GOOD Design Sarasota: Three Ideas for Conserving and Celebrating Water

Back in February, I headed to the Ringling College of Art & Design to launch our second GOOD Design program at a school, GOOD Design Sarasota...

Back in February, I headed to the Ringling College of Art & Design to launch our second GOOD Design program at a school, GOOD Design Sarasota (you can read more about previous GOOD Design events here). Working closely with Ringling instructors Tim Rumage and Colleen Eddy, and adviser Mary Craig, the students spent eight weeks grappling with one of the biggest issues confronting any city today: Water. I recently traveled back to Sarasota, Florida to watch the students' final presentations, which were enthusiastically attended by local municipal and environmental leaders. I'm happy to report back on their excellent ideas here.

Fountain of Awareness
Sarita Guillory, Sarah McCauley, Zachary Farrell, Alex Shear, Alexandra Gesar, Benjamin Kowalski, Catherine Pellegrino
When approaching the issue of water, there are dozens of issues quite literally surrounding Sarasota. But in their research, the students latched onto one interesting insight: The city's water plan—a strategy for supplying water for residents from the local watershed—ended in 2030, meaning after this date, the city had no long-term solution in place for providing water. The students in one group decided that they needed to use that date as a kind of deadline: They chose to communicate to local residents that time—and water—was running out.

The students thought about the one symbol that represented a free, endless supply of water: The public drinking fountain. Imagine the emotional impact of reaching people during that one moment that we've all experienced when we're extremely thirsty: You press the button, and no water comes out. The students thought this was a great metaphor for Sarasota's future, and concepted an art installation that would use the dry fountain as a messaging system.

Working with local fabricators, the students actually built a prototype for their installation, using a drinking fountain that was donated to them. Their concept was extremely simple: When someone pressed the button, expecting a drink of water, they would instead be shown a series of messages on a screen that raised out of the drinking fountain. They would also be directed to a website where they could learn more about conservation tips and how to get involved. "Good or bad reaction, we are still activating word-of-mouth about a serious issue and that's the best form of advertising," says Sarita Guillory. The students were able to find a place to eventually install their concept: the Fountain of Awareness will have a permanent home in the Florida House Institute for Sustainable Development, a local non-profit that is currently moving into a new facility.

Guide to Budgeting Water
Casey Ligon, Devin Ostertag, Myra Mirza, Yara Erazo, Boris Poletaev, Lauren Renfrow, Ben Clark, Joshua Weinstein
A second group of students decided to focus their efforts on a specific community, using the neighborhood of Pelican Cove as a small study area that could represent the entire city. This community had recently completed a water audit, and knew exactly how much water they had used as a group, as well as how much rainfall had fallen on the area in the past year. The catch was that the information had not been passed along to the community in a usable way.

In poring over the audit documents, the students hit upon an incredible fact: Pelican Cove had the potential to collect about 80,000,000 gallons of water in the past year, which was approximately the same amount of all their annual water needs. Technically, Pelican Cove had the potential to be self-sufficient when it came to fresh water, which they illustrated in an infographic. "My team members were each given a sense of awakening once we were able to see many of our statistics in friendly and easy-to-read formats," says Casey Ligon. "Once we could truly visualize how much water is wasted every day—and more importantly how easy it is to take small steps toward conservation—we were each awoken to a sense of social responsibility toward our community."

The team realized that home water audits were the key to understanding not only how much water communities used, but without making those results clear it was impossible to engage more residents in the cause. The key was making all this complex information about water usage comprehensible. They focused on taking the 11-page Southwest Florida Water Management District water audit worksheet (not a very captivating read, I can tell you) and translating it into simple, actionable concepts that any homeowner could understand. These actions were produced into door-hangers, stickers and other outreach materials that neighbors could use to encourage their neighbors to conduct a water audit, hoping that entire communities would rally together to share their information.

Running Out
Marilyn Garman, Sadie Stetson, Taylor Reed, Katie Maxwell, Chanelle de Nysschen, Jeremy Rojas, Laura Tooze, Chelsea Clifford
Early on, the third team saw the potential of inspiring and engaging young people about water in the hopes that they would take on this cause as almost a political message. They studied the habits of people using (and saving) water, and wondered how exactly they could help those behavioral shifts occur. Instead of a single solution, this team included a toolkit for putting a grass-roots campaign—complete with stickers, posters, t-shirts—in the hands of people, says Marilyn Garman. "Our project approach was decidedly geared towards social responsibility and ultimately doing what is right in an easy way." Their campaign became about launching a movement of activated, energetic young people who would connect and share their efforts to save water.

Central to their toolkit was an interesting exercise that came to them after learning a slightly-disturbing fact: The average Sarasota resident was using a baffling 84 gallons per day, even though millions of people around the world subsist on less than five. The students needed a way to show this to their audience but they wanted to make it engaging. Enter the 5 Gallon Challenge. Bright blue five-gallon buckets would be dispatched to young people who would attempt to fulfill all their daily water needs with those five gallons, closely monitoring their showering, cooking and drinking habits, and reporting their findings and frustations.

In addition, the group realized that they needed a physical representation for their campaign, something that would be highly visible within the city for people to connect with. They designed a concept for a sculptural, solar-powered water cistern that would sit on public land near the bay, where anyone would be able to physically see how much water had been collected from the rain. This concept has actually been submitted to Sarasota's public art board for possible inclusion in its Season of Sculptures ecotourism exhibit and funding is in motion to make it a reality—this landmark for water conservation could possibly be constructed in the near future.

Robert Wright is a water planning and regulatory coordinator for Sarasota County who attended the presentations. He said the student work mirrored one real-life challenge the county was currently facing: They are working on implementing Low Impact Development (LID) concepts into their projects—strategies for retrofitting homes for water efficiency—but his biggest challenge is to get citizens to buy into these strategies in their own communities. Some of the students' messaging could be spot-on for those efforts.

Although he felt that the 2030 "deadline" was a bit exaggerated—the city won't run out of water, they'll have to formulate a new plan—he especially liked the 5 Gallon Challenge solution because it hit home to consumers just how wasteful they have become. "Forcing an individual or a society to make a conscious choice in how to use a limited supply of water for all their daily needs makes for an in-your-face immediate reality check," he says. "It also highlights our reluctance around the world to place a 'true' value on clean fresh water until we are without it." Theresa Connor, executive director for Sarasota County's Environmental Services, agreed that a shocking "reality check" was powerful. "I found it very interesting how the notion that taps could run dry was very motivating and caught people's attention."

The 5 Gallon Challenge also resonated with Kate Irwin, a data and indicators coordinator for SCOPE, an organization that studies livability and environmental issues for Sarasota. She also liked the visibility of the large-scale art installation. "I think visible symbols like that can be a great way to do consciousness-raising to show that we are thinking about the issue of water," she says. "That particular installation was nice because it also showed a way forward within the installation—towards new energy generation/water-use principles, with things like the solar panels on the roof." She also thought the clearly articulated water audit infographics could be used by SEE, a local water committee that is working on the city's water budget.

For each of the students I spoke with after their presentations, the challenge had helped them to redefine their own relationships to water. All of them said that their own behavior had shifted dramatically: One of the advisers, Mary Craig, was so inspired she went out to buy a rain barrel to capture water for her home. The students agreed that the project had inspired them to take further action using their skills as designers. "This has allowed us realize that for each time we touch water, we have the opportunity to conserve," says Ligon. "It requires each of us to take an introspective look at our consumption, and we absolutely respect the water we are given now more than ever."

Thanks to Ringling College of Art & Design for their hard work and participation in this program. If you'd like to bring GOOD Design to your city or school, let me know!

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