Let’s talk sustainable design and STEAM, not STEM


The new Wege Center hosts a Materials ConneXion collection of more than 500 materials to help students with their research. Photo by Michael Buck

You may have heard about STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — but have you heard of STEAM? That’s the big four, plus the presence of art.

David Rosen, president of Kendall College of Art and Design, believes it is through the integration of these disciplines that real impact can occur in the area of sustainable design, and this idea is the bedrock of the new Wege Center for Sustainable Design, located on the fourth floor of the historic Federal Building.

“The idea is that, really, it’s the innovative and creative aspects of all those (disciplines) that really drive us forward,” said Rosen. “The technology in itself is not enough unless you have a vision of how it can be used. Sometimes having a vision of what is needed will lead to technological adaptations.”

Anyone who owns an Apple product can see firsthand the evidence behind integrating art and design thinking with science, technology, engineering and math. Steve Jobs continually imagined possibilities and design concepts, and then his team worked to find or create solutions to achieve those ideas, whether it was a technology or a material.

“We tend to draw out and isolate each of those pieces, but the truth of the matter is, those pieces travel together,” Rosen said.

One purpose of the Wege Center is to embed a foundation of sustainable design in all students who graduate from Kendall, regardless of their degree.

“What I would hope is that, while everyone who graduates has a strong grasp of their discipline or future profession — whether it’s in fine arts, design or the applied arts — my hope would be that it be informed by the notion of sustainability,” Rosen said. “That would go beyond simply the choice of materials they would use, to an understanding of what sustainable practice is. It’s not clear to me everyone really understands the notion of sustainability in a way that is powerful and can have impact.”

Rosen notes that, throughout history, economies have been left struggling due to circumstances they did not anticipate and could not imagine. That is where artists and designers can work most effectively: in imagining possibilities beyond what already exists.

“Our job is to basically help envision and plan for that future which isn’t in sight, but when it is in sight will be too late to plan for,” he said. “You have to react, and human beings are not at their best when they are reacting. They are at their best when they are planning and using foresight to meet an emerging condition.”

Materials are a key area of sustainable design, particularly adapting materials from one industry to create a sustainable solution in another industry. Material scientists have created thousands of materials to solve product challenges and continue to do so.

More than 7,000 of these materials are housed in New York as part of Material ConneXion, a “global materials consultancy and library that works to bridge the gap between science and design for materials solutions.” Material ConneXion also has a subscription database that leading designers, scientists, engineers and others can use to develop solutions and inspire new materials.

Currently, Kendall has its own academic Material ConneXion collection of 500 materials; it’s available to students for research and located in the Wege Center.

“We are hoping in the next year to actually move to a professional level, which would allow local industries not only to come in and use them with their research teams without having to buy their own libraries, but also will give them a chance to have consultants that will help them think through the development of these products for new uses,” Rosen said.

Earlier this year, Andrew Dent, who is a material scientist and vice president at Material ConneXion, spoke at TEDx Grand Rapids about the valuable opportunities available through the materials collection. He discussed how shoe company Puma developed a shoe bag instead of a box when it set out to see if there was a more sustainable packaging solution for its shoes. He also discussed how the fastest swimsuit material was developed by looking at the properties of sharks’ skin.

The designers, or makers, consider the end user of a product, which is often different from the job of the scientist or even the business person.

“The chemist can come up with green chemicals,” Rosen said. “The question is, can they be used to supplant traditional methods of production, make things safer, and is that an economically sustainable model to have?

“I think that this is part of collaborative design. It’s not simply about making things; it’s about bringing together makers, scientists and business people to understand what the path forward looks like. That’s really the way that we see design here — more as a process than the creation of a product, though it becomes that, too.”

Rosen believes West Michigan is the perfect area to house a professional-level material collection because the centrality of art and design is evident in the city’s many positive attributes as well as the natural environment, and because the importance of sustainable practice is already a focus for so many area businesses.

He also expects the Wege Center will provide a collaborative environment for students to begin exploring new ideas and sustainable solutions.

“The power of art and design is to keep us alive and aware of the fact that we can’t put limits on our imagination or we will live only in the world we can imagine right now, which is only the world that we see right now.”

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