The Hixon Center Reflects on the Sustainable Design and Solutions Conference

BY: TANJA SREBOTNJAK, Director of the Hixon Center, LOUIS SPANIAS, Sustainability Program Manager, and LAUREN D’SOUZA, Web & Social Media Coordinator (CMC-’18)

Following the Biennial Conference for Sustainable Design and Solutions that took place on October 8th, we here at the Hixon Center took some time to reflect on the event and share our reflections with you.

Tanja’s Reflection

This was the first conference organized by the new Hixon Center for Sustainable Environmental Design and as such provided us with both an opportunity to present the many existing sustainability activities occurring at the college to a larger audience and to learn the ropes of conference organization at Mudd. More than anything, we wanted the conference to succeed in being a venue for people to come together, share knowledge, network and do something – all in the spirit of promoting a positive can-do attitude towards sustainability. We purposely chose a broad theme for the conference – sustainable design and solutions – so as to include the many facets of sustainability research and practice.

Throughout the day I tried to attend as many sessions as possible while keeping an eye on the behind-the-scenes efforts to make the conference a smooth and successful experience for attendees. While we experienced a couple of logistical glitches such as late-running sessions and a non-working camera, it was immensely gratifying and reassuring to feel a certain vibe of agency and engagement throughout the day. That’s what any conference organizer hopes to see: that the attendees are taking the conference beyond its scheduled program and engage in conversation, exchange and forward-looking planning that builds on what they hear or see at the conference.

We take all the feedback we received (you can still fill out the survey here) and together with our own impressions and look forward to organizing the next conference in two years. We will surely make some adjustments here and there to make the conference even more appealing and useful for our audience, but above all we hope to inspire the same kind of vibe and positive response to all things sustainability that we felt this year on October 8.

Louis’ Reflection

When I was a student at UC Berkeley, I worked as a Resident Assistant for three years. A large component of my role was community development, which entailed hosting events that would address a variety of my residents’ needs. I used to stress out about these events, because I knew, if done right, they could really help or inspire students. As a first-year student, it was those very programs that immersed me into campus life – where I found both great friends and academic opportunities. I wanted the same for the residents in my building.

You can imagine how this scaled up for me with the Sustainable Design and Solutions conference.

I worried enough about the logistics of the day – conferences are a lot of work! But truthfully, I spent more time thinking about the content of the presentations and workshops we were offering. It is certainly critical that we discuss the environmental issues we face, but to act on such highly complex and wicked problems requires motivation and genuine inspiration. Yet as many of us with backgrounds in environmental fields know too well, these problems can be daunting and depressing.

So, this conference was not just about provoking discussion, but it was also designed to inspire attendees and leave them with inspiration and optimism, as well as a better understanding of the many sustainable solutions that are out there. During each of our panel presentations, we asked our speakers to share how both problems and recent innovations in urban design and water infrastructure impacted people, and we asked them to give us their genuine perspectives on what we have to be optimistic about.

But even if someone didn’t leave those panel presentations inspired, both our morning presentations and our poster session showcased the outstanding work of local professionals, academics, and most importantly, our students – and how their work and research offer great potential in remedying a number of social and environmental problems.

I also hoped that our workshops would be the lasting touch; that they would show attendees that sustainable solutions aren’t just matters for professionals. These workshops were intended to be reminders that simply changing our behaviors and practices on an individual level can go a long way towards addressing environmental problems.

In the days that have followed, I’ve heard from a number of attendees who emphasized this very point: the conference was not just some big lecture. Instead, it was motivational and encouraging. They felt they had learned something, and left with skills and knowledge that they were confident they could use right away. Knowing how dire many of these environmental issues are, it was truly relieving to hear that from so many people. And with all of that said, I can say with confidence that this conference was a success, and that it will only get better in the years to come.

Lauren’s Reflection

I love listening to podcasts, and over the summer, I discovered a new favorite. It’s called 99 Percent Invisible, and it’s all about “design thinking” — particularly about the thought that goes into the 99% invisible systems that shape our world. 

Once I started listening to this podcast, I began to see my world in a completely different light. I began to see roads not as “the bumpy surface I drive on every day,” but a complex system of municipal, state, and federal infrastructure that requires the minds and talents of civil engineers, construction workers, and architects to design. I now see my world as a product of design, now recognizing that the things I take for granted—roads, doors, bathrooms, airports—were methodically and specifically made for me, by people whose job it is to think about “the big picture.” 

At the Sustainable Design and Solutions Conference, I was overjoyed to find that every person in attendance was a “design thinker” — like me, and like the folks at 99 Percent Invisible. The “big picture” of infrastructure was key to my favorite parts of the conference: the Urban Design and Water panels.

The experts on the Urban Design panel—two architects and two engineers—asked macro-level questions that will be the key to unlocking sustainability in the built environment. How do we integrate new smart technologies into the existed technical grid? How do we utilize interconnected big data systems to optimize home performance? How do we plan cities to synthesize economic development, build public transportation, and lower housing costs overall? These questions begin with design at the individual home level, but scale all the way up to the design of cities and policy. Given that nearly one-quarter of the world’s energy usage comes from the residential sector, answering these questions will become vital in the coming years.

The Water Infrastructure panelists, coming from various disciplines and areas of expertise, proposed solutions in even broader terms. Particularly with an issue as dire as water in California, it is useful to think about ideal-world solutions as if it were possible to erase the existing systems and start from scratch, even if some of the proposed solutions are not yet possible. Professor Durón suggested thinking about innovative ways to store water—for example, why does it need to be stored in liquid form? John Coleman proposed a remapping of water districts to better distribute management authority. Tom McHenry put forward the idea of recycling water via circulation through alluvial rocks in the San Fernando Valley. Knowing firsthand how slowly government accomplishes tasks, Andy Shrader stressed the importance of new technology that solves multiple issues at once, especially with water movement.

After attending these panels, I felt energized. Solving problems on the micro-level can be effective, but on a small scale. Knowing that there are experts who emphasize looking at the macro-level and looking at whole-systems design makes me feel that there is room for optimism for the future of sustainability. All it takes is opening our minds to address the infrastructural problems that, to most people, are 99 percent invisible.