I’m just coming off of this year’s Better World by Design Conference. In short, it’s a national conference that highlights the power of design and social entrepreneurship to improve our societies, strengthen our communities, and sustain our planet. It’s huge; it’s in Providence; and it’s entirely student-organized. I was one of eight on the organizing committee last year (the inaugural event) and an advisor for this year.
I had gone through three years of education in a rigorous industrial design program that is based on learning how to design “objects” for the wealthiest 10% of the world’s population. At best, they would make someone’s life a little more convenient, while exacerbating a resource gap from the world’s poorest people. All the while, these things that nobody needs consume natural resources, pollute the air, and clog landfills. But myself and various other students knew there was a side of design which was missing from our education. This is what we created the conference to prove.
So we modeled what needs to be done – concerned people at the bottom organizing across disciplines and across institutions, working together for something we believed in. We raised our own money to pay for world-class speakers to travel in, called them up and asked them to come without any pay, designed a website, T-shirts, and printed programs, set up an account to collect registration payments, reserved rooms in our universities, put together mainly local experts to speak in panel discussions, showed off local organizations through tours, had locals give workshops to teach hands-on skills, generated publicity, coordinated volunteers, and organized social events at local venues for free. There are several key people to thank for assistance and guidance, but the legwork was all ours.
We realized the fruits of our labor at the conference. We all expected to learn from and be inspired by our world class presenters. What we didn’t expect was that they were just as inspired by us. Our job started out as overseeing logistics for the weekend and ended as demonstrating that the future of design was in good hands.
This year, as advisors, we guided a crew of 9 organizers — some new, some old — to make the conference their own. We had bumped up the number of attendees from 350 to 550, added a few side events, and coordinated graphic designers to make posters to sell in order to help fund scholarships. For the most part, I had very little to do, which was a great sign to me that this year’s organizers were prepared. I saw them work tirelessly with constant e-mails every 15 minutes; I saw them take the extra effort to be encouraging at the end of the day for the rest of the team, despite complete exhaustion; I saw them set aside midterms for a weekend; I saw them run across campus to make sure that workshop presenters had the materials they needed; and after the conference, I saw brief sighs of relief, followed by quick follow-through to take care of loose ends — people to thank and process to document for next year.
This time, I was inspired.