GeoDesign Summit 2015

Last week I travelled to sunny San Bernardino to visit the epicenter of the mapping revolution: ESRI. This was, of course, an exciting opportunity to give myself a neck injury as I stared out of the window for hours on end like a dog in a convertible. I have been to conferences before but this was my first Summit. Once a year dedicated map nerds, technology enthusiasts, and ambitious designers make the pilgrimage to Redlands to share ideas at the GeoDesign Summit.

The GeoDesign Summit is a chance to both examine the forefront of technological tools but also reflect on the idea of using geography to make better decisions. The truth is that, while I obviously like exploring ideas, I rarely find myself thinking about the idea of ideas. It can be a good exercise though and, while this kind of exploration can sometimes drift into navel gazing, I never lost interest and feel like I truly gained some insights. The biggest among these was not about technology at all but about the people, the history, and the movement called geodesign.

What the hell is geodesign? Am I a geodesigner?
— Me Whispering to Joe During the Summit

At this point I have to make a confession: I didn't really know what GeoDesign was when I got there. I had heard the term before but I hear a lot of terms I fail to use properly. My GIS training is not very formal. I’m more of a shade-tree mapper (geodesigner?). Fortunately, GeoDesign is pretty much what it sounds like. Like all big ideas though, the particulars are left open-ended and there does not seem to be a consensus on a single definition. You know you might be in for a deep discussion when the authority that is Wikipedia tells you that geodesign "sits comfortably with postmodern and post-postmodern theory."

For better or worse my inclination for defining things was shaped by the academic crucible of Bill Sabo's political science classes at UNC Asheville where simplicity, directness, and specificity were tattooed on my brain. The near-simplest explanation I can think of is that geodesign is using tools to understand a place before you make decisions about it or create something on it. It sounds obvious enough but it’s surprising how often we fail to do this or do it so incompletely that we'd be better off doing nothing. Sadly, much of our physical environment is cleaved up by buildings that are designed in a vacuum as though the designer mistook the vast featureless plane of the sketchup window for the real living world. Sadder still is the fact that we should have known better for a long time.  

Among other things the GeoDesign Summit gave me a new appreciation for the influence of Ian McHarg and his peers. I read his landmark book Design With Nature just before I started graduate school. A more fair statement would be to say I skimmed it. While I appreciated the ideas and sentiment I thought it was all a little obvious. "Of course you should pay attention to all of the layers of environmental conditions when you design something. What kind of idiot wouldn't?" I nodded to his contribution to GIS and environmentalism and put him back on the shelf. I suppose that's part of the downside of new ideas becoming commonplace and accepted. What I began to realize last week was how revolutionary his ideas were and how long it has taken for them to gain momentum. 

At the crux of his message is the idea that we don't have to reinvent the urban wheel. We can look back to earlier societies who, by virtue of limited resources, had no choice but to find a way to coexist with their environment. In a sense geodesign was second nature to people throughout history whose decisions and designs stretched no farther than the land they slowly adapted to for generations. In the twenty first century with twenty first century challenges the stakes are higher but we also have far better tools. 

It's always a bit surreal to meet the people who are behind the tools you use in your everyday life. It's a bit like pulling the curtain back in the Wizard of Oz or when you go to college and run into basketball players in the cafeteria. What's inspiring about geodesign and the work ESRI is doing is the historic narrative behind it and their determination to change the world through mapping. That's something I never appreciated before about ESRI in particular.

There's no doubt ESRI is a business and there’s no doubt they are trying to turn a profit. But judging by our own message to cities, is that not the basis of financial responsibility? Having watched businesses, especially software companies, for a long time and trying to navigate the uncharted waters of a start-up myself I've come to a few conclusions. One of which is that businesses that do a thing purely because it’s a niche and purely for financial gain will always be worse at doing it than a business that sets out on a “mission” and tries to make living in the process. I get the sense that geodesign has always been the goal and that being a software company just turned out to be the mechanism. This is a scenario to which I can relate.

I submit three pieces of evidence for the realness of ESRI's deal. 

1. All of the ESRI employees I interacted with were genuinely excited about how people are using the tools they build. This is a sentiment I can relate to. In a sense, we're the middleman in a transaction too. We provide a different way to look at cities and there is nothing more exciting to me about my work than when someone actually uses it to make a decision. What this tells me is that these folks give a damn about how their work impacts the world.

2. Most software companies have some version of a familiar backstory. A clever and enterprising individual or group of such people came up with a new technology and saw how it filled a lucrative niche. Chance, happenstance, and good old fashioned luck fill in the rest. Where ESRI's story is unique is in the how and why that innovative group came together. We got to witness this firsthand in the last event on the last day of the Summit when many of the progenitors of modern GIS assembled on stage to discuss geodesign. It became obvious from their interaction that they are driven by a desire to change the world with a desire to challenge each other intellectually, perhaps, as a close second. I recall that half an hour or so into their discussion I felt like a fly on the wall among hundreds of other flies on the wall listening to an backroom debate. This feeling, coupled with the superb lighting and their natural interactions made the whole thing seem like a play.    

3. Finally there is the founder of ESRI himself, Jack Dangermond. I didn't meet him directly but I felt like I got a sense of who is. (In fact the only time we personally interacted with him is when he chastised Joe and I for loitering in the lobby eating snacks when a session was starting. Sorry Jack, the white chocolate raspberry scones were just so damn good.) He seems like an extremely contemplative person. You could almost hear the mental gears turning while he was up on stage. What I found most telling though was his near obsession with disseminating the idea of geodesign. Even more telling, I think, is his commitment to educating children. He was almost misty-eyed when speaking about the importance of introducing young people to geodesign and connecting them with each other to solve problems. If I had to make a guess about those turning gears I'd say he was figuring out how to balance the continued success of his business with the mission of geodesign. 

The Summit is partly a chance for practitioners and map nerds from around the world to show off their work and partly a chance to ESRI to show off its latest stuff. I guess it’s like one big impressive map show and tell. The two directions ESRI seems to be emphasizing in its latest products are collaboration and 3D visualization. To me both of these directions represent the same goal: communication. 3D visualization certainly explains why they asked us to come participate this year. We collaborated with some very talented people over the last month to incorporate CityEngine into our work. I'm still learning how to use the software but it has absolutely amazing potential. 

The perhaps more revolutionary software they presented is called GeoPlanner. GeoPlanner is a platform for sharing geographic data and allowing anyone with access to submit designs and maps. I am particularly excited about this because I love to solicit answers from the crowd. I already have some ideas about how I want to use GeoPlanner. In the coming months my hope is to set up some ongoing collaborative projects. One which has been on my mind for quite some time is to redraw the state boundaries of the US. GeoPlanner seems like a great way to do that. What makes the Summit more than just show and tell though is that, in addition to showcasing the capabilities of software we delved into the philosophical and logical aspects of turning collaborative data into a real decision. It has become easy enough to ask a collaborative question and easy enough to collect data and we've gotten to the point where the interfaces are shiny enough to get an overwhelming response. How then do we actually process a multitude of possibly diverging inputs? These are the kinds of questions we got watch Carl Steinitz ponder.

My favorite presentation was called Geodesign and Gaming. Ulf Månsson showed us the power of data interoperability with the project Blockholm. I am never disappointed by the awesome stuff that comes out of Sweden: skanska, volvo, Gustavus Adolphus, heavy metal, ABBA, to name a few. It's no surprise then that they managed to recreate an accurate representation of Stockholm inside the Minecraft environment except for the buildings. The buildings were intentionally left out so that people could join the project, be assigned a property, and commence building a fantastical alternate version of the city. This is an absolutely brilliant and exciting project. I would love to see other voxel cities like Asheville or Manhattan. 

Here's how I geodesigned myself back to the hotel from ESRI after Joe took the rental car. There's something particularly ironic about a drawing a paper map in the digital map headquarters of the world.

Here's how I geodesigned myself back to the hotel from ESRI after Joe took the rental car. There's something particularly ironic about a drawing a paper map in the digital map headquarters of the world.

I referred earlier to the near-simplest explanation I could think of for geodesign. Simpler still is just this: DO THE MAP.