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Spring 2010
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Summit Sets Course for Coupling GIS and Design

Designing GeoDesign

At the first GeoDesign Summit, held in January 2010, Esri president Jack Dangermond said that the concept of incorporating geographic knowledge into design has been happening for a very long time.

  photo of Bran Ferren giving a presentation
Bran Ferren, chief executive officer of Applied Minds, Inc., presents at the GeoDesign Summit.

"GeoDesign is going on. It has been going on for hundreds of years," Dangermond noted, pointing to examples in farming, urban planning, and site selection for stores. Farmers, for example, have always taken geography into account when deciding what crops would be appropriate to grow on their land and where to locate their farms (e.g., near a water source for irrigation).

Because of pressing planetary problems that need to be solved, Dangermond and a group of thought leaders from academia and a variety of professions believe it's time to better integrate geospatial technologies, such as GIS, with design. During the summit, they also discussed future GeoDesign education and training options and how to provide designers with the tools they need to better create and analyze designs.

The University of California, Santa Barbara; the University of Redlands; and Esri sponsored the inaugural 2010 GeoDesign Summit at Esri's corporate headquarters in Redlands, California. More than 170 academics and professionals attended from fields such as geography, architecture, GIS, urban planning, engineering, conservation, and forestry. Besides listening to keynotes and lightning talks on GeoDesign and how it's being used, they also attended "idea labs" to create agendas for GeoDesign theories, education, future technologies, 3D visualization, and analysis in design and other topics.

The summit brought together thought leaders in GIS, architecture, design, conservation, and many other fields, including Michael Goodchild, professor of geography at California State University, Santa Barbara; Carl Steinitz, research professor at the Graduate School of Design, Harvard University; Kim Tanzer, dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia; and William B. Rogers, president and CEO of the Trust for Public Lands.

GeoDesign: A definition—GeoDesign changes geography by design (not all design changes geography and not all geographic change is by design)."
—Carl Steinitz

"We are at the beginning of what many of us see as a new field," said Thomas Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, in his Keynote Address.

With the world facing what he called "exponentially increasing stress on the systems we depend on," such as natural ecosystems and building infrastructure, there's a great need to use spatial data and technologies in planning and design to tackle problems, such as those associated with global warming, threats to species, and poorly designed infrastructure.

"One of the powers of GeoDesign is it makes these problems visual," Fisher added. "They are easier to ignore when they are abstractions. Because we have been designing the world without data-rich knowledge of consequences, we've created a situation where we've made ourselves vulnerable as a species, which to me gives urgency to GeoDesign. This is something we don't have a lot of time to develop."

The purpose of the two and a half-day summit was to

  • Define and formalize the term GeoDesign and its methodology.
  • Promote and advance GeoDesign research and education.
  • Discuss how to go about creating better GeoDesign technologies/tools.
  • Talk about how to more deeply couple design with GIS and other geospatial technologies.
  • Prepare a set of use cases to show what GeoDesign can accomplish.

In his opening remarks, Dangermond spoke about the great potential for GeoDesign, described by some as a pairing of design and GIS. It unites the art and creativity of design with the power and science of geospatial technology. As one, GeoDesign can produce more informed, data-based design options and decisions.

"The notion of integrating these two fields is very exciting to me," Dangermond told the gathering. "We have a kind of continuum from measurement to making decisions that integrates all our ways of doing things into new processes."

Dangermond said that fast-accelerating improvements in geospatial technologies will, consequently, hasten advances in GeoDesign. New design-friendly capabilities and tools in the upcoming release of Esri's ArcGIS 10 will help professionals apply GeoDesign methodologies to problems and challenges related to anything from climate change to pandemic diseases, environmental protection to food production, and resource conservation to infrastructure improvements.

"Geospatial technology is migrating to the Web and will be used by practically everyone in some way or other," Dangermond said. "This environment is a new style for how geography will be served and how it will affect us. It will touch not simply a few researchers, GIS professionals, or those who work with geographic information, but it's affecting virtually everything that people do."

According to Dangermond, improvements in GIS, the explosion of location-based services, faster computers, more bandwidth and storage, a boom in mobile devices, and the emergence of cloud computing will also speed GeoDesign along.

"For some of us, that's all brand new," Dangermond said. "Some people describe this as ‘disruptive' kinds of technology. For me, it's just another step in the evolution of the enabling technology that allows us to bring these new ideas to fruition.

"Organizations also are beginning to serve geographic knowledge, which is providing a new infrastructure to build on top of, hopefully, the design notions that come out of the summit," Dangermond continued. "Agencies will not be providing data files or maps. They will be providing services, and these services will be a new framework. Just like the Apple iPhone is providing a framework for all kinds of apps, these geospatial services—and the ability to build creative applications on top of them—will explode our field and the general interest in designing our future."

Fisher spoke passionately about how there's little time to waste. "A lot of what we have been designing—our cities, our buildings, our landscapes—have been designed without a lot of information about the consequences of our actions on other species, on distant populations, on future generations. As GeoDesign can bring data to bear on those design decisions, it will profoundly change the way we live and inhabit the planet. Through innovation, we can rethink the way in which we inhabit the planet, we can rethink the way we use resources, and we can prolong our ability to sustain ourselves. GeoDesign's time has come, and it's none too soon."

Dangermond concurred. "We need this right now," he said. "We need to not only understand what's occurring on the planet, but we also need to take more proactive involvement in designing what occurs. Then we have to promote those designs, those creations, those expressions in our mind's eye to the rest of society. That's the challenge."

ArcGIS Desktop 10

During the summit, Esri's Matthew Baker, Nathan Shephard, and Bern Szukalski demonstrated to the group current tools and services and soon to be released technology that will assist designers in their work. Baker's demonstration focused on the modeling, sketching, and feedback capabilities in ArcGIS Desktop 10. Shephard demonstrated new design-friendly capabilities in the 3D Analyst extension. Szukalski showed the audience ArcGIS Online resources that, for GeoDesigners or Web mappers, serve as what he calls an "excellent substrate" of content, such as Esri's updated World Imagery map services and its new World Street Map services, and also Bing Maps for Enterprise, aerial, hybrid, and roads.

More Information

To read an expanded version of this article, see the February 2010 edition of ArcWatch at

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