Monday, October 11, 2010

Creating a Better World by Design

Last weekend (Oct 1-3) I attended A Better World by Design, a three-day student run conference co-hosted by Brown and RISD. Most loosely organized under the banner of the inspirational, influential, and regenerative power of design, the conference featured an array of speakers, panels, and workshops as well as special events on Friday and Saturday nights.

This was the third annual conference, but only my first experience at BWxD (What was I thinking these past two years?!). Unfortunately there would be far too much to talk about if I gave you a play-by-play of the entire weekend, so I'll just touch on the highlights (and if you're hungry for more, maybe you'll just have to come next year).

My favorite event on Friday morning was a panel called "The Future of Urban Transport," moderated by Anne Tate, a professor of architecture at RISD who I took a great urbanism seminar with last fall. Panelists included Ryan Chin from the MIT Media Lab, Marc Alt of the Green Parking Council, Al Dahlberg of Project Get Ready, Sonia Hamel of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and Amy Pettine of RIPTA. Something Sonia said really resonated with me. She spoke about how transportation makes up roughly 27 percent of national greenhouse gas emissions and how 5 to 20 percent of our emissions reductions moving forward can come solely from better planning. "Whenever you build something new emissions will go up," she said, "But if you place it properly net emissions across its life-cycle can be reduced dramatically." Marc Alt had this to add about the fate of the automobile, "One of the things we export as a country is our culture and for better of for worse we've exported our car culture." This reality has particular relevance as China rapidly industrializes and car ownership is expected to increase dramatically.

But the most eye-opening presentation was that of Ryan Chin from the MIT Media Lab. He spoke about the fate of personal urban mobility for the 21st Century, and introduced us to the CityCar, a two-passenger electric vehicle concept. Watch this video to see how it works:

Friday night included a social mixer at the grand opening of The Box Office, an office building constructed entirely of repurposed shipping containers. I had seen this cool time-lapse video of its assembly before, but it was so much more exciting to see it in person with all of the finishing touches in place and the energy of the evening keeping things lively.

Can you believe it only took them five days to put this together?

And here's the finished product:

The standout event for me on Saturday was undoubtedly a presentation during the first speaker session by Ben Hamilton-Baillie of Hamilton-Baillie Associates, a traffic engineering and consulting firm based in Bristol, England. In his presentation, Hamilton-Baillie challenged conventional traffic design principles and offered solutions to many of these problems with a concept he called shared space. We clutter up our spaces with signs, signals, and barriers that we assume create a safer and more orderly world, he said, but instead result in spaces that isolate those who populate them. Taking down these barriers is paramount if we are ever to reclaim these areas and foster better spaces and stronger communities. Here he's speaking about the absurdity of a pedestrian safety ad campaign in England:

He gave an example of people flowing around a crowded ice rink, itself an incredibly complex and chaotic system, and pointed out how efficiently humans can read these cues and avoid collision and injury. He argued that we need to relay more on these instincts in the way we design our roads, and by blurring the traditional boundaries between pedestrian and automobile street layers, we can dramatically lower speeds and reduce pedestrian injuries. Here's a recent StreetFilms video that captures much of what Hamilton-Baillie was talking about:

Saturday night included a Better World Gala at the Steel Yard, an incredible art studio and expo space. I caught up with Hamilton-Baillie there and spoke with him for about an hour and a half, trying to pick his brain about the research he's done and the ways he has incorporated his findings into real-world design. Perhaps the most incredible anecdote he told me was his occasional tendency to step off a sidewalk into the street and walk across to the other side. Walking completely backwards.

Sunday's highlight was a conversation between Brown President Ruth Simmons and RISD President John Maeda. The most notable quote from this session I thought was when Simmons said, "Success is empty if we don't contribute something lasting."

This sentiment represented for me what the conference was all about, and it's the thought I will leave you to contemplate now.

For more pictures from the weekend check out the Better World by Design 2010 Flickr page!


  1. Looks like a wonderful conference, I'm so sorry to have missed it man! Those city car wheels that MIT has on their vehicles are scarily close in design to the Michelin Tweel (knowing MIT it might actually be Michelin's design), but it's a great idea nonetheless. I cannot fathom being able to engineer for urban transportation vehicles... that would be an absolute blast.