Results of the Design Atlas for Climate Change – Design Residency

A team of top graduate students, outside experts and RDG staff members came together for 3 days in October for an in-depth exploration of community resilience, risk mitigation, adaptation, and the role design professionals and community leaders play in promoting climate change-resilient communities. This was RDG’s 2018 Design Residency. It was a big one.

Thirteen nationally known experts – including a FEMA advisor/program director, city engineers and city managers, sustainable and economic policy makers, and a co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize – guided and collaborated with the ten selected student Residents. Their goal: to help communities make risk transparent and to mitigate both current and anticipated future impacts of climate change.

“Each year’s RDG Design Residency feels important, but this one went to a whole new level,” said David Dahlqluist. “Climate change will impact – is impacting – people and communities in more ways than most of us even realize. The design professions can and will be part of the solution. Having all these voices at the same table was powerful.”

The topic is huge, with layers of complex and interconnected challenges. With the Design Residency occurring just as the federal Volume II of the Fourth National Climate Assessment was due to be released, all team members sensed the critical nature of this exploration. They poured themselves into research and deep discussions of the issues, problems, and potential opportunities for design professionals. Through the course of the residency, it was clear no single solution would suffice. Effective climate resilience, Residents concluded, may rely as much on communication and information solutions as it does on design solutions.

The Design Residency team recognized that no community will be insulated from the consequences of climate change. The Midwest will experience (and already is experiencing) direct and immediate impacts such as increased flooding, drought, and severe storms. Longer term impacts will include a decline in agricultural production due to increases in atmospheric CO2 levels, a growing influx of climate refugees from other regions, and more.

Some Midwestern communities have begun to recognize and prepare for these impacts, and more are beginning to take notice. As communities around the country increasingly face the impacts of climate change, resilience planning will become a critical component for long-term community health and wellbeing.

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Design Residents determined that the technical knowledge and expertise exist to address these problems; however, we lack the public awareness and the political will. They wrestled with how to engage people and bridge the information gap so that, ultimately, more climate resilient policies and infrastructure engineering methods might be implemented.

“The Residents became a filter to hear from all these experts and get their arms around the issues,” said Dahlquist. “Even many city administrators don’t really understand all the impacts of climate change on communities – whether it be zoning decisions, water quality and control, changing growing seasons, flash flooding, the need for new building codes and standards, and so much more.”

Residents decided to focus on education as the best tool to build awareness and understanding about the complex challenges of climate change and resilience. For their tangible design residency project, the students created a communications platform intended to reach out to the segment of our society least likely to be entrenched in their thinking – and conversely, with the most to lose if we fail to act: our children and our children’s children.

Children, the student Residents, noted, are masters at using play to try out new ideas and work out solutions. Building on the idea of play as a platform for collaborative problem solving, Residents developed interactive learning-through-play prototypes that could be incorporated into school curricula or used in other learning environments, for children at multiple developmental stages. As children grow older, their spheres of interest and understanding grow and change; the Residents created “play” opportunities that could appeal at different stages. For each of three developmental phases, the group’s goal was to achieve:

  • Collaborative problem-solving
  • Processing and practicing – the world, events, and outcome
  • Engaging people across and through social networks
  • Engendering agency and empowerment

Renee Thomas said, “we emphasized for the Residents that, in order to be successful with this approach, they would need to find a way to make risk transparent and immediately comprehensible to the general public.”  In response, Residents developed a board game titled “SHOCK” as a participatory learning component. The game is a versatile tool to give children a tangible way to understand climate change risks and begin thinking about climate resilience. The game bridges the gap between science and local knowledge and can be modified for different age groups.

At RDG, we believe climate resilience is one of the most important challenges facing this and future generations. As a multi-disciplinary design firm, RDG has the opportunity to be on the leading edge of discussions and efforts to prepare for and mitigate the impacts of climate change. There is arguably no issue of our time that is more pressing and requires more collaborative effort across multiple disciplines. Innovative design and engineering solutions combined with thoughtful and forward-looking planning and policymaking are now and will continue to be key to successful adaptation and resilience in the face of massive climate change.

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The RDG Design Residency was an ideal vehicle for exploring these complex issues. Now in its eight year, the Design Residency examines a different topic or issue each year, bringing a select group of graduate students from diverse programs across the country together with local and national experts and RDG professionals for three intense days. “The Design Residency isn’t just a goodwill effort for students, nor is it just an opportunity to build a reputation,” said Phil Hodgin. “It’s a real think tank opportunity for our firm – a chance to dig deeply into an issue and learn with and from the incredible student Residents as well as the visiting experts.”

This year’s Residency felt particularly important within RDG, as the exploration of climate resilience impacts our own sustainability as a design firm. We work with communities all the time, in central Iowa and across the country. The more we know the questions and understand the risks, the better we can help prepare communities for the challenges that will come with climate resiliency. As we enter this realm, David Dahlquist says, “the conversations we have with clients and communities won’t be just about what we build, but also more deeply about why we build, where we build, when we build, and how we build. Change is coming to all these.”

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