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I like change. When the timing is right, change is exhilarating. Being the author, or even midwife, of positive change is a worthy life’s work. The innovative work of IDEO is about change and human centered design.

IDEO has intrigued me for some time, perhaps in part because they see the role of design as less one of authorship and more one of midwifery. David Kelley and his colleagues at IDEO have developed and codified their design process, calling it Design Thinking. Corporations of all kinds are calling on them to teach the tools of creativity. The folks at IDEO go out and see what people need, and, yet, I couldn’t exactly see how the Design Thinking process could be applicable to my field, landscape architecture.

In a similar vein the work of the 1% program at Public Architecture, has been an (unfulfilled) interest. So when I heard through a mutual acquaintance, about Liz Ogbu, a fellow at and a former architect at Public Architecture, I had to meet her. A couple of months ago we had lunch and my mind was opened. I wanted to know everything about taking the benefits of design to the people.

Now you should know that I came of age in the early ’70s, the former heyday of the environmental movement when change was certainly in the air. I have been thrilled to be active in a field that plays a role in the second (or is it the third?) coming of the environmental movement. And this time it feels like the time is right.

With most of the effort focused on energy, waste, carbon and water the human and social aspects of the built environment (with the exceptions of natural light and indoor air quality) have been left out of the discussion. This seems odd for a profession like architecture, which considers itself one of the arts. As Michael Kimmelman said recently in the New York Times, writing about architecture-based revitalization in Medellin, Colombia, “Architects have “focused much of their attention on formal experiments, as if aesthetics and social concerns… were mutually exclusive.” He goes on to say that they’re not, and shouldn’t be.

As landscape architect, it seems obvious that conversations about human need for an ongoing relationship with the world of nature, sometimes referred to as biophilia, need to become part of the sustainability discussion. In health and happiness terms, a growing body of studies shows that nature is restorative for those suffering from stress (Attention Restoration Theory), helps build community thereby reducing crime and domestic violence, and helps inner city girls do better in school. That the presence of nature in the built environment has a positive effect on health outcomes is now well documented by the work of Robert S. Ulrich and others. Public Health educators, like Richard Jackson at UCLA, has been studying how the design of the built environment affects the health of individuals and communities.

Less documented are the benefits of to the human psyche of the aesthetics of design in general, and of the design of the built environment in particular. But going back to IDEO, Public Architecture (creating access to the benefits of design for underserved communities), and Liz Ogbu, I thought maybe here was a place to synthesize parallel beliefs in the power of creativity, the benefits of aesthetics and the importance of environmental awareness while doing work aligned with my values. With all these different threads weaving and unweaving in my mind I embarked on a one week immersion in the world of Public Interest/Social Impact/Design for Good. I managed to procure a last minute invitation to Public Architecture’s first annual Design Access Summit, then attended the Public Interest Design Institute, (getting SEED certification), followed by the 12th Structures for Inclusion conference.

What I learned is that having, or learning, the mindset and tactics of a social entrepreneur is a good start. The traditional mode for design firms of waiting for projects to be identified and funded by others is unlikely to result in much social impact design work. In 2002 Richard Florida in his book, The Rise of the Creative Class put out a call to innovators of all kinds to put their talents to work in their societies in support of social betterment. Social impact design is one answer to that call. We designers and builders can envision a different structure than we see now, perhaps like Stewart Brand who from the Whole Earth Catalog (1968 -1972) to the Long Now Foundation, sees a fluid, evolving, dynamic, beautiful whole earth. I believe that evolution is good. Maybe like change because I’m an optimist and I’ve learned that I’m not the only one.


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Cinda Gilliland

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