Student Power

With their famously interconnected ways, young activists show how teams can address complex problems.

The room buzzed with youthful energy as the panel launched into our assigned topic: how sustainable transportation can build healthier communities and create local jobs. We were at the University of Miami, where the Clinton Global Initiative University camped out this spring for its third annual rally of activist students from campuses the world over. The event, which was fired up by Bill Clinton’s call to action, felt like a big-tent revival meeting. Commitments to green campuses, community gardens, and social justice rang out repeatedly through the day. And not surprisingly, each small solution somehow helped advance the cause of Clinton’s global initiatives.

Our panel broke up and we joined roundtable discussions led by students. I was flanked by brilliant young men, one an engineering student in Miami, the other studying interior architecture in Providence. The table hummed with the kind of talent that will reshape cities and create new approaches to climate change, education, peace and human rights, and public health. What became instantly clear was that this generation can talk across disciplinary lines, with each person using his own expertise to address the pressing issues of our time. The future educator had as much to say about sustainable campus life as the future architect or doctor. And they all knew they were here to share their experiences, to learn from one another and their elders in order to redouble their efforts when they returned to their campuses. This new generation is leagues ahead of professionals in every design field.

Case in point: The day before I landed in Florida, I was in New Jersey at a regional industrial-design conference. One presentation after another probed topics like creating “killer” portfolios, how parametric-modeling software leads to new forms, and branding—all profession-specific, self-referential, narrowly focused exercises. Contrast this to the students’ commitment to participating in the dialogue of the 21st century: climate change. Their passion for making a positive impact, their heartfelt activism, and their hopeful spirit were inspiring. But above all, it was their interconnectedness that energized me the most and made me think that breakthrough design solutions produced by smoothly collaborative teams will ensure a place at the decision-making table for designers. There is no room for toxic power struggles, like the tired old war still raging between architects and interior designers. Everyone has a crucial role to play. The students showed us how it works.

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