SEEDs of Opportunity in Community Development

29 Mar

I recently attended the Public Interest Design Institute hosted by the J. Max Bond Center on Design for Just City at The Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York.

The audience consisted professional architects (receiving AIA accreditation) design and architecture faculty and students from around the country as well as local NYC community -based organization.

Lead by J Max Bond Center Staff, Design Corp, funders and faculty in Public Interest design, case studies and research presented challenges and successes in the Design for the 98% movement.

As end users of designed products and spaces we (the 98%) rarely have input in the products or spaces designed by others;  with 2% of end users having the money and decision making power to inform the designs they use – and are more likely to benefit from while deriving greater utility.

Public Interest Design and SEED certification works to break down these barriers and promote systems of transparency and accountability in public design endeavors, bringing the 98% to the ideation table.

Public Interest Design is defined as “the practice of design with the goal that every person should be able to live in a socially, economically and environmentally healthy community.”

In my field, housing and economic development, projects developers and architects held accountable to the leadership of the government entities and/or the funders and financiers.  It is rare to see collaboration on idea generation and design between developers, architects and residents let alone structures of accountability. The 2% dilemma can be real for us in this sector.

For blighted occupied buildings set for redevelopment the public interest design and the SEED framework could be useful in planning, implementing and evaluating strategies with tenants are the center of the design and construction process for greater social and economic returns.

Some things that come to mind are:

  1. local tenants’ and residents’ collective memory, if appropriately tapped and harnessed, can educate designers and developers on important building systems issues and social issues that they’ve witnessed over the years, this knowledge can have tremendous economic implications and reduce “surprises” the throughout the development process.
  2. reduced long- term maintenance and operations costs are more likely as tenants and residents recognize their collective ownership of a real local asset, tenants see themselves as stewards of their buildings’ long term success and preservation.
  3. integrating social and economic empowerment programs into the design and construction process (via jobs, training and leadership opportunities) reaps layers of benefits for all parities and the surrounding neighborhoods.

The seal of approval for public interest design comes in the form of SEED certification: Social Economic Environmental Design. A newly minted alternative to LEED certification with considerations for human and economic impact, without the exorbitant cost of LEED certification often cost prohibitive for community- based developers.

Small Next Steps for Big Impact

The SEED network shares case studies of successful projects around the world. With replicable models. While the community development sector looks to deepen services to tenants that have decent housing but limited opportunities for socioeconomic mobility.

Tenants and Residents need not have a role all areas of building design, but could take on landscaping, interior design, façade design, the design of a community room or other smaller design projects within the larger development. These activities could wrap into job training and workforce development and could include technology training, shop drawing, GED preparation and other skills building programs.

There are also models of K-12 classrooms taking on design challenges for their neighborhoods as service learning exercise. This could cross many disciplines including STEM, STEAM and social studies with lasting benefits for students and the communities they call home.

My colleagues and I are brainstorming the use of SEED as well as Human Centered Design  tools in some of our projects. Stay tuned.##

Design Thinking for Social Impact

12 Mar

Design Thinking for Social Change

IDEO’s Human Centered Design resources have come in handy as I facilitate strategic planning activities with two social enterprise clients. The goal is to hack traditional strategic planning models to transition beyond the top down, beyond funder-centric  to empowering, and inspiring customer/ user/ client- centric models.

I find these tools useful in measuring and tracking accountability.


Air a Poem

6 Jan

By Anasa Scott

Shrouding the arm chair

draped in mud cloth,

drifting between the Malian etchings

studying, articulating

while sculpting vibrations born from the old widowers hum,

the singing of disillusioned lovers,

the screeching of hungry babies

trapped in the walls .

A volley toss , a Ping pong match , a circus

juggle, with mamas hair as she claws towards her litter ,

a mess of stickiness in tow.

Riding the waves its warmth caresses baring sweet but not always pleaseant urban aromas

Carrying, Depositing sometimes cheap and always costly leftovers from someone else’s junk

We Get What We Celebrate (and Study!)

31 Oct

Reading this article in the Atlantic on the rising demand (at Harvard) for a course on Ancient Chinese Philosophy and its position in 3rd place with Micro Economics in first and Computer Science, 2nd it dawned on me that for the past several years these topics have been central to social entrepreneurship and the design management curricula that my colleagues Kevin Foster and Jon Jelen and I have been developing.

Our students explore role of social science, technology , digital economy and an increased consumer centric economy / citizen or civic economy as we take user -centered design solutions from ideation to implementation.

Micro-Economics, Technology and principles of Classical Chinese Ethics often converge in our exploration of a “new economy” requiring user-centric sustainable design and social / environmental entrepreneurial transactions beyond purely economic bottom line pursuits.


FROM design for profit TO design for generosity (check out Klaus Klippendorf’s Semantic Turn and my favorite cyborg Clay Shirky : Cognitive Surplus )

From traditional Industrial design and design specialists TO co- designing , co-creating, where DYI culture consumers donate intellectual surplus for the greater good ( Shirky estimates 1 trillion hours of cognitive surplus available ) and:

From plain ole ROI TO Social Return on Investment

sroi lightbulb

Our students have proposed and (a few have launched) projects such as :apps, software and crowd sourcing tools with goals for sustainable urban development, bottom up strategies for community building , crowd sourcing health and wellness, collaborative art making, and waste reduction (as opposed to simply management), and social media for education – applying various models to examine feasibility and impact.

In a free society, you get what you celebrate – Dean Kamen, Inventor

What we celebrate:

  • Micro economics- how individuals and firms make decisions (with limits on resources) on choice choose goods, services, capital , labor and leisure and in what proportions – should human and environmental capital be added to the production function
  • Computer science – role of technology, data visualization, gaming, explosion of online DIY culture , crowd sourcing to investigate process , share and visualize social science – with non programmers , non engineers participating just to understand how it works not necessarily to participate, co-creating/ co-designing
  • Chinese ethics – consequences of action on others and community being aware of self and ripple effect of consumer/business (micro- economic) choices on the universe.


City Farming Chronicles II – A Warm October Evening in Harlem USA

4 Oct

On an unseasonably warm evening, I held the environmental entrepreneurship course at Harlem Grown where we chatted and sampled some wicked arugula with HG founder Tony Hillary and Kelly Gillen his program manager. Tony  gave us an honest uncensored presentation on the complexities of conceptualizing, designing solutions that support youth, family through school- based urban farming programs.



Tony, a true social entrepreneur, leveraged his social capital derived from a former client base of Hollywood celebrities (from a former life in traditional profit-based enterprise) to circumvent bureaucracy to access under-utilitized city owned land for local food production. An integrated workforce programs engages the elementary school children’s families or Tony’s “Moms and Dads” as he calls them who are integral to the farms operation: harvesting, composting, monitoring and adjusting hydroponic nutrient levels and administrative work.

During class visit we were joined by grad students from CCNY’s Sustainability program and a representative from a new for profit partner Price WaterHouse, Maya Perl Kot (Maya was a greenproofing volunteer many years ago and brought her employer to Harlem to her roots in local sustainability efforts).


Also in the house was Donald Notice executive director of West Harlem Group Assistance. by lucky coincidence WHGA owns the buildings (affordable housing) adjacent to the sites of HG’s soil based and greenhouse hydroponic farms.WHGA buildings supply harvest rainwater and electricity to the farms.

Next steps for our class and for Harlem Grown include an experiential learning collaborative to take on HG strategic and fund development which will entail investigating partnerships, conducting cost benefit analyses to determine next phase in their hybrid model of free food and programs and profit based B2B for- profit arm supplying local restaurants.

And a sustainability grad student is toying with the idea of taking on a studio project to reignite our failed attempt at solar power supply, by revisiting a plan to install panels on WHGA’s building roofs.##

City Farming Chronicles

22 Jul

Harlem 8th graders learn about hydroponic farming in their health science class. Photo Credit: Onaje Scott

In this post I want to share some of the amazing projects in which I am currently involved, working with dynamic leaders in urban sustainability and farming. How I came to meet and work with these folks was through my work with Greenproofing, Inc., a consultancy to public school and community-based sustainability projects.

One major component of Greenproofing is our undergrad course at the City College of New York (CCNY), entitled the Economics of Environmental Entrepreneurship which was developed with funding that our group received from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The course has a service- learning component that connects the classroom to an actual sustainability or farming project in the city. In 2010 we published an article about our model for the Metropolitan University Journal. For the past year we’ve been working for Harlem Grown, a non- profit urban farming program that transforms underutilized city land to farms with public school students from elementary thru high school involved from seeding to harvest to food prep.

Harlem Grown youth installs hydroponic greenhouse

Harlem Grown youth construct hydroponic greenhouse on vacant city land. Photo credit: Harlem Grown.

Harlem Grown's founder, Tony Hillary in the farm.

Harlem Grown’s founder, Tony Hillary in the farm where they yielded over 500lbs of produce in 2012. Photo Credit: Onaje Scott

In addition to assigning CCNY students project management tasks, Greenproofing links resources to Harlem Grown including pro bono professional services (such as engineers for their hydroponic project) and we are currently working to secure a commercial space for Harlem Grown’s farmers market (finger’s crossed, we are currently in negotiations). Harlem Grown is lead by a dynamic transportation entrepreneur turn urban farming entrepreneur Tony Hillary who leverages his Hollywood connections towards resources for underserved youth in Harlem.

NY EcoStation is the other group on which we’ve been focusing our energy. We were introduced to them through our work with EcoStation’s flagship site Bushwick High School Campus Farm. Adam Schwartz an educator and leader in Brooklyn’s sustainability effortsworked with CCNY students and me in developing his first service learning class.

Bushwick Campus Farm Greenhouse

Bushwick Campus Farm Greenhouse, where veggies are harvested for farmers markets and restaurants. photo by me.

Maggie Cheney Director of Programs at NY EcoStation

Maggie Cheney Director of Programs at NY EcoStation

Greenproofing was able to secure funding through Youth Service America (YSA) for the construction of a small hydroponic system by and nutrition / farm to table workshops by Chrissy’s Cooking Club for the teens at Bushwick Campus High School.

Bushwick High School Campus was one of Greenproofing’s first public school partners, whose chemistry class taught by Carrie Brown participated in our 2nd bi-annual sustainability / environmental science symposium and poster session in 2007.

CCNY Students in Greenproofing supported Soil Science Course with Dr. Federica Raia.

CCNY Students in Greenproofing supported Soil Science service-learning course with Dr. Federica Raia.

This year we will continue to support the students and teachers at Bushwick Campus through our work on EcoStation’s advisory board.


Also check out prezi and slideshare that was presented a few years ago on some other projects.

In the next blog I’ll discuss our work in green affordable housing projects.

Shout out to my friends, c0-authors, Greenproofing co-founders: Kevin Foster and Jon Jelen.##

Questions on the Politics of Geoengineering

3 Jun

As climate scientists increasingly converge towards “a too little to late” consensus regarding global climate change, several climate altering geoengineering measures are being proposed to abate warming and sequester excess carbon dioxide and hopefully sustain the planet for human livability.

sun-reflecting aerosol particles are sprayed into the the atmosphere

Sun-reflecting aerosol particles are sprayed into the the atmosphere, image by Popular Mechanics

The following chart outlines potential political issues for a global Solar Radiation Management across the research/development/implementation spectrum. I wonder about moral and ethical issues across the supply chain.  For instance if these are capital projects with private investments how would issues of labor/ wages, raw material extraction, mineral mining, waste disposal and so forth be handled?  Who will own the technology, which nation, which corporation, international body? United Nations? Monsanto? Halliburton?

Blackrock 2010

Blackrock 2010

How will we in the U.S. maneuver around the ebbs and flows of our  centrist, conservative and leftist control (or haggling) in  congress and make sound decisions in partnership with other nations?

Ahem, Kyoto protocol.

Though…On second thought, climate change deniers, while rallying against renewable energy and sustainability measures are actually in support of U.S-led geoengineering endeavors, which pundits attribute to a presumption of power and control that the ownership of a global climate altering endeavor – indeed a frightening thought.

Acme lab rats try to take over the world

Looney Tune Acme lab rats Pinky and the Brain try to take over the world



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