san-francisco-urban-form_crop-e.jpgThe Market Street grid, Courtesy: bricoleurbanism.

This week, San Francisco started choosing sides for another Market Street Mêlée, which we fight once every ten years or so. On one side of the double-yellow line are arrayed various assorted starry-eyed, bipedal dreamers who propose closing down the main artery of our fair city to most carbon-emitting traffic so as to give pedestrians and bicyclists a break, reduce pollution, and increase the beauty and overall mellow vibe of the grid. On the other side stand the self-styled hard-nosed rationalists who see in this as a pedal-powered economic and moral calamity in the making. What can get lost in all the hubbub is the fact that bicyclists (and pedestrians, of course) already outnumber private cars on Market Street, and that parking (and left turns) are famously illegal, anyway. Anecdotally, I’ll add, virtually every Cooperista gets to work by bus, BART, foot, or bike. So such a scheme would be no skin off our collective nose. Nor would this be a coincidence.

Our studio emerged from between the cracks of the suburban sidewalks of Palo Alto at a time when the software industry’s activities revolved around those who made analog and digital machines hum and whir. But by 2003, people, rather than software, emerged as the killer app. So the necessity of having operations in Silicon Valley began to diminish. Since nearly all Cooperistas lived in Oakland or San Francisco, anyway, doing our work in a dense urban environment was an easy choice. We got out of the faceless world of cars and instead got face-to-face with the people our work should serve. Turns out that several potential clients opened offices here as well… and it didn’t hurt that shortly after our move, BART finally opened a line to SFO, making it cheap, easy, and relatively eco-friendly for our clients and students to fly in for a visit.

Thumbnail image for triple bottom line BM.jpg
By getting out of our cars, Cooper made a sweet little triple bottom line success.

This move is a small demonstration of the first principle of Ecosystem-Centered Design: by creating sustainable practices, the sustainability quotient of our design work will likely increase.

Oh, but Cooper is a long, long way from practicing truly sustainable business practices that meet the triple-bottom line. (Pardon the tangent, but in Sunday’s New York Times , Alan Blinder promotes a nice macro/micro triple-bottom line program called Cash for Clunkers.) Sure, we’ve achieved a degree of economic sustainability (knock wood!). And our social sustainability quotient’s pretty decent too. (Cooperistas tend to stay employed here for years, while a vibrant community outside the studio doors has formed around the application of our methods.)

And yet, our operations waste too much energy and materials, and we don’t source enough materials from green businesses. We are only now fleshing out Goal-Directed methods for Ecosystem Centered Design, and our new industrial design practice, while possessing every intention to promote sustainable practices, has yet to be truly tested in this respect.

One area where we fall short is an over-dependence on air travel. We have developed some fantastic remote collaboration techniques that reduce the need for face to face meetings with collaborators. And we are increasing our attempts at data and videoconferencing, inspired (in part) by other consultants embracing such technologies.

And yet, we spend far too much time on the road than we ought. The key conundrum we face is this: How does one perform ethnographic research into human contexts and needs, without visiting said context of needy humans? We’re open to ideas here, people!

What we try to bear in mind, through all of this, is that interaction designers occupy a privileged position, at the confluence of powerful forces of business, technology, and human desire. We understand we can channel these forces in positive directions, at the same time we’re mindful that by our example we can inspire others to do likewise.

To really pull out the stops, I’ll suggest that we aspire to meet Gandhi’s challenge: Be the change you wish to see in the world.

The point is this: We make choices every day.

We can get in the car — or jump on a bike.

We can improve our skills, broaden our mandate, and sharpen our vision — or we can grasp tight to what makes us feel comfortable.

We can show our collaborators how their operations are influenced by — and, in turn impact — the social, industrial, and environmental ecologies in which we all live and work. Or, we can sit around waiting for permission from somewhere on high.

We can reach beyond our monitors in an attempt to grasp the objectives of sustainable design — or we can simply automate the misery of the current system.

We can join common cause with others to achieve big things — or we can fiddle with our widgets while Rome burns.