The Power of a Worldwide Design Community
During an unprecedented time, the Harvard GSD Alumni Council created Design Impact, a leadership series that emphasized design as a tool for transformative change and healing.
Design’s power has always been most potent when its practitioners can come together. In the early days of the pandemic, though, the world was folding into small, quarantined boundaries. That moment revealed two things to the Harvard Graduate School of Design Alumni Council: we need practical, actionable design solutions to solve our global challenges now more than ever, and we need to do it together.
Out of that spirit, Design Impact was born. This global design leadership speaker series brought together outstanding rosters of global leaders to share their work and vision, challenging the worldwide design community to use the field and its knowledge base as tools for transformative change and healing.
“In a time that is requiring us to meet challenges that are unprecedented, our goal was to create communities of leadership where people can lead with who they are, from where they are, with what they can,” said Ana Pinto da Silva MDes ’05, the Design Impact co-chair and CEO of 2G3R Inc., which designs homes and communities for people of all ages and abilities. “We want to foster and support a community of leaders—as many as we can. That’s what will help at this point.”
The reach and diversity of the GSD alumni community—who they are, where they are, and what they can do—translated to a wide range of highly relevant topics with engaging speakers and discussions. Members of the Alumni Council settled on what they saw as the most urgent global issues: equity, homelessness, climate change, community and innovation, health, and resilience.
Design Impact also became the perfect platform to allow us to partner with many other Harvard Alumni Councils or associations and professional organizations. It is one step toward creating One Harvard. ~ Peter Coombe MArch ’88, Alumni Council Chair
“We realized early on that we could leverage virtual meetings to engage far more members of the design community than we had ever had in the past,” said Alumni Council Chair Peter Coombe MArch ’88. “Over the course of the five volumes of Design Impact, we registered nearly 10,000 participants from more than 100 countries. Design Impact also became the perfect platform to allow us to partner with many other Harvard Alumni Councils or associations and professional organizations. It is one step toward creating One Harvard.”
“We were bold and ambitious,” said Sameh Wahba MUP ’97, PhD ’02, KSGEE ’13, who serves as the at The World Bank. “We were sending the message to the alumni that during a pandemic, the worst wave of racism, the crisis of climate change—design has a role to play.”
As Pinto da Silva put it, Design Impact was a labor of love. Numerous GSD Alumni Council members volunteered their time, partnering with the school and its students to create a series that was free and open to all. The events were volunteer-driven, and speakers appeared at no cost, as they were motivated by the importance of this series and the topics it covered.
Jaya Kader’s MArch ’88 sessions focused on climate change, with an emphasis on radical sustainability and regeneration. Those aspects dovetailed with her work as founder and principal of KZ Architecture, a Miami-based full services design studio committed to design excellence and sustainable building practices. Hundreds of people tuned in to the panel on regenerative economics and language, which featured Indigenous leaders.
“It was transformational,” Kader said. “With regenerative design, you look at whole systems. You rethink everything that we’re conditioned to think and look at actualized potential.
“The power of design is to envision and create new worlds. That’s what we do,” she added. “We need the right brain, the creativity, the creators, the artists, the designers to come up with solutions.”
GSD students also had an opportunity to moderate and curate the sessions, as Naksha Satish MAUD ’22 did for an event centered on South Asia. She happened upon the event by chance: she filled out a Google form expressing her interest in participating, which she saw as reflecting the Design Impact theme of democracy in design.
“It was a great way to see the GSD family that exists beyond the school. After being associated with the Design Impact group for more than a year, it really feels like a family,” Satish said. “It was also a good way to segue from the academic perspective to look at the same topics from the practice perspective and engage with current practitioners who had a similar academic trajectory. You can understand the broad ways in which you can think of yourself as a practitioner, and you connect with the fraternity now in different ways.”
The intergenerational, transdisciplinary connections between alumni and students quickly grew into Pinto da Silva’s most treasured moments of Design Impact. “When someone in their seventies is working with someone in their early twenties, that’s powerful. You need to step aside. The stuff that comes out is so important,” she said. “The more we partner, the more we can expand our reach and be in service to our different constituencies.”
All in all, the series reached a combined audience of more than 3,000 with four virtual events in FY21. The series culminated in September 2021 with a two-day virtual summit titled “Design Impact Vol. 5: Following the Sun: Design Futures at the Intersection of Health, Equity and Climate Change Virtual.” The idea for this round-the-clock event, spanning time zones and reaching every corner of the GSD community, came from similar summits that Wahba had attended in his position as a global director at the World Bank. Through this summit, the final Design Impact transcended regional and national boundaries to unite the global community of practice.
Coming out of the events, 83 percent of attendees were able to identify actionable tools they could incorporate in their professional practice. That practical perspective resonated with John Friedman MArch ’90 and his wife, Alice Kimm MArch ’90, who curated sessions about homelessness. The couple are co-founders of John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects (JFAK), which they established in 1996 in Los Angeles based on a “common desire to create architectural environments that are simultaneously joyful, meaningful, and sustainable.”
“The GSD is shifting with the times and being less high-design and more globally focused on justice and equity,” Friedman said. “People in other countries are dealing with this stuff every day: trying to find clean water, basic shelter, dealing with incredible extremes of wealth and poverty. With Design Impact, there’s a lot of good info and sharing across cultures, which is really valuable.”
The Alumni Council is strategizing how to best share the volumes of information that came out of Design Impact and exploring how to strengthen this real-world bridge across disciplines, demographics, GSD Alumni, students, and the school. In the meantime, those who took part in Design Impact are celebrating how it brought the GSD community together in a challenging year—and provided avenues on how design can overcome those obstacles.
“This continues as a forum to express ideas for how we use design for transformation in the world,” Kader said. “The message that Design Impact brought will carry on for years to come.”