Aspen Design Summit

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November 24, 2009

I’m back from glorious snowed-in Aspen Meadows, where AIGA and Winterhouse Institute staged the Aspen Design Summit. This meeting was focused on complex, real world problems that can be addressed through the ingenuity and “progressive reach of design’s influence,” in the words of AIGA’s Richard Grefé.With the support of Rockefeller Foundation — which is keen to see more collaboration and capacity building across the design industry in this social impact arena — all 64 attendees at the Summit were organized into six groups that developed preliminary strategies and action schemes around diverse challenges. Positioned as the scaffolding for feasible and fundable programs that could be executed in the next 24 months, key organizations and partners were engaged, including the CDC (healthy aging), UNICEF (educational kits and adolescence hygiene), and Mayo Clinic (rural health delivery).

I was thrilled to be assigned to the UNICEF projects and to reunite with a previous Designmatters’s partner, Christopher Fabian (head of the Innovation unit at UNICEF), and to understand more about the logistics and needs behind UNICEF’s current deployment of resources to reach underserved children and young girls. We worked both to rethink what the design of a low cost, durable Early Childhood Education kit that can be used in emergency situations could look like (and we took apart the current one); and partnered with SHE founder, Elizabeth Scharpf, to understand where we might be able to offer new strategies for a social enterprise model in Rwanda that is bringing support services for menstruating women and girls — so that they are more likely to continue to attend work and classes during their cycles.

Beyond the fact that there is always something slightly surreal in attempting to even begin tackling world poverty issues from the pampered environment of one of the most privileged spots in the world, there were the following and exciting take-aways for me:
1/ to participate in a conversation about the designer’s role in the future, and seriously attempting to come to terms with the landscape of social impact and development;
2/ getting validation and encouragement for our work.

We are up to our necks, day-in and day-out, pushing this agenda of design for social change forward in ways that can be meaningful to our students and impactful to our community partners. It does feel good to get a pat in the back from peers who have similar war stories to tell, and rewarding to have memories to share from this type of engagement. Now back to the grind of making the next round of projects happen — and the promise of design education as a tool for change.