Design Dilemma, Why Mapping the Future Matters

Every summer, my family would load into our minivan and journey more than 21 hours to my grandparents house in Denver, Colorado. As you can imagine, 21 hours in car with four younger brothers is a nightmare. The only way I was able to distract myself, was to track our progress on the massive nation-wide maps my dad used as a navigation tool. I would also offer up alternate routes, strangely these suggestions were almost exclusively ignored. 

In the 15 years since those journey's west, technology has changed the face of transportation. Now, you plug your destination into your GPS or smartphone and let the device lead the way. So what is the next frontier of GIS based design? Why does place based knowledge matter in the digital age, when you can plug into the internet from virtually anywhere? Thomas Fisher is the Professor and Dean, College of Design, University of Minnesota. 

Fisher told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that Geo-Design is on the cusp of changing how we solve problems in this country.

Why does place based knowledge matter?

"It is paradoxical concept because with the digital revolution, you can work and live almost anywhere. You can work wherever you have a good internet connection. So, you would think that place wouldn’t matter very much. But the nature of the new economy, the economy that some are calling the third industrial revolution, is one in which proximity to other people, other creative, innovative people is increasingly important. So even though we could all work anywhere, it really does matter where you are working. Richard Florida, for example has been seeing there are certain cities that are really cultivating an innovation culture. People are flocking to those places. I think the way to thrive in the future is to create places that people want to work in," said Fisher.

How does the digital age effect place?

"I think the digital age effects place in various ways. I just got back from an ESRI conference in Redlands, California. It was a Geo-Design summit. At the summit we were looking at how mapping can help people understand their place better. How it can help people understand the layers of not only information about a place, but what is actually happening in a place. I think there are now tools available to us that help us understand our place and connect to other people more effectively. This is the whole notion of crowdsourcing. I think crowdsourcing is having a transformative effect on the way people use space. This is changing our world," said Fisher.

  • Key Insight: "We have people here who design cities and buildings, we used to think in the old economy, that you designed a place for a particular activity and that’s what people did there. Now people are using digital technology to take over places and use them as they see fit. We are not only in this entrepreneurial revolution of the third industrial revolution, but we are in this democratic revolution where ordinary people have tools to find information and find each other in ways that they had never known before," said Fisher.

Do we fail to appreciate the power in a map? 

"Maps are going to be increasingly important in so many aspects of our lives. For example, we are in this age of big data. We now have sensors everywhere and we are gathering more information in a second then people used to gather in a whole year. What do we do with this data? We have to make it visual and accessible. Mapping data is going to be one of the huge new ways that we are going to understand the world," said Fisher. 

"Also, think about how we use maps. We use a map to know where to go. Not only do we do that when we are driving around, but I actually think metaphorically we are going to literally use maps to know where we are all going to go in the future. What is the information we need to know? What are the trends we need to be aware of? Where is the world going? Maps are going to become one of the most communication tools in the 21st century," said Fisher. 

What is Geo-Design?

"Geo-Design is really the intersection between geographic information systems (digital maps) and the design world. The way I like to think about that is GIS and mapping has been a very effective tool to help us understand where we are and where we have been. What design does is begin to develop scenarios about where we could go. So, the world of GIS and geography is very much about the past and the present. Design is much more about the future. So, bringing those two things together enables us to say given what we know about where we have been and about what the world is like that we are in right now, what do we do about it? Where do we go from here? This marriage of these two different fields is increasingly important at a time when the world is changing very rapidly,"said Fisher. 

GIS (Past and Present) + Design (Future) = Geo-Design (Action)

"We have climate change happening. We have all sorts of demographic changes and economic shifts happening. This idea to say where do we want to go, what type of world do we want to create for ourselves in the future. It makes Geo-Design one of these critical processes that we are all going to need," said Fisher.

How do we think in a Geo-Design world?

What Geo-Design does is take us from studying a problem to actually acting upon it. GIS is a very powerful analytical tool and through it we understand the world and relationships in the world much more accurately than we did in the past. But we are at a moment in time when we have to stop talking and act. Geo-Design is a tool for action. Geo-Design is the way in which we say given what we know there are let’s say half a dozen scenarios we might go, what are the implications are those? Geo-Design allows us to look out ahead. It says if we act and work in this direction these are the likely consequences. What do we think of the strengths and weaknesses of those. It is a way to get communities of people/organizations to begin to move," said Fisher. 

What does Geo-Design matter?

"The human brain is an amazing organ. The brain has to synthesize down to a relatively few number of options in order for it to work. We can’t juggle thousands and thousands of data points. Research shows that humans can only keep about seven things in mind at any one time. What Geo-Design does is enable us to boil down, assess and find connections between all the data we have in ways that people can work with. People can say, 'Given these categories this is what we might do.'' said Fisher. 

  • Key Insight: "Humans are essential visual creatures. We have survived by assessing the world around us and deciding what we are going to do. In fact, we work best when we don’t have too much precision. Anthropologists have suggested that the reason we have survived as a species is that we didn’t have to know that the big thing coming through the woods towards us is going to kill us, we can assess that the thing is pretty big, it is coming through the woods pretty fast, I better run. In a way that is true for big data too. We have digital tools that are very precise. But we don’t need precision as much as the ability to assess it in general terms," said Fisher.

Let the perfect get in the way of the good?

"What I love about mapping is that you can have layers of precision, but you can also scale out and get an overall sense of a map. An overall sense of direction or trends. What I love about GIS is it allows you to go at all levels of specificity or generality. I always find myself stepping back from maps and trying to see the bigger picture or larger context because I think that is where decision making has to happen," said Fisher.

What is the future for Geo-Design?

"The next step in Geo-Design is not only will your smartphone tell you all the different options, but it will start giving you the consequences of making one decision versus another. For example, if I take this plane versus that train or bus, this will be the impact I have on the climate, this will be the impact to my finances, this is the cost-benefit analysis. In other words, what these tools will be able to do is assess what decisions are the best for us.

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