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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : July/Aug 2002 : Happenings


Making Change Happen at EnvironDesign®6
Design, politics and economics combine for a provocative, inspiring event.

By Penny S. Bonda, FASID

Bringing together nearly 1,200 people dedicated to the principles of sustainability in one of the world’s greenest cities is very likely to produce a provocative conference experience. EnvironDesign6, held this past April in Seattle, WA, definitely delivered. Said one attendee:

“I feel so excited and energized since going to the conference! The speakers were great, the attendance was phenomenal and it was such an honor to just be there!!”

And another:

“The keynote speakers were the people who made this conference successful. They covered an extremely broad perspective, which helped bring the issue of sustainability to a greater understanding and relevance. It’s been a very long time since I have been moved by a speaker. This conference had several.”

Although EnvironDesign6 included a wide variety of offerings, it was perhaps the keynote speakers who generated the most palpable excitement. Most of the attendees said they liked the good depth of speaker expertise and the different perspectives presented: design, political, business.

It all began with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who gave an impassioned and inspiring address reflecting both his distinguished heritage and his love of nature. His talk, moreover, centered on a central theme of the entire conference: the idea of community and the challenge that we all have to design communities for our children that have the same opportunities for dignity and enrichment as the communities that our parents gave us. The infrastructure of the community is the environment, the natural systems that connect us to our history, our culture and our sense of common experience.

Our success as a democracy is tied up, he states, in how we distribute the goods of the land, the public trust assets that we all hold in common: the air that we breathe, the clean waters, the dunes and wetlands, the wandering animals, the fisheries. “The present shouts, the future whispers,” Kennedy states, and as a well-known environmental lawyer, he uses the legal system to inject the interest of future generations into the political and industrial dialogue. He is justly proud of his work with The Riverkeepers, whose efforts resulted in polluters paying almost $3 billion in remediation of the Hudson River, which is today an international model for ecosystem protection. An ardent advocate, he fights for environmental stewardship for the benefit of our economy, our democracy and for ourselves. “When we destroy nature we diminish and impoverish our communities, our children and our lives. Our children need to know,” he concluded, “that they are part of a continuum.”

In his keynote presentation, Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon captured the role of community in environmental responsibility that Kennedy identified as so crucial. As a western state governor, he believes that sustainability represents the next major stage in the evolution of human endeavor. Just as products must be designed, so must our governance in order to define a society where economic prosperity, community livability and environmental stewardship are interdependent and synergistic as opposed to separate and in conflict.

Oregon has approached sustainability on two different levels and in two different roles. The first role is as a very large business, employer and consumer of resources; the second is as a facilitator where it tries to empower people by creating a setting in which citizens can come together to build quality communities and to solve shared place-based problems. As a business the state has addressed sustainability in a proactive yet traditional way. The state as facilitator, on the other hand, is based on the recognition that in many ways the very structure of state government hinders the kind of creative thinking that supports sustainability. The majority of Kitzhaber’s talk detailed how his administration is attempting to design a community-based governance structure, one that provides both the place and the opportunity for people to come together and find sustainable solutions.

As he has done at every Environ- Design, Bill McDonough opened the first morning of the conference. Joined by his partner, Michael Braungart, the architect and the chemist raised two questions they’ve challenged us with for years: How do we love all children of all species for all time? When do we become native to this place? Their talk attempted to provide answers, as does their new book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, just published and a brisk seller at the conference. Their premise revolves around the concepts of rematerialization and celebrating abundance rather than trying to reduce our negative impact—a completely different approach. As the only species on the planet that produces waste we need to look at ways of creating nutrients for biological and technical cycles. They cautioned that we mustn’t try to minimize our ecological footprint through increased efficiency, but rather put eco-effectiveness into practice. Their presentation was blunt, confrontational without being incendiary, and as is their habit, filled with humor and hope. Much of the audience was attending EnvironDesign for the first time. They, as well as those who have heard McDonough/Braungart before, came away wiser and inspired.

“I thought that most speakers had great ideas for integrating sustainability into actual projects. Also, they all had innovative ideas on how to inspire others outside of the design community to take action.”

EnvironDesign has continuously tried to expand its audience by presenting speakers and workshops on topics that go beyond the expected or traditional. A presentation by J Mays, the vice president of design for Ford Motor Co., not only underscored this year’s introduction of a sustainable mobility track to the conference, but also presented to the audience a fresh and somewhat different perspective on the influence of design. As a designer of automobiles for Audi, Volkswagen, BMW and now Ford, Mays is well aware of the environmental conundrum that his industry faces—an industry that has been producing automobiles, using natural resources and dirtying the planet for the last 100 years. Ford, however, has set out to change its paradigm, whether it is through low-emissions, electric, hybrid or hydrogen vehicles, or the redesign of its Rouge manufacturing facility. Ford has, he states, 100 years of innovation ahead of it. Mays, however, spoke primarily about products and why people buy them—an important point if environmentally responsible products are to take hold. He cautioned that ecological features are not enough to capture the mainstream marketplace.

Many of the other issues concerning sustainable transportation were dealt with in a series of four workshop sessions addressing fuel and fuel cells, the supply chain and future mobility products. Ten different tracks were presented overall by over 60 experts in fields as varied as green business practices, high performance buildings, tenant improvement, market transformation and regenerative design. In addition, Carl Frankel, Sim Van der Ryn and Hardin Tibbs presented a general session on promoting creativity through breakthrough thinking within the frameworks of nature, futurism and humanism. A product learning center showcased the resources available to designers as they move toward sustainability. As one attendee explained, “From now on, I am going to try and do more business with these firms after learning what they do to help the environment!”

The exhibit area was enhanced this year by the presence of special displays put together by an extremely enthusiastic and committed Seattle community. IIDA’s Washington State Chapter elected to hold its very successful GreenWorld event concurrent with EnvironDesign6. Manufacturers were paired with teams of local designers, who assisted them in creating unique exhibits to illustrate their green story. Participants also responded to a questionnaire based on ASTM standards that examines the sustainability of their products. The IIDA Washington State Chapter also presented a pre-conference workshop on life cycle assessment and a certified wood tour.

Terrific contributions were also made by the AIA Seattle Committee on the Environment (COTE), which held its annual “What Makes It Green” event at EnvironDesign. Through a pre-conference panel discussion and an exhibit, it showcased a diverse selection of regional projects that incorporate the principles of sustainability. Its organizers believe that the program is a wonderful example of volunteer and community commitment to advancing responsible buildings. COTE also organized three post-conference tours.

The Cascadia Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council planned two overnight tours, to Portland, OR; and Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. However, it was its “Behind the Seams” fashion show that provided a delightful kick to the conference. The Northwest Pacific region is home to numerous clothing manufacturers and retailers. They, along with many good sports from the local design community who served as models, used style and panache to bring the big issues confronting this industry to everyone’s attention.

Many other groups contributed to the success of the conference. The International Design Awards Exhibit illustrated new and traditional green strategies in materials, product design and architecture. Five Pacific Northwest artists provided an exhibit of public art works entitled “Activism: Sustainability, Art & Culture” that celebrates a new way of thinking about buildings, landscapes and cities. Finally, thanks to the efforts of the Leonardo Academy, EnvironDesign6 was a Level 5 Cleaner & Greener Certified Event.

“I appreciated the range of approaches provided by the speakers—from the political and pragmatic to the idealistic and abstract. Many of the speakers had provocative and thought provoking ideas.”

The last speaker at a conference can often be a let-down, especially when they follow a line-up of exceptional presentations. In this case, however, Environ-Design6 arguably saved one of the best for last. Peter Senge, a senior lecturer at MIT, the chairperson of the Society for Organizational Learning and author of The Fifth Discipline, quite frankly, wowed ‘em! It’s difficult to summarize his talk without absurdly oversimplifying. He challenged the commonly-accepted notions of design and its ability to dig our way out of our problems. He defined how enterprises use design to create their ideas, systems of governance, management, measurement and artifacts, and believes that in doing so have ignored certain realities. Senge readily acknowledges that design really matters and advocates that success in finding out how to live in harmony with the living world and with nature will come from a combination of a design revolution and something else—a revolution of awareness—how we think about ourselves, our reality and what it means to be alive. Harmonizing the world of design and the world of enactment will only come when we realize that a reality exists independent of us as observers.

Heavy stuff, to be sure, but Senge didn’t leave us hanging with our minds struggling to find the significance of it all. Rather he captivated us with slides of frozen water taken by a Japanese photographer. No two are alike, but Senge’s slides showed the extraordinary variations that occur when the ice crystals are exposed to different environments, not just in the usual sense of where they came from, but also what happens when they are stimulated by music, words and emotion. This is a reality in which we all participate in ways we can’t even see. He left us with a view of a world independent of us as observers—a world of separate things.

“This was my third EnvironDesign and I really appreciated the breadth of topics covered by the speakers. I was challenged to think more than I have in the past. I think that the speakers challenged the conference to move beyond dealing with the ‘believers’ and strive to make the ideals mainstream. I would encourage the planning committee to continue to push the envelope of diverse speakers in an effort to engage every aspect of sustainability.”

We shall try to do just that next April 30th through May 2nd in Washington, DC, at EnvironDesign7.EnvironDesign is co-sponsored by IS ( and green@work ( magazines. Additional information on EnvironDesign6 and information about ordering tapes of all the keynote speeches and workshop sessions are available at

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