Lessons from the Design Front: Continuum’s Green Design Conference

continuum1.jpgLast Thursday I had the opportunity to attend a conference at Design Continuum’s Boston Headquarters office. I attended on behalf of Ecolect with co-founders, Joe Gebbia and Matt Grigsby, as a team materials correspondent. For those of you who don’t know about Ecolect, it is a free community-based website for learning about and sourcing sustainable materials. I serve as a materials correspondent and help to generate community relationships and material information. The site is intended for architects, designers, engineers, graphic artists, but more specifically everyone! The conference was focused on Green Design- the impact of the field of design, and lessons on how to solve problems while helping the world, not hurting it.

Director of Design Continuum, Mark Bates opened the event with a presentation of the design firm’s overall footprint. He estimated that they’ve added about 500 million parts to the world during their 25 years of practice. These parts are anything from screws to Intel processors to cellophane package display windows- anything included in the overall manifestation and presentation of a product. Considering these facts coming from a design consultancy that tends to take a conscious, all encompassing design analysis approach to everything they work on, it makes me wonder about the impact of the companies designing toys for McDonalds.

He sent us with the message of- think of design in terms of aiding the efficiency and health of our earth and future. To begin to understand the perceptions of “sustainability” and “green” to the average consumer, Design Continuum has launched an internal study project called Color Blind. They are obtaining comments from everyday consumers about products and life to hopefully design from both sides- sustainability and the consumer.

The day long conference was broken down into hour-long presentations during which Q&A was included. “Their approach was a model other conferences could learn from – one day, comfortably paced, intimately sized, focused on one topic, inviting speakers with different views, and …free,” says Joe Gebbia.

Below are some brief notes we collected from the speakers:

car-share.jpg1: Robin Chase, founder of ZipCar

Robin saw a gigantic flaw when she learned that there are 1.2 cars per person in America. So she sought out to solve it. In 2000, she started a car-sharing service called ZipCar that allows members to rather simply use a car when they need one. Now with over 150,000 members serviced by only 5,000 cars she has made quite a difference in the 1.2 car per person standard. The trick, she informed us, was to not call it car sharing because that decreases the value. She joked that if we called hotels a “bed-share”, we would be much less likely to pay a premium for the night. We ended up discussing it in terms of sharing because none of us were uncomfortable with the thought.
Robin has now started a new community based site called Goloco to connect people in cities through ride sharing. After considering all the ridiculous amount of hours we spend alone in the car, why not spend it riding with a friend and splitting costs…

2: Jennifer Van Der Meer, O2NYC

Jennifer has worked on Wall Street and has over time redirected her career into design and is now a Sustainability Consultant doing life cycle analysis. After admitting the truth that, “People don’t want to see the connection between their job and the effect of it,” she set out to encourage thorough thinking. Her modo is: “Green design is a shift in behavior separate from consumption and experience- it is a tool.”

13_1.jpg3: Amy Smith, Inventor and Senior Lecturer at MIT

Founder of a new academic series at MIT called the D-lab, Amy is working hard to design solutions for the rest of the world. When she realized that 90% of the money spent on developing products, goods, and services goes to the wealthiest 10% of the world population, her goal was defined to design for the other 90%. The D-lab is based on design for developing nations. She is humble and energetic and excited by simple solutions that cause efficiency and health issues in developing nations. Her main project is called Fuel From the Fields: Cleaner burning and free charcoal to cook with. When over 25% of income in Haiti is spent on the scarce wood charcoal, she saw a problem easily solved. Natives now use the waste from sugar cane to make charcoal for free.

Last year Amy also launched a summer program called the International Development Design Summit where students and professionals from 18 countries shared ideas and worked on solutions for developing nations. Amy is doing work that should encourage and inspire us all. “Sometimes the best solutions are the most obvious.” In order to have a healthy world economy, we can help the poorest of the poor solve problems by giving them the tools to foster their own development.

4: Lewis Pugh, professional swimmer and activist

Lewis swam an 18 minute and 50 second lap around the Geographic North pole as a way to call attention to global climate change. The 1 apex of the earth is melting and since it’s so far away that people are ignoring it. Well Lewis wasn’t going to let this happen. We had the privilege to watch a compelling 20-minute video of his journey. His goal is to now individually influence world leaders across the globe regarding climate change, he has set our to speak with them all.

5. David Berry, Flagship Ventures, Venture Capitol

David ensured us that there is plenty of money available for the development of green products, processes, inventions, and design. His firm is investing in and conducting research on specific new ways to invent biofeuls. More specifically they are working on designer fuels, as I call it, which they create in a lab. The idea is that if fuel (and hydrocarbons) is created in the lab they are sequestering carbon from the environment to create the petroleum. This fuel is then burned in cars and the carbon is in full cycle. This contrasts the figure of mining oil, which consistently draws new carbon from deep under the surface of the earth into the environment. I’m not sure about where I stand with this model, but it is a new way of thinking, which could lead to big things.

A couple of the technologies they are investing in are, NOVOMER which converts CO2 into ethanol to make plastics; and Mascoma which is makes celluloses from wheat, poplar trees, and switchgrass,

6. Paul Murray, Herman Miller

Paul is one of the founders of Herman Millers Design for the Environment protocol, which seeks to meet their defined standards for disassembly, recycleability, life cycle, impact, longevity, and material chemistry. They launched this program with their Mirra chair which 90% of it can be disassembled in 15 seconds or less. Since, they have also adopted the rigorous Cradle-to-Cradle design methodology and certification.

Their sustainable practices as a whole have saved them big bucks. Paul’s motivation in his talk was to teach us how sustainabilility makes good business sense- it saves money, creates products that last, creates loyal customers, and in innumerable ways protects the environment.

busycle-project.jpg7. Heather Clark & Matthew Mazzcutta, artists, sculptors, instigators

“Heather and Matthew approach sustainability from an artistic point of view, creating pieces that provoke an idea rather than provide an answer,” states Joe Gebbia. It is true. They crafted a 60 person team and collected a garage full of rescued materials to build a vehicle they called Busycle. It is a 15-person bicycle that they toured around the US to encourage people to use their body and exercise during transit. Their mission is to reconnect people with their health and body through activity and public interaction.

The next project on their menu is a theatre that will respond to the audience’s energy level through sounds, light, performance, and other forms of sensory interaction.

Phew, so that is the run-down of our all-inspiring day. Going forward, I encourage all of you from all fields and professions to consider the impact of the work you do. It is easy to neglect and keep your passions tied to your personal life, but our professional work is a reflection of our character and dedication. If you have any questions about these people, companies, or thoughts please send me a comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *