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Building a better world, by design

By MARION DAVIS  |  October 6, 2010

What if architects across America agreed to make every building they design 50 percent more energy-efficient — and keep improving until, by 2030, they're at carbon-neutral?

What if designers fully embraced democracy, welcoming and encouraging public input and using their skills to help educate and engage citizens?

What if by learning to speak the corporate language, engineers, designers and marketing experts could actually change the companies that hire them — making them greener, more human-centered, and more socially responsible?

These are the kinds of questions tackled last weekend at A Better World By Design '10, a conference launched in 2008 by students at Rhode Island School of Design and Brown University that has quickly grown to draw more than 1000 attendees.

The three-day event included sessions with local, national, and international leaders in design for social change; panel discussions on ethics, social entrepreneurship, activism, and other topics; a design competition; and workshops and tours that shone a spotlight on Providence.

In-between and in the evenings, there was plenty of time for networking, a major attraction for the students, many of whom have their own projects — from a push to eliminate bottled water at Brown, to an industrial design collaboration with China.

Katie Koch, a second-year graduate student from the School of Visual Arts, in New York, said she came up with classmate Carmen Dukes to "see what other people are doing, hopefully get the word out about us, and get a little inspiration."

They've started a program called Project: Interaction, which teaches high school students to use design to change their communities, starting with a transportation-alternatives project with teenage girls in Brooklyn. They learned about the conference by accident — through a Google search, they said — and the trip was definitely worthwhile.

"We've been able to make a lot of connections," Koch said. And they walked out with a clearer sense of mission, driven by the words of one panelist, for example, on what to do if they think of a way to change the world: "Just do it. Don't want for a client to hire you to do it."

To some extent, the speakers — all of whom volunteered their time — tailored their message to the students, but the program had plenty to offer for professionals and social entrepreneurs, with lively debates and dozens of examples of design-driven innovation, from a container-box office building in Olneyville, to an HIV/AIDS initiative in South Africa.

"I'm like a kid in a candy store," said Saul Kaplan, chief catalyst of the Business Innovation Factory, who moderated a discussion on Saturday and happily attended the other sessions.

Recalling a speaker's words on Friday, Kaplan said that despite the event's name, what drew the audience together wasn't design, but rather entrepreneurship.

"These are people who want to start something and want to scale it up," he said. "They have an idea and need a little help to get it going. This is really about doing."

That was the organizers' intent. Giles Holt, a sophomore at RISD who was in charge of setting up the panel discussions, said he aimed for two kinds of speakers: "people that are really action-oriented and getting a lot of stuff done," and those who are "up-and-coming."

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