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Geodesign Gathers Momentum

Two-Day GeoDesign Summit in California Focuses on Real Projects
Geodesign in action: Esri CityEngine technology created this rendering of what a fictional development would look like in the City of Philadelphia, demonstrating the power of rule-based 3D modeling.

The term geodesign,once hard to define, is becoming part of the vernacular in the design field. That observation opened this year's GeoDesign Summit, a gathering of professionals interested in using geospatial technologies to arrive at the best and most sustainable design solutions.

"An online search for the term geodesign peaked at 85,000 [mentions] on the web in 2011," said Shannon McElvaney, project manager for GeoDesign Services at Esri and the master of ceremonies for the summit, which was held January 5–6, 2012, in Redlands, California. "That's a meteoric rise in the last three years. For this and a number of other reasons, I firmly believe that geodesign as a concept is here to stay."

Esri president Jack Dangermond stressed the importance of using geodesign to find sustainable solutions to pressing global problems.  In his opening remarks, Jack Dangermond, president of the Redlands-based geographic information system (GIS) software company Esri, underscored the importance of putting geodesign to work on pressing issues such as climate change, energy needs, health, poverty, and biodiversity loss.

Dangermond recalled a recent discussion with former US president Bill Clinton, where he was struck by Clinton's words about taking action. "He talked about all the policies and discussion about climate change and population, and he said, 'I'm not really sure all these discussions are going to matter.' There was silence in the room. [Clinton] said, 'What I actually have faith in are real projects. I'm dedicating my life to doing projects.' He said where the rubber hits the road is doing real project work."

 "Isn't that," said Dangermond, "really what geodesign is about?"

That message of taking action—of illustrating geodesign in real project work—was reflected throughout the 2012 GeoDesign Summit. The summit's theme, Geodesign in Practice, went to the heart of geodesign's ultimate goal: finding innovative solutions to the most pressing challenges by fusing design processes with geospatial technologies.

Real Projects

The GeoDesign Summit in California drew 200 people from many professions.Many of the conversations among the 200 attendees focused on how elements of geodesign are being put into practice by urban planners, architects, landscape architects, design and GIS professionals, and even marine scientists. Stuart Rich from PenBay Solutions LLC spoke about how geodesign is helping Kuwait University plan construction of a new multibillion-dollar campus. Lilian Pintea from the Jane Goodall Institute described how geodesign is being used to protect chimpanzees through community-centered conservation. Abby Jones from the Anthro/Ecological Design Collective talked about the role of geodesign in a project to turn distressed land into parks in Los Angeles.

Will McClintock, a marine scientist from the Marine Science Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, delivered a presentation called SeaSketch: Designing for Our Oceans. Using GIS technology, his lab is currently developing the SeaSketch application that will let anyone log on to a website and sketch out proposed marine protected areas in the ocean. Scheduled to be available this summer, the application will provide automated feedback on how well proposed designs meet science and policy guidelines.

"We really have reached the point in history where the tools required for sound decision making are no longer restricted to people with specialized knowledge," said McClintock. "You can do this. Everybody can do this. Everybody should have the ability to express their opinions about how ocean space is used and measure those opinions against good science."

The Future

Discussions at the summit also focused on developing the next generation of geodesign practitioners, as evidenced by the growing number of universities launching geodesign programs or curriculums. These include Penn State University, which is developing a master's program in geodesign, and Northern Arizona University, which has already launched a bachelor's degree in geographic science and community planning.

Harvard University’s Stephen Ervin prognosticated about geodesign.   The GeoDesign Summit ended with a thought-provoking talk on the future of geodesign by Stephen Ervin, assistant dean for information technology at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. While Ervin said he thinks that it's highly unlikely any agreed-upon definition of geodesign will ever emerge, one certainty will be a planet of 10 billion people. "It is for these people that we do geodesign," he said. "It's not for the trees or the hydrological systems or the atmosphere. It's for the 10 billion people that are our inheritors of what we do."

Years from now, Dangermond said, people will look back at geodesign as "an evolutionary step for humans. It's going to be, 'Ah, finally we connected the dots. Finally we began to realize the implications or the consequences of our actions.'"

The next GeoDesign Summit will be held January 24–25, 2013, in Redlands. For more information, visit


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