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Sustainability Connect Successes

July 25, 2017

Since August 2016, an interdisciplinary team of ASU design and sustainability students and faculty have been working on a group project called “Water is Life” with local Hawai’ians to imagine a more sustainable Hawai’i. We followed up with Leah Gibbons, PhD student, Sustainability; Paul Coseo, Assistant Professor, The Design School; and Chingwen Cheng, Assistant Professor, The Design School to talk more about the future of the project and its continued impacts.

There were several stakeholders involved in the project’s fruition including:

  • Hawai’i Green Growth (HHG), a public-private partnership working across government, private sectors, and civil society towards Hawai’i’s 2030 sustainability goals. HGG connected the ASU team with local Hawaiian stakeholders and information, helping to make sure the team understood the cultural and political atmosphere in Hawai’i as well as views about sustainability projects and goals. HGG also acted as a liaison, arranging meetings and itineraries on the ground.
  • The Ala Wai Watershed Association (Ala Wai), a 501(c)3 organization committed to sustaining the Hawai’ian watershed. Ala Wai also provided many crucial connections to other stakeholders interested in creating change. Their members individually provided a summary of their own work and current sustainability projects in Hawai’i.

The project began as a collaboration between ASU’s School of Sustainability, Hawai’i Green Growth, and The Design School at ASU to reimagine solutions towards a more sustainable Hawai’i.

“Our overall goal was to apply systems thinking and practices to evaluate the status of sustainability of the state overall and apply that to the Ala Wai watershed through reconnecting the relationship between people and their environment,” Cheng said. “For example, the design we proposed was ‘Water is Life.’ This concept is deeply connected with Hawai'ian culture and traditional practice of understanding and living with the watershed systems.”

The group worked collaboratively and co-owned all of the project outputs presented at the end of the first semester, which included a final presentation and an e-book with visual representations of their statewide sustainability assessment, data analysis, and recommendations. Other project outputs included a toolkit for communities in the Ala Wai Watershed, demonstration projects for the Ala Wai Canal, and a 10-minute and 90-second trailer video to communicate design concepts.

“We worked very well together as a group,” Gibbons said. “We also considered any Hawaiian inhabitant and non-human life stakeholders as well as the more powerful and involved stakeholders/clients.”

The group then moved into a more in-depth analysis, coming up with design concepts and solutions for the Ala Wai Watershed.

“This analysis also considered all of Hawai'i Green Growth's sustainability goals (clean energy, local food, green workforce, healthy ecosystems, smart sustainable communities, and reduced waste) with water as a nodal intervention point,” Gibbons said. “I researched and collaborated on design ideas and solutions, ensured the project met sustainability criteria, helped manage the team's strategy for outputs, was part of the team that created our final e-book and the design challenge submission materials.”

The interdisciplinary nature of the project with so many stakeholders provided its own set of unique challenges, but these ended up yielding great reward. The team just received the top award in the “Make the Ala Wai Awesome” competition last month.

“The biggest challenge was just getting the work done,” Gibbons said. “It was a lot of work, but we worked amazingly well together and did what I consider to be really great work. I guess others agree, since we won the Make the Ala Wai Awesome Design Challenge. I also had a great experience in learning to trust others to produce high-quality work on-time.”

Cheng and Coseo described the complexity of navigating both internal and external challenges in simultaneously coalescing the team and building local relationships while pushing the project forward in a culturally-sensitive way.

Coseo noted that there were “issues of outsiderness and lack of trust of mainlanders,” but that the students built trust by working closely with HGG during their two visits to Hawai’i.

“During the visits they had a series of listening sessions,” Coseo said. “Students visited Hawai’i twice and actively listened to more than twenty groups across Hawai’i that helped shape the project.”

“Internally, we have students from diverse backgrounds and disciplines,” said Cheng. “One challenge was how to create an effective team working environment and allow interdisciplinary integration from different fields of knowledge, skills, and personal background and schedules. We worked it out through a series of team-building exercise and protocols to ensure the team communication and performance could be accountable. Externally, our project site is not easily accessible. We rely heavily on Hawai'i Green Growth for communicating with diverse stakeholders in Hawai'i. We visited Hawai'i once per semester for this one-year long project and met dozens of organizations and community members there. Keeping good relationships and effective communication with Hawai'i Green Growth is key and luckily all other stakeholders are super helpful and open to us as well.”

Applied learning in real-world scenarios like this offer invaluable learning opportunities and resume-building experience. Gibbons and Cheng both agree that the experience enhanced the student and faculty learning impacts and broadened the benefits to community. Gibbons is continuing to expand upon the work with HGG as part of her dissertation.

“I was able to apply all of the skills we learn in the School of Sustainability on this project,” Gibbons said. “I also learned a lot of design skills and will be able to show all of the work we did to future potential employers or clients. I really valued working with designers and understanding more how they think, what they are taught and not taught, what I can bring to their work that is of value, and how that will be an asset to me professionally. My work with Hawai'i Green Growth and in Hawai'i will continue. My dissertation will expand upon what we did and help conceptualize how Hawai'i and the Ala Wai Watershed can be regeneratively sustainable through a methodology called regenerative development. Hawai'i Green Growth and its partners, the Global Island Partnership and The Commonwealth of Nations, are very interested in how regenerative sustainability and development can work for them.”

Cheng and Coseo also highlighted the value of exposure to new cultures and the opportunity to successfully bridge indigenous knowledge and design principles.

“From my own professional experience, I understand the beauty and challenge of conducting design projects as each project has its own unique context and issue,” said Cheng. “Native Hawai'ian culture is foreign to all of us in the team, both to students and instructors. We were blessed to have the opportunity to experience and learn from local knowledge through this project yet integrate innovations in design to resolve water issues in respect to their traditional values and practices on the island. Eventually, our design outcomes were appreciated and recognized by the local communities. Those are the most amazing and valuable experiences of this project.”

“During our listening sessions on the second trip to Hawai’i, the active listening allowed us to have key breakthroughs on how we saw the problems and potential solutions,” said Coseo. “It allowed the student group to leverage and transcend their own personal experience and knowledge and link it with local experiences, knowledge, and values.”

The “Water is Life” project also showcases ASU’s commitment to interdisciplinary, socially embedded work where students and faculty can work with and contribute directly to communities through hands-on projects.

“The value of service-learning studios or courses are that they challenge student assumptions and allow them to ground theories in real world experiences,” said Coseo. “It’s a much more meaningful and impactful experience than purely academic exercises.”

“This project is very valuable in terms of demonstrating our capacity in conducting high quality service-learning projects that benefit students and communities,” said Cheng. “Students gain tremendous experience working in a transdiciplinary nature between different disciplines AND among stakeholders. Students' innovative ideas help the community to think outside the box and approach complex issues in systems thinking and reconnect to their indigenous culture and diverse society. Students not only gain a deeper understanding of challenges through working with stakeholders but also acquire skills required to solve complex issues in the real world.”

Read more about the ongoing “Water is Life” project.