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Archive for November, 2011

Nothing like a little break and a (fairly) relaxing holiday to clear one’s head. The holiday week began, though, with more news of recent graduates struggling in the weak economy. No advice from the comfortably employed seems sufficient, but I did run across these words from Forrest Church (2009) this weekend which I pass along:

I have a mantra that I’ve come to live by over the past few years, and it’s served me very well. It is “Want what you have, do what you can, be who you are.”

He explains all three parts of the mantra, but I will just relate the middle, as the other two seem self-explanatory.

Doing what you can means doing all you can, no more and no less. It’s not just mucking by, but it’s not trying to do more than you can either, not stretching yourself out so far that you can’t help but force a failure.

I’m going to focus on the part about not stretching so far as to force a failure… And while I’m on the subject of motivation, I will add the motto of my former workplace, Virginia Tech. It is ut prosim, that I may serve.

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In December, we celebrate the 4th anniversary of the official start of the Great Recession or Lesser Depression. One silver lining that I see would be if communities (i.e., community residents) started to take matters into their own hands and began to create their own better futures. Recently there have been signs that some communities are doing just that. From today’s New York Times, the story of the new department store in Saranac Lake, NY, entirely financed by shares sold to community residents. After the town’s last department store closed, residents had to drive 50 miles to buy basic necessities, and they were considering an offer by Wal-Mart to develop a store. Not liking either alternative…

But rather than accept their fate, residents of Saranac Lake did something unusual: they decided to raise capital to open their own department store. Shares in the store, priced at $100 each, were marketed to local residents as a way to “take control of our future and help our community,” said Melinda Little, a Saranac Lake resident who has been involved in the effort from the start. “The idea was, this is an investment in the community as well as the store.”

And later in the article:

Think of it as the retail equivalent of the Green Bay Packers — a department store owned by its customers that will not pick up and leave when a better opportunity comes along or a corporate parent takes on too much debt.

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Call them the 1%, the 2%, or even generously extend the designation to 20% as Andrew Ross does, people at the upper end of the income scale are the people who can afford to be green – IF green means hybrid vehicles, solar voltaics, and LEED-certified buildings (yes, there are some exceptions). In Ross’s new book, Bird on Fire: Lessons From the World’s Least Sustainable City, Phoenix is the context for an exploration of the relationship between income inequality and sustainability. Ross discussed this part of the book in a New York Times article this week titled The Darker Side of Green.  Ross cautions that a low-carbon lifestyle among the affluent will not be enough to slow climate change. The lessons that Ross uncovered in Phoenix are ones worth heeding, IMO.

Whereas uptown populations are increasingly sequestered in green showpiece zones, residents in low-lying areas who cannot afford the low-carbon lifestyle are struggling to breathe fresh air or are even trapped in cancer clusters. You can find this pattern in many American cities. The problem is that the carbon savings to be gotten out of this upscale demographic — which represents one in five American adults and is known as Lohas, an acronym for “lifestyles of health and sustainability” — can’t outweigh the commercial neglect of the other 80 percent. If we are to moderate climate change, the green wave has to lift all vessels.

Solar chargers and energy-efficient appliances are fine, but unless technological fixes take into account the needs of low-income residents, they will end up as lifestyle add-ons for the affluent.

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It would seem that conceptual thinking is inseparable from design, but I find that many design students just cannot grasp the idea of abstraction. Can this be taught? Is the capacity for conceptual thought just part of a person’s DNA? In searching online for insights, I found these observations.

1. This definition from the Eleven Seconds blog:

conceptual thinking is simply the ability to effortlessly walk up and down the ladder of abstraction

and the slightly murkier:

 To make their thinking useful, abstract thinkers need to be able to convert something abstract into something concrete, and vice versa.  This ability is what I call conceptual thinking.  A conceptual thinker starts in the concrete, then walks up the hierarchy of abstractions.  At some level they make connections between the abstract representation of the concrete thought and another abstract representation.  If need be, they can then walk that abstract thought back into another, very different concrete thought.  The idea is that a local search (i.e. making connections) in the abstract space is easier than a local search in the concrete space.  And so that person can either communicate more effectively, or solve the problem more effortlessly.

The example given of moving from the concrete to the abstract is seeing the concrete problem as an example of a more generic class or category of problems. Pattern recognition leads to relationships between ideas and eventually back to the concrete.

2. Discussion about conceptual thinking in the world of business tends to focus on the growing need for such thinkers in business (critical for the flexibility and innovation demanded by the global economy) and on the fact that these people are “hard to come by.” (more…)

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A big, big subject that I am tackling in two courses this spring. OpenIDEO and Steelcase are sponsoring a design solutions challenge for Vibrant Cities. Check out the brief here.

 

 

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Images of the starling murmuration do indeed suggest the massive flocks of passenger pigeons that once darkened the skies on this continent. It is estimated that one out of every four birds in the Eastern U.S. was a passenger pigeon before unregulated hunting decimated their numbers. The last passenger pigeon died in 1914. Aldo Leopold provides a poignant account of the demise of the species in the essay, “On a Monument to a Pigeon,” found in the classic book, A Sand County Almanac.

We have erected a monument to commemorate the funeral of a species. It symbolizes our sorrow. We grieve because no living man will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin.

Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.

There will always be pigeons in books and in museums, but these are effigies and images, dead to all hardships and to all delights. Book-pigeons cannot dive out of a cloud to make the deer run for cover, or clap their wings in thunderous applause of mast-laden woods. Book-pigeons cannot breakfast on new-mown wheat in Minnesota, and dine on blueberries in Canada. They know no urge of seasons; they feel no kiss of sun, no lash of wind and weather. They live forever by not living at all.   (more…)

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Apparently some publicity and your project listed in an official U.S. Government report! This one slipped by me until now, when I read the USA Today article about the new Department of Interior publication called America’s Great Outdoors: Fifty-State Report, the culmination of President Obama’s year-long Great Outdoors Initiative. Two projects from each state share the honor of being identified as worthy of being promoted. According to Interior Secretary Salazar, these 100 projects are “among the best investments in the nation to support a healthy, active population, conserve wildlife and working lands, and create travel, tourism and outdoor-recreation jobs across the nation.” These projects would promote health and create jobs, two of the nation’s highest priorities! This would be why USA Today also reports:

The projects are part of President Obama’s Great Outdoors Initiative, announced last year, and result from 50 meetings between state leaders and senior federal officials. They won’t receive new federal funding but technical support and guidance.

The development of the report itself was a jobs initiative, keeping some Interior Department staff employed as they traveled the country meeting with state reps.

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