool

Make the World Better: Tools for Designing Bright Green Cities

View more presentations from Xanthe.

The Student Environmental Action League (SEAL) at RIT is hosting a summit on environment this Friday and I've been asked to speak. I've been struggling a bit in deciding which topic to speak about. In a macro sense my research is about using sustainability lenses to guide the creative process. I often use "new product development" to exemplify this thesis because products are an easy thing for people to understand. And when I'm introducing so many new ideas in a half hour talk, I try to ground my theory in an example that is within the audience's understanding.

The conflict here for me is that product design has very little to do with the sustainability movement. Even when you can get an audience to understand the life cycle of a product, at the end of the day, it's still a consumer product. The sustainability movement focuses a little too much on consumer choices, which products to buy, rather than systemic change because products are easy to understand. Systems, not so much.

But this time I'm saying to myself, "What the heck, let's talk about systems." And what better system to talk about than the city. People understand cities, don't they?

There's a lot of great work being done in the area of sustainable cities and new urbanism. I am hardly an expert. But I am working with an impressively transformative organization this quarter, Foodlink. They "disguise" themselves as a food-bank that provides emergency food to eleven counties in the region. And they do that very well. But their long term goal is to transform the region. They act on this goal through R&D initiatives that explore sustainable farming, job training for low income or developmentally disabled people, and turning food-waste into fuel for food distribution trucks. So I'm going to use their work to exemplify how to reinvent cities using tools from the sustainability and creativity literature.

How are these tools different from other tools used by urban decision makers? Well, they give people permission to linger a little longer in the imagining phase of a re-design, the lovely pre-hypothesis phase. They provide practical (and fun) methods for working with stakeholders from an array of backgrounds. And they encourage folks to think big and be in it for the long haul.

At first it's not easy to work this way. Like anything else, it takes practice and persistence. But once we get these tools under our belts, o the places we will go!

If you are in the Rochester area, then come on out to the RIT Innovation Center on Friday for SEAL's Summit on Environment.  And if you want to get your hands dirty with a city project, then sign up for my spring section of Design-thinking. Cheers!

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