GeoDesign Summit 2011: Don't Worry, Do Geodesign

January 11, 2011

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Editor's Note: In this article, we spell the term "geodesign" using all lower case letters. We took this decision to avoid confusion with the private companies using "GeoDesign" in their name, as well as the conference held in Redlands last week by that name, and any other potential proper nouns. We felt that to be consistent with terminology describing a concept or technology, this approach works best going forward.

The second GeoDesign Summit, held at Esri headquarters in Redlands, California, ran Thursday and Friday of last week. You can find detailed coverage of the content on All Points Blog (Day One, Day Two). In this article I share what I identified as the big ideas, the "takeaways," from the event.

Don't Worry, Do Geodesign
While there were some tongue-in-cheek comments chiding discussion of the definition of geodesign, this was not really an issue this year. There was no formal discussion of definition of which I was aware, but Michael Goodchild, professor of geography at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and director of UCSB's Center for Spatial Studies, referred to a few in his presentation. Further, those who presented had no hesitation in calling their work geodesign. A year after the first Summit, there's a confidence about geodesign. It's a real thing. As we wrapped up the curriculum IdeaLab we jokingly agreed that the Nike "Just Do It" tagline was quite appropriate.

Educating Geodesigners vs. Educating Geographers and Designers
Carl Steinitz, Alexander and Victoria Wiley Research Professor of Landscape Architecture and Planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, "voted" for the latter during his presentation. He feels we need to educate and grow geographers, planners, engineers and other players who know how to work together in workflow driven by the ideas of geodesign. I have to agree. The more I think about what geodesign is, the more I realize it's a way of bringing together players to build the future. It uses technology and taps into many disciplines, but no one single individual needs to be an expert in all the areas.

Geodesign for a Subset of "Everyone"
A well-known member of the geospatial community commented via Twitter that after following the event on Twitter and reading some articles, he still doesn't "get it" and "is ok" with that. I'm pleased to hear that.

Much of the work of some GIS practitioners is to document "what is." They do not get involved in what's to be. Geodesign is not necessarily something they'll run into. Others who are more tied in to any type of planning and looking forward to the next iteration of the built environment may well run into geodesign. That said, I don't think it'd be a bad thing, as geodesign matures, to have it be a topic of discussion in undergraduate geography courses.

Geodesign and Technology
This year, in part because last year's attendees requested it, there were more technology demonstrations (from Esri and within the lightning talks) than discussions about the theory of geodesign. I heard some grumbling that there was too much of a focus there. Two of the speakers with the most impact, Carl Steintitz and Kimon Onuma, the principal, owner and president of Onuma and Associates, emphasized over and over how technology is the key tool of communication when doing geodesign. Onuma stated his team communicates via the "model" not via e-mail. Thus, I think it's unrealistic to separate geodesign from technology. However, the key issues of technology and its use in geodesign should jump to the surface. What are they? I'll suggest two: interoperability and effective user interface design. Both of these came up during the week, but not in significant ways.

CAD and GIS and Geodesign
Matt Davis, now regional manager at Esri-Boston, was, at one point, my supervisor as we supported ArcCAD. He reminded me at the event that we were trying to do geodesign even then. In fact, as I recall, ArcCAD was described as a Geographic Design System (GDS). Whether it was or not, I'm not sure. I do know that the whole idea of CAD/GIS integration is not really a goal of geodesign. The integration of building information modeling (BIM, per Window and Door, "A 3D, object-oriented approach to computer-aided architectural design") and GIS was far more important at the Summit. BIM, I'd argue, like GIS (geographic information science, but perhaps also geographic information systems), is as much a way of thinking as a piece of technology. We've come quite a ways in how we think about the technologies of CAD and GIS.

A very insightful person at the event pointed out to me a key player in this space could be Google. Not only does the company own Sketch-Up, but it has folks all over the world building models of their local "as built" environment. As I think back on Onuma's Model Server, I can imagine Google hosting such a thing with Sketch-Up, Google Docs and other tools as key clients. "Organizing the world's information." Indeed!

Since the GeoDesign Summit attendees get together just once a year (and the plan is to do so again in 2012), I think it's time to set aside open time to tackle issues that come up at the event. Maybe a time slot or two could be set aside for a set of sessions defined at the event to tackle a few particular issues.

I know the lightning talk format is quite popular, but as another attendee stated it to me, "These were not lightning talks." Quite true; these were not short, punchy talks conveying only a few ideas. Instead, there were many demos squeezed in to the 10-minute slots with some presenters trying to show three or more apps in a single talk. I was very impressed when Jack Dangermond noted that about one-third of lightning talks were great, and a third were okay, and a third could have been better.

Looking Ahead
The exact nature of the GeoDesign Summit (where, when and what it will look like) is still in flux. But, those in attendance seemed convinced the term and practice is here to stay.

Esri helped cover some travel and lodging costs related to Directions Magazine's attendance at the Summit.


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