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Aspen Design Summit: Initial Report

When the International Design Conference in Aspen was launched in 1949 in an obscure former silver-mining town west of Denver, Colorado, the goal was to bring designers and business leaders together to foster understanding of what design could accomplish. Foremost, design was shown to be a strategic force in improving business and cultural interests and enhancing global prosperity.

More than a half-century later, the 2009 Aspen Design Summit restored a kernel of the conference’s original mission by uniting designers with the primary beneficiaries of their talents and insights. In this case, however, the stakeholders came not from corporations but from nonprofits and NGOs, and the interests revolved around improving education, health and living conditions domestically and throughout the world.

Hosted by AIGA and Winterhouse Institute, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, the 2009 Aspen Design Summit invited 64 designers, educators, researchers and representatives of NGOs, foundations and businesses to collaborate in addressing large social problems. Over four days in November, six groups composed of members with diverse yet complementary expertise worked intensively in studio-like environments, complete with materials for fashioning prototypes. Having received briefing books before the event that presented background information and data about an assigned challenge, the members of each studio team evolved plans, deemed actionable within two years, for improving educational materials delivered to children in the developing world; building a business for locally producing and distributing low-cost women’s sanitary products in East Africa; creating a branded national campaign to encourage Americans over 50 to be up to date on preventive health measures, including cancer screenings and flu vaccinations; establishing a model program in rural Austin, Minnesota, for improving community wellness; devising a nationwide competition to increase awareness of the availability of healthy food and the advantages of healthy eating; and developing a socioeconomic model of resource allocation for accelerated development in Hale County and the surrounding regions of Alabama.

Each team began with a brief that ranged from a tightly focused problem posed by a stakeholder (such as UNICEF’s plan to redesign the contents of its early childhood development kits, which the agency distributes to refugee camps and other settlements to educate children through age six) to broadly conceived missions (such as the challenge to combat the childhood obesity epidemic through sustainable food practices). Initial presentations setting forth the projects’ backgrounds and objectives were delivered by Edgard Seikaly, a technical specialist in the education unit of UNICEF, who discussed the agency’s early childhood development kits, as well as a separate challenge to provide facilities and education to combat the stigma of menstruation in many communities in the developing world, which prevents girls from attending school; by Pam Dorr, leader of the Hale Empowerment & Revitalization Organization (HERO) in Greensboro, Alabama, who offered a survey of design activity in the region; by Anna Muoio, a principal of Continuum, who described innovations in sustainable food systems; by Maggie Breslin, a senior designer at the Mayo Clinic’s Center for Innovation, who mapped ways of extending access to healthcare in rural communities; and by Lynda Anderson, director of the Healthy Aging Program at the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), who pointed out that in 2011, the first Baby Boomers will turn 65 and that people aged 50 to 64 need to dramatically increase their use of preventive medical services in order to remain healthy.

The studio teams met individually over the next three days, coming together in the middle of the proceedings to share ideas with the other teams and receive feedback. Larry Keeley, the innovation leader and partner in the Doblin/Monitor Group, served as moderator of these mid-course conversations, warning some team members not to succumb to “orthodoxies” or ingrained modes of thinking, and urging others to imagine their projects as “coral reefs” — systems that attract and sustain interdependent life forms and activities, nourishing not just the development of culture but also of capital.

Despite the variety of themes and design constraints, the final presentations reflected several common preoccupations. One was serving interests at the community level with an eye to creating a model that could be adapted by other regions. A Mayo Clinic plan for encouraging the town of Austin, Minnesota, to improve its “community wellness” through a network of social and cultural activities might be ultimately applicable to Hale County, Alabama, or, for that matter, Austin, Texas. Members of the Rural Healthcare project and Sustainable Food project alike advocated that citizens map their communities’ resources as a way to enlighten them about valuable yet overlooked local services and benefits. And both the Mayo Clinic group and members of the CDC’s Healthy Aging project suggested that community members were best off receiving medical information and support first through peers and relatives rather than professionals. Economic sustainability was another thread connecting the proposals, as in the resources network idea developed for Hale County and the UNICEF team’s suggestions for creating businesses around the production and distribution of sanitary pads, which builds on the existing work of team member Elizabeth Scharpf, founder of Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE).

When Scharpf arrived in Aspen, she described her mission as combating the stigma of menstruation in many cultures and promoting the dignity of young women. After working with the UNICEF team, however, she decided to reframe the problem as a loss of productivity when girls stay home from school and women from work. This shift led her to conceive a new organizational plan consisting of three “buckets” devoted to the production and distribution of sanitary pads, the capacity for greater knowledge about health and hygiene through a partnership with the Rwandan ministry of education, and research into materials that could foster local manufacturing in other countries. Presenting this radically revised concept to the group at the conference’s midpoint, Scharpf glanced at her notes and confessed, “I have to have a cheat sheet on my life right now.”

The final session of proposals and concrete next steps for the six working groups was moderated by Winterhouse Institute’s William Drenttel, who organized and led the summit along with AIGA’s executive director Richard Grefé.

“I have been to a lot of events like this,” noted Dan Buchner, vice president of organizational innovation at Continuum, who worked on the CDC Healthy Aging team. He was referring to action-oriented conferences with little or no follow-though after the problems of the world are solved. “But this is the one event where I think traction’s going to happen after the event,” Buchner said.

Change Observer will be charting the progress of all six Aspen Design Summit projects. A full report on each project will appear here next week and will be followed with regular updates.

A PDF of the complete briefing book is available here.
The original website for the Aspen Design Summit, as well as a list of all participants, is here.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Education , Politics, Social Good

Comments [3]

I wish I knew about this design summit earlier. Would have loved to share how our studio (Box Design+Research) deploys 'design thinking' in this area. We are a group of designers (product + communication) and business strategists working together in the areas of =
1. Design for social impact
2. Design for business impact

Box creates business & social impact by empowering end users through design intervention.
We make this possible through our expertise in learning from the field-- �—distilling meaning from the lives of people, communities and cultures. It is this meaning that informs and inspires our creative strategy, making innovation relevant to myriad Indian contexts.
Rajesh Dahiya

Ric, Bill,

I have always been proud to say I am a designer, and that I can change the world. As I see this work, I know it to be true more than ever! Design can and will change the world because of the passion of men like you!!

Thank you for your unending dedication to making the world a better place!!

florence haridan

I had the priviledge of being an active participant in the summit, and I must say that the ehthusiasme as well as conviction of all the designers left me with a very positive feeling that the work we worked very hard on will come to fruition in the next two years and its results will have a major impact on children's lives.
Edgard Seikaly

Aspen Design Summit reports are edited by Ernest Beck, William Drenttel and Julie Lasky. The 2009 Aspen Design Summit was organized by William Drenttel of Winterhouse Institute, in partnership with AIGA and with support from the Rockefeller Foundation.

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Aspen Design Summit: Update 09.25.10
Dateline Aspen. An on-going report on progress on the six projects developed at the Aspen Design Summit in November 2009.

Aspen Design Summit Report: UNICEF Menstruation Challenge
At the Aspen Design Summit November 11–14, 2009, sponsored by AIGA and Winterhouse Institute, the UNICEF Menstruation Challenge Project proposed an “eco-system” whereby sanitary pads became a linchpin for local economic growth, for educational programs about health and hygiene and for research into materials that could be adapted to other countries.

Aspen Design Summit Report: UNICEF and Early Childhood Development
At the Aspen Design Summit November 11–14, 2009, sponsored by AIGA and Winterhouse Institute, the UNICEF Early Childhood Development Project proposed a new approach to emergency kits that would be more precisely tuned to young children’s intellectual and emotional needs, as well as outlined a basis for the next AIGA/INDEX: Aspen Design Challenge.

Aspen Design Summit Report: Mayo Clinic and Rural Health Care Delivery
At the Aspen Design Summit November 11–14, 2009, sponsored by AIGA and Winterhouse Institute, the Mayo Clinic Rural Healthcare Delivery Project developed a network concept — a community association — that changed the focus from the consumption of healthcare to the collective production of well-being.

Aspen Design Summit Report: Sustainable Food and Childhood Obesity
At the Aspen Design Summit November 11–14, 2009, sponsored by AIGA and Winterhouse Institute, the Sustainable Food Project focused on accelerating the shift from a global, abstract food system to a regional, real food system via a robust portfolio of activities — including a grand challenge and a series of youth-engagement programs.

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