Sustainability is all about how systems function – how they stay balanced and renew themselves.  How systems function arises out of how they are designed.  Because of the initiating power of design in a system, designers of all types have a critical role to play in helping our society discover how to meet our needs in ways that enhance, instead of diminish, the ability of future generations to meet their needs.  
The premise we wanted to explore in this workshop with a mix of designers from various fields is whether we can identify design and decision-making principles that will lead to greater sustainability, and to see if we can imagine applying them through time to reach our goal of a more sustainable community.

A one-day workshop served as an extended ‘thought experiment’ on the hypothesis that we have a better chance of getting where we want to go if we put less effort into setting goals and making plans, and more effort into crafting a set of principles to guide our collective and individual choices as we move through time.  Instead of having a specific plan of desired results, we would rely upon an ongoing adaptive application of design principles.  Although this kind of work is intellectually complex, our goals for the day were modest.  This was just an exploration, in a somewhat structured format, to think about sustainable design principles, and then try to apply them to our own local landscape as a way to “think out loud” about their possible application.

We recruited 15 residents from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds: architecture, interior design, space science, planning, real estate development, curriculum design, holistic farming, materials science, industrial design, engineering and public works, community celebrations, landscape design, systems analysis, policy and governance, and communications.

The first phase of the workshop focused on generating a list of possible principles of sustainable design.  Several dozen statements of principle were generated, which were distilled into four themes:

  • Holism – interconnectedness of all things must be basis for design,
  • Biomimicry – use the natural cycles and relationships of the planet as a basis for human design,
  • System dynamics –  essential to understand the feedback loops and where you are in a system,
  • Equity – take into consideration the basic needs of all community members (human and otherwise).
Clearly, the overarching value at the core of the four themes is “Relationships Matter.”

The second phase of the workshop began with a review of a scenario for Ithaca in 2047, and an introduction to systems leverage points and scenario mapping.  The idea behind scenario mapping is straight forward: you come up with different versions of the future based upon varying initiating assumptions.  In other words, you set up different “rules of the system” and see where it takes you and what results you will be living with under those rules.  They are using this in Boston in a community visioning process so that people can really understand what life will be like under various decisions to act or not to act.  For the workshop, we took a slightly different approach by agreeing to look at a possible endpoint first, and then explore what kinds of initiating “rules” or decision-making principles might lead to that result.  

Participants were briefed on the hierarchy of system controls and where the more powerful places to intervene in a system might be, despite the system’s resistance to fundamental realignment.  They then divided into groups to work on separate aspects of community design:  public infrastructure, built environments, community life, and economic activity (see attached description of the four realms).  Maps, markers, easels, and post-it notes were provided for the groups to work through how they would apply design principles that would lead to the outcomes described in the 2047 scenario.  Their assignment was to sketch out in 10-year increments their ideas for how to transform from current conditions to the adaptive response described in the scenario, using sustainable design principals.  After an hour, the four groups gave brief reports to the entire workshop on what they’d identified as a progression of steps to take in each sector.  

The third phase of the workshop was to have participants in each of the four realms combine into three integrated design teams with reps from each of the four realms of infrastructure, built environment, community life, and economic activity.  The groups were asked to focus upon a specific area in the Cayuga Inlet Sustainability Corridor and propose changes over 10-year increments that were based on sustainable design principles, and to try to combine the changes in the various realms.  These results were reported back in a final sharing, and followed by concluding remarks and evaluation.