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Oakland’s first sustainability jam creates solutions using design thinking

on November 28, 2013

Over the weekend, Oakland held its first-ever “sustainability jam”: a kind of sprawling design session where people interested in sustainability come together to create the prototype for products, services, or organizations intended to address a range of environmental, economic and social issues. Held at the Comrade design agency, the jam was one of 82 happening at the same time around the world. At the end of the 48 hours, four judges in each city evaluated the resulting solutions for their viability.

Marise Phillips, a former service design  strategist at Comrade, initiated the sustainability jam in Oakland after attending a service jam in San Francisco in February that focused on community development. Phillips said that a jam, which brings people together to focus on real-world solutions to global issues such as poverty and pollution, seemed to fit in perfectly with Oakland’s awareness of its problems and desire to change things on a civic level. “This is a way to bring together people who are active in that realm, and to pair them up with people who are designing, engineering and problem solving in a whole bunch of different industries,” Phillips says.

On Friday evening, 35 jammers ranging in occupations from designers and scientists to students gathered together over dinner and exchanged ideas about sustainability. At 7:30 p.m., the jam kicked off with a theme assigned to them by the global chapter. The group then separated into different teams to ponder over the obscure meaning of Oakland’s theme, “A, B, 3.”

Initially, Marlene Kuhn’s team was unsure of how to tackle the “A, B, 3” theme, but decided to concentrate on making sustainability simple, easy and accessible. A design strategist and apple orchard owner in Sonoma, Kuhn said that she made the drive to Oakland in order to participate in the contagious energy of the jam. “Oakland has a lot of really smart, creative people that … have really interesting, catalytic ideas about change,” she said. Because of that, she said, she had faith “that change is actually possible, and that people are willing to act on it.”

On Saturday morning the participants received advice from local experts in the sustainability field, including Dr. Alice Agonino, a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley, and Jeremy Liu, a co-founding principal of Creative Ecology, a community development consulting firm. Mayor Jean Quan also visited. Afterward, Kuhn and her six other partners wandered around downtown to conduct interviews with people at a bus stop on 12th and Broadway. They hoped to identify obstacles that keep people in the city from being sustainable.

Documenting their answers on a collection of post-it notes, they asked over 100 people ranging in age, socioeconomic status and ethnicity, where they purchased their food. Though the answers varied widely, Kuhn found that most locals said they got their food from liquor and drug stores – leading the team to brainstorm different ways to provide affordable, fresh food to people in at-need neighborhoods. “The phenomenon of the urban food desert is a real thing,” she said.

Drawing inspiration from food trucks and bookmobiles, the group prototyped a system where a “vegmobile” bus would deliver produce directly to neighborhoods within a food desert. A vegmobile would also provide people with “veg maps” that would reveal different places in the city where they can find affordable, fresh food. Through their interviews and by speaking with Quan, the group discovered that there are already infrastructures in the city that provide people with cheap, fresh vegetables. For example, there are vegetable markets in Chinatown in Oakland, but many people might not be aware of them. “There’s a lack of information being clearly transmitted to people in need,” Kuhn said.

Across the room, Sanjay Ranjan and his group tackled the problem of how to communicate across language barriers. With Legos, markers and post-it notes strewn across the table, the group came up with a series of symbols that have universal meaning, such as a smiley face for happiness and a skull and crossbones for danger. The prototype included a kit and a mobile app that would allow people to tag different places in their environment. The goal, Ranjan said, was to create a database of symbols that transcended cultural and language barriers in order to foster global communication.

Ranjan, who runs a textile company in Mountainview, said that he joined the event because he wanted to meet others who were similarly interested in sustainability. “A lot of the people who came here have a deep desire to impact and make change locally,” he added.

Phillips thinks that the sustainability jam will highlight the uniqueness and diversity of the city, while also uncovering its untapped potential. She said that the event allows attendees to explore  “the problems and opportunities we have in Oakland” while also learning from one another, to “create something we might never otherwise have the time for.”

“It helps bring people together to solve real-world problems using design thinking,” Phillips said.

Correction: A past version of the article stated that Marise Phillips is a service design strategist at Comrade.  Marise Phillips is a former service design strategist at Comrade. 

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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