6th Biennial Design Science Symposium: Inclusive Narratives from Nature


Over the weekend of September 20th, The Edna W. Lawrence Nature Lab at RISD, Fleet Library at RISD, and Synergetics Collaborative, hosted the 6th Biennial Design Science Symposium: Inclusive Narratives from Nature!

The Symposium explored multiple approaches to sustainable/nature-inspired making, community development, and other work that facilitates a holistic relationship with nature and natural systems. It showcased how, through multiple cultural lenses, the design science framework can address the complex, real world problems we face today. It aimed to incorporate various cultural perspectives, knowledge systems, ways of relating to nature, and creative problem solving.

The event kicked off on Friday, with a Keynote Presentation titled, “Nature: Collaborations in Design and Science,” by Andrea Lipps, Associate Curator of Contemporary Design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. If you enjoyed her illuminating presentation, you may want to explore some of her most recent works! Andrea has authored and edited publications and curated exhibitions including Nature—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial (2019), The Senses: Design Beyond Vision (2018), Joris Laarman Lab: Design in the Digital Age (2017), and Beauty—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial (2016).

On Saturday, we welcomed Michael Ben-Eli, founder of the Sustainability Laboratory, which was established in order to develop and demonstrate groundbreaking approaches to sustainability practices, expanding prospects and producing positive, life affirming impacts on people and ecosystems in all parts of the world. If you are curious to learn more, Michael is author of the widely acclaimed Five Core Principles of Sustainability and has been the driving force behind developing The Laboratory’s current flagship project, Project Wadi Attir.

Michael Ben-Eli’s Keynote Presentation was followed by Featured participants, Sara Jensen Carr and Charlotte McCurdy. Carr’s presentation, “Water is Wealth: Reimagining Watershed Urbanism in O'ahu, Hawai'I,” explored how local activism and design speculation have sought to restore the ahupua’a, and how we can extrapolate what we have learned in Hawai’i and apply these conclusions to other coastal cities at risk.

Charlotte McCurdy, MID 18, is a Global Security Fellow at RISD with the support of the MacArthur Foundation. Her talk, “Speak to the Mammal: Making Existential Threats more Tractable through Design,” covered celebrated and emerging work in the fields of climate change and nuclear disarmament, and addressed how we give more people agency to build paths to livable futures. After a captivating Q&A, attendees were invited to partake in a series of Breakout Sessions and Workshops. Topics included: ecological relationships, climate change in urban environments, coastal resilience, regenerative agriculture, sustainable fashion, bioinspiration, and design science connections.

Listed below, was the Breakout Session schedule for the afternoon of September 21st:

  • Jenn Livermore (Field Guide: Collected Studies of a Symbiont)
  • José R. Menéndez (Responding to Changing Environments: Implementing Design Strategies Across Local, City, and State-wide Levels)
  • Elise Powell & Sara Reyes (The Get Well Farms Method)
  • Diana Sánchez (Botanycaring: Rethinking human-plants relationship through caring sensory interfaces)
  • Kristina Van Dexter (In Dialogue with the Selva)
  • Chris Rose & Andreas Mershin (Integrative Knowledge Across Scales and Fields)
  • Talya ten Brink (Wild harvesting in the future: Design management of sites for local recreational fishers and and shellfishers in Narragansett Bay)
  • Elena Brebenel (From Bioinspiration to Awareness and Well-Being at Home: The Design and Evaluation of the Interactive Textiles Artefacts)
  • Abraham Francis (Akwesasronon Voices: Connecting Community and Forest Stewardship)
  • Prathima Muniyappa (Sylvan Synesthesia: A Non-Dualistic Agenda for Design)
  • Elizabeth Shorrock (Farm to Fashion: Teaching Fiber Production, Sustainability, and Slow Fashion Through a Regionalized and Multidisciplinary Approach)
  • Joseph Clinton & Biago Di Carlo (Reciprocal Frames & Rotegrity Structures)
  • David Colby Reed (Extraterrestrial Dictatorship or Democracy?)
  • Allen Hazard & Winifred Lambrecht (The Bounty of the Ocean: Narragansett Culture and Quahog Harvesting)
  • Jamie Vanucchi (Translating Uncertainties and Thick Data: Design Research for a Climate-Changed World)
  • Jennifer Bissonnette (Beyond Sustainable: What combining science, design and an eco-centric approach can offer the world)
  • Ana Rewakowicz (Instilling Art Visions in the Science of Collecting Water from Fog)
  • Alberto De Salvatierra (Reed Urbanism: Soft Infrastructures in the Floating City of Uros)

The two workshops encouraged participants to apply what they had learned to engaging, hands-on activities that prompted uninhibited exploration in the fields of sustainability and design. The collaborative creations made for a truly inspiring experience.

The first workshop, “The Get Well Farms Method,” was taught by sustainable ranchers, Elise Powell and Sara Reyes. The dynamic duo led participants on an outdoor adventure to demonstrate their regenerative agriculture techniques and land stewardship practices. Participants were educated on soil health and biodiversity. Some guests were even keen to test out the farming tools in RISD’s very own backyard.

The final workshop, guided by Joseph Clinton and Biago Di Carlo, transported participants back to the Nature Lab to learn about Reciprocal Frames & Rotegrity Structures. Clinton and Carlo demonstrated their research on synergetics and design science structures, like polyhedra, geodesic domes, reciprocal frames and tensegrity structures, which are constructed using mainly bamboo, arundo donax cane, and other natural materials.

The 6th Biennial Design Science Symposium presentations concluded in the RISD Museum with the enthralling Featured speeches given by Justin Cook and Nicole L’Huillier.

As the Founding Director of the Center for Complexity (CfC) at RISD, Justin Cook works to reveal how design and other creative practices can navigate and manage complexity and uncertainty. His talk, “Complexity, Uncertainty, and the Need for Better Evidence,” presented our experience and current lines of inquiry about working with evidence by discussing the work of translation that allows people to talk across traditions.

Transdisciplinary artist, PhD candidate, and research assistant at MIT Media Lab, Nicole L'Huillier, brought boundless energy and innovation to the stage with her presentation, “The Performativity of Everything.” She explored resonant rites and the performativity of non-human agents, exploring the concept of the “Membrane” as a fundamental part of the understanding, and constitution of a vibrational ontology.

After the presentations came to a close, attendees and participants were treated to one final interactive experience. Share-N-Tell consisted of dynamic tables, which sparked further inquiry and networking opportunities for all.

Alexandra Ionescu, a RISD MA student from the Nature-Culture-Sustainability Studies program was especially eager to understand the theories from the weekend on a deeper level. Below is her reflection on the Symposium:

"The Design Science Symposium was a significant experience for me. I am still processing and re-configuring the thinking that has been triggered about our ecological crises. Nicole L'Huillier in particular, inspired me to contemplate what it means to observe at different scales of collaboration and performativity. Phenomenologically, what are the rites that can be implemented to achieve a collective resonance within neurodiversity and between humans and non-humans? I have also been reflecting on Sara Jensen Carr’s approach on facing global challenges with design and long-term community empowerment. Justin Cook’s statement that 'human systems are the product of our decision making,' and Charlotte McCurdy’s quest to humanize and to understand the complexity of our human systems was also profoundly insightful. The highlight of the Symposium was building a rotegrity structure, followed by Joseph Clinton’s words, 'Pick a few rules for the progression and stick with those and see what happens!'"

If you are like Alexandra, and wish you could re-live this experience, or if you were not able to attend, you can watch video recordings of all of the presentations, forums, and Q&A sessions here!

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The RISD Nature Lab is an EPSCoR|C-AIM Core Research Facility supported by the National Science Foundation under Cooperative Agreement #OIA-1655221 and EAGER Grant Award #1723559. ​​​Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed on this site are those of the Nature Lab and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.​

© 2019 Edna W. Lawrence Nature Lab at Rhode Island School of Design