by Barent Roth, Professor of Sustainable Design, The New School

This week at the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) International Design conference in Seattle we will be trying something new, something called a Swarm. Borrowing elements of brainstorming, design thinking, and the intensity of a hackathon, designers will cluster in groups of eight to ten and try and harness the power of collaborative timed competition to create ______.

As a veteran of engaging, inspiring conferences that result in nothing more than digital handshakes in the aftermath, I will instead try to lead our group to take advantage of the incredible brain power in the room by creating something lasting and meaningful. It’s ambitious, and unlikely, but it can be done. In the fall of 2011 I started teaching Sustainable Design at The New School. The school and its collaborators at the Stevens Institute had just completed their entry into the Solar Decathlon, an amazing competition that challenges universities around the world to build a solar powered home. Seeing all of the entries at the National Mall in DC makes you feel like you are getting a little glimpse of the future, a stroll down an idyllic sustainability lane. Yet after proving their photovoltaic collectors can easily power the needs of a family by actually living in their new constructions, the students dutifully deconstruct the homes and take them back to campus limbo, all except for The New School’s entry, the Empowerhouse. The Empowerhouse is now a home for a family outside our nation’s capital. During the design process the post competition phase of the house was carefully considered and addressed. On a much, much smaller scale our Design Swarm will attempt a similar form of longevity.

The Empowerhouse (photo by Martin Seck)

The Empowerhouse (photo by Martin Seck)

During our 3.5 hour workshop, we will be creating an ocean trawl for 5Gyres to be created using Shapeways 3D Printing technology. A trawl is a simple tool pulled by a boat made to float atop the water’s surface and collect debris in a large net. The report last December that revealed the incomprehensible 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in our oceans was thanks to the 5Gyres organization pulling a trawl through the global seas.* This inspiring marine research non profit wants to make it possible for others around the world to build their own low-tech trawls in order to test their own waters. Shapeways not only allows 5Gyres to produce a trawl but equally important, Shapeways can deliver the Trawl parts directly to citizen scientists, or actual scientists, for assembly, helping to make this horrific submerged pollution problem more visible.

Trawl in Action (photo by 5Gyres.org)

Trawl in Action (photo by 5Gyres.org)

Details of the Design Swarm are being kept intentionally vague to keep the conference attendees and the Design Swarm moderators on their feet. What we do know is that we will work in thirty minute bursts and have design minions sketching, CAD modeling, and prototyping our ideas for us while we try to solve our chosen problem. Ideally we can follow the lead of The Empowerhouse and create something 5Gyres can actually use to help illuminate the scope of the worldwide plastic pollution problem.

Debris gathered from a 5Gyres trawl of the Hudson River NYC, June 2015. (photo by Marcus Eriksen)

Debris gathered from a 5Gyres trawl of the Hudson River NYC, June 2015. (photo by Marcus Eriksen)


There will be a follow up post after the Design Swarm to report on the results.

* PLOS One (Public Library of Science) http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0111913