GeoDesign Summit Reflections

January 15, 2010

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After spending two and a half days focused on trying to make sense of geodesign at last week's GeoDesign Summit in Redlands, California (complete APB coverage), I find myself torn. I'm excited about so many aspects of the idea, even as I'm still trying to understand the concept and justify the existence of this new term (Wikipedia entry) and resulting concept.

Let me start with what excites me about geodesign. I like the idea that it is a process aimed at making a better world. Tom Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, laid it squarely in the role of helping resolve "fractured critical systems" that are in abundance today (APB coverage of his keynote). I like that it is very distinctly not "just" putting dots/lines/polygons on the map and analyzing them; it's aimed at redefining those dots/lines/polygons toward a better world. I like that it stretches how we visualize and share our output (3D, physical models) and pushes us to reconsider methods for input (sketching, melding clay, drawing in charcoal pencil). I like that it reaches out to the design community, a community to which many involved in geospatial have little exposure. I like that the education, technology, practitioner and research communities have, and will hopefully continue to, come together to further explore its ideas. I like that geodesign has a strong participatory foundation.

What gives me pause and makes me wonder about geodesign literally kept me up nights in Redlands. I wonder why so many people at the event (and by extension out in the world) stated that they are already doing geodesign. Perhaps that's how all new ways of thinking or branches of knowledge "appear": they exist for a time - then are named. Which brings me to what's gnawed at me since the beginning of this event: what is it that distinguishes what we know as geospatial and design approaches from this new concept of geodesign?

I pushed that question a few times at the event. One participant was good enough to pop up an answer during an IdeaLab session. I challenged him to tell me why he thought one of the lightning talks was not geodesign. What was missing, I asked, that kept it from being geodesign? He quickly stated: it didn't use 3D and it wasn't tested by visualization. Okay, so those are perhaps two hallmarks of geodesign. Later, after talking to Shannon McElvaney of Pacific GPS (APB coverage of his lightning talk), I decided that maybe his concept of 6D (x, y, z, time, money and carbon footprint) was perhaps a fair enhancement to the 3D requirement. What else, then, distinguishes geodesign? I suggest that a list of these distinguishing characteristics might help the community move forward.

Strangely, those distinguishing characteristics are more important to me than a formal definition. For this event, we seemed to do okay without one, though it's becoming clear that if we want to move this concept forward, we will eventually need a starting definition. I, for one, need to study up a bit on theory, practice and definition of design as I further explore geodesign. That may be another valuable topic to explore in a future geodesign event.

The one big takeaway for me from the event kept hitting me in the head: there are many ways to get to an end goal. Carl Steinitz, research professor at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, stated it regarding design processes (APB coverage of his keynote), but I needed to apply it to the process of inventing/defining/growing geodesign - whatever we were doing in Redlands. I continued to have a looming "cart before the horse” feeling as the event progressed. How can we talk about looking for funding if we can't yet define geodesign? How can we talk about developing a curriculum without knowledge of who might hire a geodesigner? How can we spread the vision of geodesign without a series of use cases and case studies? Several people reminded me that when you move into new areas there are no required paths to move forward, there are only many options.

Geodesign has already overcome a few hurdles, as Bran Ferren, chief creative officer at Applied Minds, noted (APB coverage of his keynote). He pointed out that the 200 or so people in attendance at the "by invitation only" event either convinced their bosses they should attend or were told by their bosses to attend. That means some subset of the world finds this concept at least intriguing and at most some part of the future. At this point we can only be patient and see how the people who are behind geodesign steer it forward and grow it. And, it's important to note, per Jack Dangermond, he does not want ESRI to "own” this; in fact he wants others (a broad mix of vendors, professional organizations, NGOs, etc.) to join together to determine the way ahead.

Ed. note:
ESRI helped cover some travel and lodging costs related to Directions Media's attendance at the Summit.


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