Green City: Examining the intersection of design and sustainability

GREEN CITY The easier a compost bucket is to use, the more people will use it. But Compostmodern '09 isn't about compost at all — it's about design. This annual event is a collaboration between the American Institute for Graphic Artists (AIGA) and the Academy of Art University that examines the intersection of design and environmental sustainability.

This weekend's conference, held at various locations around San Francisco, features talks and slide shows by local designers, art installations, workshops, and demonstration projects proving that brown is the new green.

"I'm interested in helping people get a good grounding in what designing for sustainability means. The reality is that this industry is still so new," Nathan Shedroff wrote on the Compostmodern blog ( Shedroff chairs the Design Strategy MBA program at California College of the Arts, and will discuss sustainability frameworks at the conference.

Local graphic designer Amy Franceschini ( presented some of her work at Compostmodern in 2006. Inspired by all things green, she posed a question that only a designer would ask: if earth-bound plants lean toward light naturally, might design liberate plants to move about freely? There were mixed results to her experiment, but the question alone gets at the spirit of the conference: bridging the gap between the possible and the possibly possible by challenging designers to be environmentalists.

Autodesk brings sustainable design into the world of software by incorporating powerful new analytical tools into 3-D modeling programs used in architectural and other design. "Full-on energy analysis used to be really challenging and expensive," said program manager Dawn Danby, a featured speaker at Compostmodern this year. "We're making software that empowers designers to make a case for sustainability, to make better decisions, decisions that have huge impacts on things like water or energy use. We need to make design a solution, not just a bonus when times are good."

Michael Gelobter, another of this year's Compostmodern presenters, told the Guardian that the Bay Area's unique combination of companies, researchers, and activists all living together is what makes it the epicenter of the clean-tech revolution. Even though he's a climate strategist, Gelobter is optimistic about the future: "We have to own this change, and in the process solve a lot of other problems like wars and financial waste.

"A lot of our relationship with climate change and fossil fuels has to do with the built environment, the designed environment — our cities, buildings, schools. and the way we design our day-to-day interactions with products," Gelobter continued. "All of those include assumptions about energy use, where we get the energy, and the form that energy comes in. And designers are really the front line in redrawing that. They're the cutting edge of how we make the world different, so they have to be informed about policy and economics, but also [about] people's day-to-day lives, their lived experience of how change might happen. They have to be able to design to those kind of criteria."

That's why Gelobter founded Climate Cooler, shifting his work from policy to shopping and "changing the choices consumers have so that they can take action." He insists that cleaning up the economy is good business. "You stop smoking crack, and you suddenly have all this money to spend on things that are a whole lot healthier. That's true with fossil fuel use and the other things that cause global warming as well."

Gelobter's latest project will equip Intuit's popular QuickBooks accounting software with a carbon-calculator.

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