Designers Accord NY Town Hall Wrap Up

While it was hard to be a control freak “not_organizing” an “un_conference,” I still had fun at the Designers Accord’s first Town Hall.

The Problem of Proprietary
One of the big issues raised in a number of talks was how to get over the problem of proprietary. How do we work collaboratively in a field filled with client-owned data, secret strategies, even young start-ups with smart sustainable business ideas who want to invest in patents and keep things quiet? The push for greater transparency may come from the fact that it will soon be the only viable PR strategy – focus your external communications efforts on disclosing the decisions you make internally. With the great mistrust and disgust held not just by the general public towards business but also by the executives that run businesses, we may just start to see complete disclosure as a business strategy, in an effort to defend a company’s credibility.

More on the DA NYC Town Hall from Core77.

We’ve got two post-scripts from last week’s DesignersAccord Town Hall get-together at Smart Design.

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Amy Johannigman: Designers Accord Town Hall Meeting

Last Thursday the Designers Accord held its first New York City town hall meeting in Smart Design’s Chelsea offices. Designers Accord is a multidisciplinary coalition of designers and other professionals, which aims to spark collaboration and “create positive environmental and social impact.” These town hall meetings began last year on the west coast to serve as a venue for face-to-face interaction between individuals eager to share their ideas about sustainable design, and about how to inspire the creative community to think and act in socially and environmentally responsible ways.
This crowd of designers and other sustainable enthusiasts alike gathered for some light fare and settled into an informal discussion led by Jen van der Meer, a board member of Designers Accord, and ten other presenters. In light of the Designers Accord’s mission, presenters discussed an array of issues that define the opportunities and challenges currently facing the green design movement, at both local and global levels. Here are three key issues they raised: the imperative of knowledge-sharing projects, the initiative to extend social design causes, and the right balance between open-sourcing green technologies and private property rights for developers.

Knowledge-Sharing Projects
Andrew Personette, of EcoSystems, shared his concern for the lack sustainable education. His solution is the upcoming “Design Green Now” series coming next month to local New York City design schools. The free three-part series will feature New York City industry buffs exploring the themes of materials, energy, and waste in an effort to empower the design community with sustainable design know-how and rhetoric. Be sure to check out the Design Green Now site for more details of this April happening.

Realizing the need for better green networking, Wendy Brawer has co-created The Green Map System. Using a common iconography, The Green Map provides a resource for local mapmakers to share their communities’ green happenings on a global scale. The project has spread to 53 countries and become open to the public to participate by adding their own local green sites on OpenGreenMap.org.

Stephan von Muehlen is the Director of Energy Hub, a company striving to help consumers track and reduce their energy consumption. The company plans to create a user-friendly product that allows both utilities and consumers to easily access and monitor real-time building energy usage. He explained how the product would create efficiency incentives for both power producers and consumers, and the need for utilities to engage consumers in the process of reducing their electricity consumption.

Social Design: Local and Global 

Social design is both a local and global issue these days. Dan Grossman and Kristina Drury from Project H Design was on hand to speak about their newly completed Learning Landscape playground in Uganda, a project that they hope to launch in the US as well. Project H Design is a nonprofit organization created to support local and global product design initiatives for Humanity, Habitats, Health, and Happiness
The new NYC chapter of Project H is seeking active members to participate in more local and global issues during their monthly meetings. First up on the chapter’s list are the local issues of education, waste, and homelessness.
Also speaking on Social Design was recent RISD graduate Pali Dacanay. Pali’s love for design and concern for society has brought her to Uganda and back, among other places. Pali shared her desire to connect and better harness the energy of the design community locally to work toward better solutions for energy, education, and healthcare globally.

Open ReSource: How “Open” Should They Be
Open-source technologies in green design facilitate brainstorming and collaboration in the field; but the model of open-sourcing incited one of the more interesting conversations of the evening. Edward Siahaan of the Bressler Group and Paul Galli from Martha Stewart called for more open-sourcing for providing those benefits. As a creative community, we certainly want to share the innovations and knowledge of green design, whether it be through wikis, websites or otherwise. But then patent attorney Frank Martinez noted the competing value of intellectual property: As much as we want an open discussion, could open-sourcing actually stifle innovation by eliminating the lucrative and valuable incentives of patents and property? Patents are a good policy to the extent that they encourage innovation. But in the case of innovations that can be used to save the planet, which is the primary impetus underlying green design, should public policy prohibit private domain?

With Great Knowledge Comes Great Responsibility
A “Better Battery” is what John Humphrey, Sustainable Energy Partners, came to discuss. The diversity among electronics and mobile device batteries and chargers seems to expand with every new product launch. The Greener Gadgets Design Competition has received notable entries on this topic annually, yet naysayers have replied that a universal standard “will never happen” because of the financial incentive for electronics and mobile manufacturers to maintain the status quo. In the face of this negative assertion, one attendee pointedly proclaimed that we as designers should not accept this defeat in resignation. We are committed to a brighter future, so we should work aggressively with all allies to institute a standard, demand compliance with it, and push for more universal standards within our designs.
To that effect, Core 77‘s Allan Chochinov reminded the room of the designer’s “privileged position.” As designers, we have an ability and obligation to design better and cleaner products, and to convince our clients that greener is better. As Chochinov said, “we know too much” not to design in sustainable manner: we recognize the dire urgency of our global climate crisis, and we also hold the power to help redeem society by shaping the market for green goods and services. Small steps will no longer suffice; we must be bold in our actions and strict in our practices. We can only design ourselves into the change we need. We need to be conscious of designing fewer artifacts and more systems and services.

Smart Design, which has become an Adopter of the Designers Accord, concluded the evening by explaining the practical significance of this decision for their business. They have invested in better technology for video conferencing to reduce their carbon footprint from traveling. They make it a priority to educate clients on environmental impact decisions. They strive to create better products rather than just “green-wash” their designs. They realize that the “green customer” is in fact more than just an elite niche market. As another attendee pointed out, “the self-described greens” are not currently the majority of consumers. But even so, the majority does appreciate green practices and products, and thus as designers we should aspire to appeal to the “green” in everyone.

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Jacqueline Gordon: Making Sustainable Design Truly Sustainable

The first New York meeting of the Designers Accord, held on March 5th at Smart Design, attracted a diverse crowd of people interested in positively influencing environmental and social issues through design. Many participants described current projects they are working on, including an upcoming panel discussion series on sustainable design sponsored by DesignGreenNow and the development of a personal home energy modeling tool by EnergyHub.

Sustainable design is not being marketed well. Most consumers and companies perceive sustainability as a luxury, and as such it is an optional premium that they can choose, and choose to ignore. The Designers Accord recognizes that designers are in a powerful and privileged position in which we can greatly influence the environmental and societal impact of the products we produce. The four P’s of marketing (product, price, promotion, and place) can be aligned with the two P’s of sustainability (planet and people) to create responsible and profitable design. It is the responsibility of designers to show businesses ways in which these six P’s can synergistically work together. Businesses make decisions based on their bottom line and it is the designer’s job to find creative solutions that are simultaneously beneficial for their client from economic, environmental, and socially responsible perspectives.

This is the only way that sustainable design can become truly integrated into the design process. As long as businesses perceive their profit and productivity as being challenged by environmental and social responsibility initiatives sustainable design will remain a niche market in an uphill battle. Sustainable design practices need to become an integral part of the design process, rather than remaining as a distinct entity that is perceived as a superfluous add-on to traditional design. Organizations, including the AIGA Center for Sustainable Design, O2, and ProjectH are helping to promote these ideas within the design community. Designers need to convince businesses that consumers care about these issues and create products that allow consumers to illustrate these preferences with their purchasing power.

The recent New York meeting of the Designers Accord illustrated that designers are looking to incorporate sustainable design into their work and want a forum that does not exist, yet. They want a place to find information and share ideas about sustainable design practices and initiatives. I propose that an existing group, with an established membership, take this on by creating an interactive discussion forum in which members can ask questions and engage in a collaborative dialogue within the community. I would include a resources section that encourages members to both upload and download documents that might be of interest within the community. There is a desire for this type of sustainable design clearinghouse and the lack of such a forum is a barrier to busy practitioners interested in incorporating sustainable design into their practices. Multiple participants at the Designers Accord meeting shared this sentiment. We need to create a platform that gives designers easy access to information and a community if we want sustainable design to become truly sustainable and fully integrated into the design process.

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Thank you to Amy and Jacqueline for sharing their thoughts on the evening!