3 Ways Design Thinking is Making a Cross-Disciplinary Impact

A recap of ideas that emerged from A Better World x Design 2014, the annual design conference led by RISD and Brown students.

Photo by Claire Rowell.

Photo by Claire Rowell.

A Better World by Design (ABWxD), an annual RISD and Brown University student-led conference in Providence, R.I., brings together change agents, big thinkers, and in-the-field makers to share and connect on the power of design, technology, and innovation to re-think social impact and to empower communities and environments. Workshops and lectures generate idea sharing across disciplines, theories, and schools of thought, from design, art, science, education—and everything in between. A conference focused on the intersections of social impact, topics range from hacking traditional business models for public interest projects, to being builder-occupiers of co-working spaces, to how data collection can support crowd-curated public art projects. Reframing the power of space and place in our ever-changing ecosystem, ABWxD activates a multi-sensory, inter-disciplinary drive for social good through a weekend of listening, learning, and sharing that blurs boundaries and builds connections to empower our everyday impact.

The livable streets movement

Championed by Aaron Naperstek of Streetsblog.org, the livable streets movement documents a new generation of city dwellers participating in designing the urban environment. Applying ideas of software to urban design, the movement re-frames streets as a form of user experience. As software design emphasizes releasing version 1.0, guerilla-style urban design employs entrepreneurial thinking to speed up projects and re-think urban life. From Park(ing) Day to complete streets, there is a new flexibility in urban design, empowering citizen-activists to create more functional and aesthetic spaces without the lengthy timelines and red tape of capital projects.

D.I.Y. science

From urban navigation to D.I.Y science, Brooklyn’s Genspace, led by Ellen Jorgensen, is reframing a bio-tech lab as a non-profit community with a hacker and maker feel, re-purposing old sliding doors, restaurant counters, and second hand lab equipment. Journalists, students, scientists, and artists join this sharing community to remember what ignited their inner-scientist originally. From tinkering to DNA hacking and 3D Modeling to reverse-engineering lab equipment, Genspace empowers the citizen scientist through the co-habiting of shared space and tools.

Data driven design impact on urban issues

MIT’s Civic Design Lab, directed by Sarah Williams, seeks data-driven ways to measure impact in urban design and infrastructure, using place to advocate for public restoration and urban issues, developing maps to validate powerful narratives. Developing Nairobi’s first GIS data set, the Civic Design Lab combined the power of local knowledge and location data to develop a previously informal bus system into a mapped transit infrastructure. Closer to home, the Civic Design Lab partnered with NYC’s Save the Garment Center, a campaign to preserve the Garment District as the backbone of the city’s fashion industry. Using Foursquare and geo-locative technology, the daily activity of city-based designers and manufactures was tracked and mapped. Narratives of the importance and meaning of NYC’s Garment District as symbolic and integral part of the “Made in Midtown” movement were supported by data-driven advocacy, lobbying for more thoughtful urban development and preservation.

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