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The Dish

SXSW Eco | Day 1

Austin, Texas | October 7th, 2013

Austin, Texas is the self-proclaimed U.S. capitol of live music and breakfast tacos, but what you may not know is that it's increasingly becoming a mecca for all things eco-related. Austin is home to the 3-day SXSW Eco conference, now in its third year of inspiring talks and mind provoking workshops from experts in diverse areas of sustainability. This year's program covered everything from science, policy and economics, to art, design, fashion and style-- all on the razor's edge of the sustainability movement. In the coming days Design With Benefits' founder, Tania Garbe, shares her journey to Austin and the top highlights of this year's SXSW Eco.

Day 1 kicked off with a keynote presentation by Ron Finley of LA Green Grounds. Finley calls himself an Urban Anthropologist, declaring "my lab is the street". Others call him an artist, designer, and guerrilla gardener with a vision. That vision is for a healthy and accessible "food forrest" in urban areas, starting with his own neighborhood in South Central LA, which Finley calls home of both the "drive-thru and the drive-by".

Finley was compelled to plant a curbside veggie garden in the strip of dirt between the sidewalk and his street, replacing healthy crops where trash once collected. When the city eventually tried to shut him down citing height violations, his story became viral inspiring a TED Talk and a larger movement.

Next up was a Biomimicry workshop lead by: Chris Garvin of Terrapin Bright Green and Cook + Fox Architects ; Alexandra Ramsden cofounder of Biomimicry Puget Sound; Daniel Woodroffe President of landscape architecture firm DWG; and Kathy Zarsky founder of BiomimcryTX. According to the Biomimicry Institute based in Missoula, Montanta, biomimicry is a new discipline that studies nature's best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems. In simple terms, it is innovation inspired by nature.

Chris Garvin talked about his firm's involvement in developing a sustainability plan for Google's headquarters in NYC, where biomimicry was used as a model. Alexandra Ramsden spoke about applying biomimicry on an urban scale for the city of Seattle. In an effort to address the problem of CO2 sequestration, her team looked at the Saguaro cactus, and seashells for inspiration. Unlike trees, when saguaro cacti and mollusks die, they do not release their carbon into the atmosphere.

Next there was an excellent panel on the connection between consumer preferences, health, and sustainability. Becky Chambers of Whole Foods Market, Pedro Vieira of the GoodGuide, Pam Marcus Co-Founder of LifeFactory, and author Beth Terry were among the panelists. Beth Terry, author of the book Plastic-Free: How I kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too and the blog My Plastic Free Life, spoke about her passion for living a life free of any and all plastic. She brought with her an incredibly small bag that contained all the plastic she had purchased or used in the previous year (image, middle right).

Pam Marcus spoke about LifeFactory a remarkable company that makes modern glass reusable drinking bottles that change function based on the cap you place on them. A baby bottle can transform into a sippy cup or a snack jar, and eventually into a storage container. All of their bottles are made of healthy materials and designed so that they grow with your family through every life stage so that they never become obsolete.

The last highlight of the day was a talk by Artist Mary Miss about sustainability made tangible through the arts. She is the Director of City as Living Laboratory, an organization that provides a framework for how the arts and sustainability can be linked in innovative ways. Mary Miss spoke passionately about a vision of our cities where artists and designers collaborate with scientists and policy makers to create immediate experiential impacts from planning initiatives. Her goal is to make sustainability personal, visceral, and tangible to encourage citizen action. She spoke about her current project called Broadway: 1000 Steps, which aims to place several installations along Broadway in NYC to articulate the city's long-term sustainability goals and make them comprehensible to the city's residents, while turning Broadway into the new green spine of the city.

Ron Finlay and his curbside garden. Photo by Willy Blackmore
Ron Finlay and his curbside garden. Photo by Willy Blackmore
Ron Finley
Ron Finley
Saguaro Cacti
Saguaro Cacti by Flickr user james_gordon_losangeles
Beth Terry holds up her year's worth of plastic
Beth Terry holds up her year's worth of plastic
Broadway: 1000 Steps
Broadway: 1000 Steps
Broadway : 1000 Steps
Broadway : 1000 Steps
Lifefactory bottles
Lifefactory bottles
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