The 2012 Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) annual meeting, which ran from Sunday, September 23 to Tuesday, September 25 in New York, was, on the face of it, one of those positive seminar-type experiences, with croissant breakfasts, plenary sessions, break-out groups, closing remarks, and all that. But there is a difference between a CGI meeting and the usual convention dynamic: At CGI there is a shared mission of achieving real and positive outcomes by leveraging the power of relationships. People and organizations across different sectors are brought together to realize what CGI calls “Commitments to Action”.
One of the best things about CGI is that it helps bring resources to bear on ideas in need of support. Sounds too good to be true and sort of like a love-fest of pie-in-the-sky, fairy dust optimism? It might sound like this at first, but the meeting is made up of people who have dedicated their lives and careers (same thing) to solving real-world problems. If Greenpeace’s slogan is Think Globally, Act Locally, then CGI’s is something like “If you can think it, you can do it.” Bill Clinton says he started CGI to “help turn good intentions into real action and results.” Toward this end, they basically help funnel money into good ideas that can change lives. They do this not by handing out cash, but by networking financing sources like foundations, philanthropists, and corporations with individuals and organizations who need backing to get their projects off the ground.
The theme of year’s meeting, “Designing for Impact” included three sub-themes or “lenses”: Designing for the Individual, Designing our Environments, and Designing our Systems. The problems being addressed are some of the major messes we’ve created in our environments as well as more insidious problems…on a global scale, no less. These issues were then worked on in groups at “Design Labs”.
John Cary, Founder of PublicInterestDesign.org helped facilitate the Design Lab on healthy urban environments. He says this year’s theme represents a major milestone for public interest design. “Each of the three days focused on the design of products, places, and systems, with President Clinton speaking most passionately and frequently about the last.” He also noted how the meeting facilitated connections that would otherwise be unlikely. “At just one table in our session, we had the U.S. Surgeon General, the past president of Norway, and a PepsiCo executive, iterating ideas on Post-it notes.”
At the meeting the AIA launched its own “Commitment to Action” they are calling the “Decade of Design”, or the AIA Urban and Regional Solutions Challenge, which entails a 10-year program grant program in conjunction with CGI and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA). Architecture schools can apply for a $20,000 grant to “address problems facing communities in the U.S. and beyond.” The first issue to be addressed concerns design and health and seeks solutions for improving the health and sustainability of cities.
As AIA chief, Robert Ivy said, “This commitment by the AIA represents an all-out effort to demonstrate the link between building design and the health of building occupants. And it will enable us to bring the force of design to bear in the public health arena and debate.”
Brooks Rainwater, Director of Public Policy for the AIA says they have been engaging CGI as members for the last two years. “The AIA reached out to CGI because of the collaborative nature of the organization and its strong focus on mobilization to forge solutions to world challenges”, says Rainwater. “The relationship helps to elevate the voice of the architect in the global conversation. It also advances the value of design in the US and internationally.”
But in concrete terms, what does that mean? In the Design Labs, some very interesting ideas were proposed. The most relevant for architects and urban planners focused on how to design healthier urban environments, which was defined specifically in terms of preventing chronic disease. The importance of design in preventing disease includes encouraging urban planners to create “20 minute neighborhoods.” This is as it sounds, where all the necessities for a community, including markets, gardens, and other services like banks, are located within a 20-minute walking distance. Of course, the effect is not simply to promote walking as a path to physical health but also to improve the overall quality of life for community members. Too often, in dense neighborhoods, services such as banks and markets are distant while fast food restaurants are too plentiful. The “20 minute neighborhood,” along with “micro-villages”, is created from public spaces that include micro-businesses, communal exercise zones, and markets. This completely reconfigures the standard architectural vision of urban planning. Other “actionable ideas” which also fall under the technological and creative knowledge of architects and designers included creating apps that encourage people’s meaningful and healthful interaction with the urban environment. Architects and urban planners are well-suited to develop such apps given their knowledge-base and professional training.
Look for future stories on the program as it develops. We will also be interested to see who wins the first $20,000 grant. Maybe you can help your school get one.