Occupy GeoDesign

by Fred Abler


The OCCUPY MOVEMENT:  Lessons in Accidental Branding

There are creeping indications that branding and identity are co-evolving with new media in ways not yet fully appreciated. The Occupy Wall Street (O.W.S.) movement is a case in point.

“We are the 99%”  is an ingenious framing device. In one twitter-sized jot, it establishes moral authority and singularity. Yet paradoxically, it holds a large basket of social ills and outrages.

It was not created by pedigreed marketing professionals, but by a still anonymous graphic designer. In an age of intense anxiety and months before O.W.S. he started the Tumblr blog wearethe99percent.

The aim was to create a public space for people to share their grief and anger. The micro-blog quickly went viral. By the time O.W.S even reached public awareness, it was synonymous with “We are the 99%”.

This accidental branding resonated deeply with, well.. the 99%. It engendered global buy-in, and along with the transitive Occupy ”Anything” (i.e., Occupy Oakland, Occupy Berlin, etc.), enabled O.W.S. to assume a worldwide franchise in just three weeks.

Traditional media were visibly annoyed with the unwashed masses. Occupiers refused to define their movement. Honestly! How could pundits process O.W.S. (read trivialize) without ‘talking points’, or at the very least someone to argue with?

Fig 1. Commentator Ben Stein. ”O.W.S. protesters are smelly hippies and their omni-directional rainbow of hate needs refinement. They’re a bunch of bums as far as I’m concerned. If they had some specific ideas... if they were doing anythingwhatsoever besides sleeping in their tents and banging drums, I would say God bless them.”

The Lamestream media’s instant analysis? The “Occupy” movement was intellectually promiscuous and embarrassingly weak. It wouldn’t even last the week’s news cycle. Yet again, the “strong-yet-weak” paradox of its accidental branding contributed mightily to O.W.S’s staying power.

Major media were powerless against this Twitter-fied protest: its “99%” meme; an allergic lack of leadership; human microphones, and consensus finger-waving. Reduced to shoe leather, they dispatched reporters to Zuccotti park to forcably extract answers from the “strategically inarticulate”. But they were hardly satisfied.

Now the sidewalks have been steam-cleaned and the Occupation is on hold, “We are the 99%” may become its true lasting legacy. But whatever comes next, this accidental brand is now as deeply embedded in our collective consciousness as any professional branding. Got Milk?

OCCUPY GEODESIGN? : Accidental Branding, to Brand, or be Branded

As we approach the 3rd Annual GEODESIGN Summit, I am thinking a lot about the staying power of social media and related social movements. Are there useful lessons in accidental branding that can (or should) be applied to GeoDesign?

This time last year I had only just learned the term GeoDesign. I was intrigued because ESRI does nothing casually. And as a recovering architect, the design process is something I care about deeply. Still, I was not all together optimistic. GeoDesign sounded suspiciously ‘green’.

Fig 2. Common goals but different venues? The 2nd Annual Geodesign Summit (left) and O.W.S. protesters in Zucotti Park. (right).

In my social circle of architects and design professors, Green Building and LEEDS accreditation are sardonically referred to as “The last great excuse for Architecture”.

Forget the exquisite subtleties of Order, Harmony, and Contrast in design. Nothing competes for generation-next’s heart better than green building products, which employ all the marketing sophistication, storytelling, and romance of fine wines and gourmet cheese.

“Naturally pest-resistent, Ipe Brazil wood (or bois ipe for our french clientele) comes from the ridgetops of the Amazon rainforest, and is harvested onsite by local tribesmen, then loving hand-rubbed by young girls with preservative organic beetle-nut oils!”  

Setting my professional conceits and ‘green fatigue’ aside, I slowly recalled a very special dinner with Jack and Laura Dangermond and assembled geographers. It was ten years ago in Santa Barbara, CA, close to Christmas.

I fondly remember the unusually relaxed and festive mood; Laura Dangermond’s superb design sensibilities; Jack’s masterful command of ceremonies; and now.. what I’m almost sure were some of Dangermond’s first inklings of ‘GeoDesign’.

As the wine and dinner progressed, table talk flowed organically – from bird watching, to Internet startups, and wearable computers at MIT.  But then, things took a more serious turn when Jack mentioned he might buy Visio from Microsoft.

Having been taken into his confidence, the assembled guests were suddenly aware that Jack may have been vetting us for something all evening. In fact, had a new idea that he had been nurturing. “Perhaps we’d like to hear it?”

At the time Jack explained didn’t have a name for his idea. I remember he explained it wasn’t “GeoEngineering”, but “something” along these lines. I took the bait and practically demanded to know more. “What is this Geo-Something?!”

Jack leaned back and locked-in our full attention, and then began the seduction with a disclaimer. His qualm with Geo-Engineering was that these large scale climate engineering projects seldom worked. In fact, they often made things even worse.

Mediating unintended consequences!! There must be a better way… Geo-Something!

I suddenly wondered, had that Geo-Something become GeoDesign? Like the lamestream media, I dispatched myself to last year’s 2nd Annual GeoDesign Summit in Redlands, CA to find out.  What exactly was GeoDesign, or if my hunch was correct, what had it become?

To be honest, the ground truth from last year’s GeoDesign summit was a bit less than hoped for. Like a reporter in Zuccoti Park, I came away with a handful of opinions, and only a few real insights.

Some attendees characterized GeoDesign as “Jack’s noble and personal search for even greater relevance”, “A return to his design roots as a landscape architect”. Others felt it was marketing and manifest destiny. That after literally ‘mapping the world’ as-built, ESRI simply needed new worlds to conquer.

But Michael Dangermond decoded it best. GeoDesign was simply Jack’s considered response to the anthropogenic problems we currently face from Occupying Earth. The term was new, yet its definition squared well with our dinner conversation a decade ago.

I could also see that GeoDesign was a considerable improvement over GeoEngineering.

GeoEngineering redresses environmental problems after-the-fact. While GeoDesign gets right in the middle of them – proactively at design time. It mitigates human “occupation” through better and more predictive (3D/4D) modeling of the natural and built environments.

I also garnered personal insights from last year’s demos. It felt like GeoDesign was meant to be a kind of companion media for traditional CAD/GIS/Design workflows: one that informed designers’ ongoing decision-making.

Perhaps this was why GeoDesign was so hard to define? It was a goal, not a discreet destination, process, or event. It felt like GeoDesign wasn’t really ‘the main thing’, but a parallel process: an ongoing design leit-motif.

Sure I was starting to ‘get it’, at the next summit workshop I hit a wall. One of ESRI’s largest ISVs announced matter-of-factly that they had cracked the code. In fact, “GeoDesign was now already baked-in to their GIS tools and add-ons”.

The vendor continued, indifferently implying, ‘there’s no mystery here’. To GeoDesign, all one need do is write a check! Amazing!! A decade of incubation, and the marketing-types had mastered-the-meme in a single product cycle!

In Occupy terms, the pundits had already won. Defined and dismissed. Q.E.D.  I felt so naive. Of course professional marketers would exploit “GeoDesign” as another valuable addition to their babble-speak lexicon.  But GeoDesign deserves a better fate.

Like the Occupy Movement, its ongoing definition and realization will have to be a patient process. Yet resisting the temptation of premature-conceptualization, GeoDesign as a reluctant brand, must also muster ongoing and incremental insights as to what it is – or is becoming.

© 2K11  Fred Abler,  FormFonts 3D.www.formfonts.com

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