Big-Picture Thinking

A new era of complex problem-solving is here. Are designers reshaping their practices to meet the challenge?

The Acela glided through the Eastern Seaboard’s autumnal landscape, whisking me from Baltimore to New York. Among the bright yellow, red, orange, and green foliage, I saw the Great American Sprawl. Though in some spots there were new, dense developments of clustered or row houses, none of them—whether single-family or attached—seemed to be located within walking distance of a school, an office, shopping, or any other service. The only visible transportation to all these destinations was the car. Though the scenery that slipped by told many tales, I’d like to concentrate here on what it said about our piecemeal treatment of the built environment.

I have been observing the same sights for years, but this year’s trip was different. It came after my moment of truth at the Baltimore Convention Center while attending NeoCon East in October. My thoughts began to roil during a panel discussion, “The State of the Market.” The stage and the audience were filled by members of the Design Leadership Council, a Washington, D.C., group that apparently likes to party in furnishings showrooms. These were the movers and shakers of interior architecture and design, representing organizations such as Gensler and AECOM. They told a now familiar story: how we survived the recession.

They also talked about how the down market pushed them to diversify their firms’ services, all performed under tight deadlines, with fewer people and for less money. They mentioned how quickly their young staffs are given serious responsibilities these days (much faster than their own generation was) and the need to use social media—all good but piecemeal solutions. It became clear that none of them made an attempt to apply design thinking to recalibrate their firms for a sustainable future.

None of their actions seemed to recognize that a sustainable economy requires a rethinking of the ways and means of planning and design offices. Call this shift in the ethos and the marketplace “nexus planning,” or use Bucky’s term: “systems thinking.” Whatever name you give it, we’re talking about a renewed focus on people and our shared resources. The new scenario goes like this: when a community is built or an old one is adapted, at its nexus or center may be the school, the library, the farmers’ market, or any other natural gathering place. All necessary services should be reach-able by walking, biking, public transit, or other low-impact means.

This kind of systemic planning and design requires all specialists to be at the top of their games, at the table from the outset, breathing the air with members of the community. It’s also becoming clear that designers who hope to be at the center of the discourse need new skills: an ability to talk in easily understood ways, a curiosity to learn about land use, pol-icy, biology, materials, science, and the myriad other issues that are redefining what used to be called “liberal arts.” All of these, of course, are in addition to sharp design thinking and a capacity to visualize scenarios that others at the table are not trained to see. “The state of the market” is beginning to call for such an interdisciplinary approach. It promises to bring unprecedented opportunities that will broaden designers’ influence. But piecemeal tweaks won’t get us there.

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