Effecting change, designing the future: Kelleann Foster discusses the state of geodesign

February 10, 2015

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Kelleann Foster, the director of the Stuckeman School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, and the associate dean for the College of Arts and Architecture at the Pennsylvania State University, is also the lead faculty for the university’s new geodesign graduate programs, which include a Geodesign option in the M.G.I.S. degree, a graduate certificate in Geodesign and a master’s degree in Professional Studies in Geodesign.

Foster has 30 years of professional practice experience as a landscape architect and has been teaching at PSU for 25 years. Much of her work uses computer technologies to communicate alternative scenarios to citizens, and in preparation for launching PSU’s new geodesign graduate programs, she spent her recent sabbatical researching how online geodesign programs could most effectively engage students in a collaborative, virtual studio environment. We had the opportunity to speak with Foster about the evolving understanding and use of geodesign processes.

Q: Geodesign has emerged from the disciplines of landscape architecture, landscape ecology, applied geography, GIS, and GIScience, among others. There are conceptual models, but largely built on real-world scenarios produced within the context of these other disciplines. Now that you’re deeply involved in recruiting students to your program at PSU, how has your description of geodesign changed and evolved? What about when you talk with your fellow landscape architects or others in your department/college?

A: What I’ve really learned is the importance of emphasizing the whole process of geodesign, rather than any one of the tools that may be used at that moment. I worry when people jump to just playing with a tool and call it “geodesign,” and fail to see how that one tool and its functionality fit into the whole big picture, the overall design process. So the distinction in our program is that we are teaching students how to be participants in, and eventually leaders of, a geodesign project. In that way, what students learn has staying power.

Understanding the fundamentals of who to involve, what key questions to ask, etc. will enable professionals to continue to apply these proven processes even as contexts and opportunities change and evolve in the future. It is rooted in processes that are decades old and widely recognized as being highly effective for planning and design. That makes the learning “portable” — it can be applied to most any scale and type of land-based challenge. Some approaches to teaching geodesign, or even just talking about it, are more tools centric. It’s not that Penn State overlooks the tools, and students do acquire expertise, but we know these tools will constantly evolve and change, so we feel it is best to understand where in the process tools may be beneficial. This even extends to digital tools and software, etc., yet unknown. In other words, if you know how to effectively deploy the geodesign process and a new tool comes along, you’ll know when or where to make use of it in the process.

Q: Last year, you led a massive open online course on geodesign, and had the chance to share your enthusiasm with over 10,000 people. Were there any surprise or “a-ha” moments in that experience for you? How did the concepts and practice of geodesigning resonate differently across the vast audience?

A: The Geodesign MOOC was offered through Coursera for five weeks in August and September 2014. Over 17,000 from all across the globe signed on, and about 7,000 were regularly active. We were thrilled with those numbers and the very positive feedback received during the course, and at the end. Preparing and hosting a MOOC is not for the faint of heart. It can be a bit anxiety-producing, knowing that what you put out there will be seen, and potentially critiqued, by thousands. The “a-ha” moments came when reading student posts in the discussion forums. The forums are where the dialogue happens, and it was so rewarding to see students very excited about the issues and offering their own examples or questions from their locale. We worked hard to select topics we’d hoped would be relevant to many, so it was a relief to learn that the key topics presented are in fact universal – the old adage “think global, act local” was truly evident here.

One of the main goals for offering the MOOC is to raise the level of excitement about the possibilities for positive change in a place, which is the essence of geodesign. This was really important to me personally — I want to instill hope in these students. We know that geodesign has the potential to empower people. I wanted to assist the students in understanding they can participate in advancing desired change. The final assignment for the MOOC, which was peer graded, reinforces the goal of having the course be relevant to the student and helping them understand positive change possibilities for their area of interest. Students mapped the location of their challenge and also submitted a short PDF overview. The variety of really exciting and complex challenges they outlined revealed that, by and large, they “got” what geodesign can do. It was inspiring, and most certainly reveals that there are nearly limitless projects and challenges out there that can be assisted by working through the geodesign process. We look forward to offering the Geodesign MOOC again in July 2015.

Q:One of the most compelling features of geodesign is the idea that the professional practices of a designer, such as sketching and scenario building, can be replicated within a digital environment so as to leverage the knowledge within the GIS that is being accessed. In practice, how have you managed to build that into an online curricular framework? What technological capacities have you been able to develop and/or pursue? What is still lacking and on your wish list?

A: More and more of the technological capabilities used for design, GIS and communication in general are moving to the cloud – in other words, online. This is taking place in the design, planning and geosciences professions. In many instances, team members, or the best consultants for a project, are not all located in the same place, nor are they based where the project site is. Distributed collaboration is possible and enhanced by cloud computing and increased bandwidth.Therefore the nexus of our decision to offer a geodesign graduate degree online and the evolution of these technologies is very exciting.

The digital cloud’s growth is fueled by the explosion of hosted services, where the end user needs less and less computing power because the applications and data are stored up on servers elsewhere. These changes in the need for a certain level of technology on the student’s home desktop, or now even a tablet, are important for enabling all students to have satisfactory access. Our faculty has been using a variety of collaborative websites, software and virtual spaces to enable students to access and use the resources they need.The creative process is not on a fixed or set time schedule. Flexibility and 24/7 access is valuable so when inspiration hits, a team member can go to the cloud to make comments and add ideas. Therefore both asynchronous alone time for reflection and synchronous collaborative exchanges are important for the design process and are part of the online teaching environment. On our wish list is the continued evolution of real-time feedback dashboards for sketching, such as is being developed by Esri with their Geoplanner product.

Q: You’ve just returned from Esri’s annual Geodesign Summit. From your perspective, what excited you? What stories or ideas did you want to bring home and incorporate into your academic programs and share with your students?

A: Noel Cressie was the keynote speaker and he got us all thinking about how statistics and probability can — really must — be incorporated into the geodesign process. One of the unique features of geodesign is the ability to work up models based on criteria and data to assist in comparing different design scenario outcomes. Having the models respond to or respect probability forecasts will make the geodesign processes even stronger. He discussed principles of statistics such as experimentation and sampling, both of which seem related to the geodesign approach of developing alternative design concepts. It is always so interesting to learn how fields that are seemingly very different do in fact have unique commonalities that should be capitalized upon.

Part of Joe Minnicozzi’s very interesting presentation drives home a key point that Dr. Carl Steinitz stresses regarding the framing of questions as a key part of the geodesign process. Minnicozzi said, "Questions drive what you ‘see’ — if it is not asked, you won't be looking for it."

This relates to the above discussion regarding process and tools. You can use all the fancy tools and software you want, and the result may look beautiful, but if you don’t truly know what is needed or desired, the tools may give you a nice image, but they will not be able to give you a satisfactory solution.

Ron Kellett from the University of British Columbia demonstrated a unique tool that is directly tied to questions such as impacts from emissions and transportation, and these calculation widgets provide real-time feedback as the community members are working on their design ideas. Tools like this, used during the design process, which are tied directly to questions and criteria, present an exciting future for geodesign.

More of Foster’s comments about geodesign can be found here in two ArcNews stories, Geodesign Education Takes Flightand Confluence of Trends and Issues Actuates a Patch for Geodesign, both from Fall 2013. 


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