Sustainability, Systems, and Design

Changemaker Catalyst Award recipient John Harris Alexander interned with Foresight Design Initiative during summer 2017 to explore and work on the intersections of sustainability, systems, and design. John is majoring in Environmental Studies and Sociology with a minor in Social Innovation & Social Entrepreneurship.

This summer, I had the opportunity of interning with Foresight Design Initiative in the wonderful city of Chicago. I was able to submit RFPs, draft methodology, build connections with individuals across the sustainability field, and enjoy the city.

The summer after my sophomore year in high school I decided I wanted to take a summer course, and, not knowing what I actually wanted to study, chose one that seemed vague yet interesting: “Sustainability, Climate Change, and the Innovating City,” taught by the Executive Director of Foresight Design Initiative, Peter Nicholson. Little did I know that this choice would lead to the internship that I just finished with Foresight and their work at the intersection of sustainability, systems, and design.

The Trifecta:

This trifecta was something I was vaguely familiar with after the summer course but was able to explore and dive deeper into during the internship.

Sustainability is a word we toss around now in regards to anything and everything yet it is often an appliqué lacking substance and simply covering a facade of business as usual. Sustainability is important but it must be imbedded into all aspects instead of merely being a facade to hide behind.

Systems are confusing. I came into the internship believing I knew what systems are, some sort of interconnection between a lot of factors. (Yay he knows a really vague and rudimentary definition!) What I realized through my work this summer is that systems are so much more than that. They take into account not only all of the factors, but the connections between factors, the potential outputs and inputs, and other outside forces as well.

Design… Thinking? Not quite. Design played such a large role in my work this summer from the very basic “How can we make this website look better?” to the much more complex, “How can we imbed sustainability into the fabric of an organization?” This summer helped me realize that design is not simply aesthetic, rather it encompasses so much more with so many different methods contributing.

The magic happens when uniting sustainability, systems, and design. That is when true change can occur.


The Work:

I had the privilege of working with two other interns this summer and we formed a formidable team. We all had very clearly defined strengths and weaknesses for ourselves and instead of using those to try to beat one another out, used them to streamline and enhance the work we could do. Foresight is an office that demands judgement and thought from everyone and the three of us learned that lesson early on, so when working on projects we would bounce ideas off of one another, list possibilities, create charts, maps, and diagrams, and laugh every now and then.

We contributed to such a broad range of projects and topics that initially I was overwhelmed, but once I settled in I realized I would learn more by fully immersing myself in all of the projects rather than trying to go through one at a time. The work was iterative, constantly morphing and changing, as we developed new ideas to build on previous or returned to prior ideas to build them back up just to return to square 1 to define the problem we were actually addressing. At Foresight, we didn’t “do” linear. It just wasn’t part of the strategy. In a small and flexible studio like Foresight we were encouraged to develop and thrived on this jumping mentality because we could develop ideas on 1 project while mapping the system of another.

We, as interns, were able to actively contribute to Foresight’s work as well as build capacity for Foresights’ endeavors to succeed in the future.


The Fun:

Well, it was all fun! (Cop-out answer I know.)

I was in charge of hosting a summer lunch series to get sustainability minded interns from around the city introduced to professionals doing work all over the city. Over 11 weeks we hosted 11 meetings with 17 speakers representing 14 organizations from around the city. These meetings were fun, informative, and a great way to meet like-minded interns from across the country. The organizations we met with truly cared about speaking with us because they wanted to see the next generation of sustainable leaders thrive and continue the work they started.

Organizations included: Environmental Law & Policy Center, Openlands, Delta Institute, Foresight Design Initiative, Forest Preserves District of Cook County, Urban Juncture, Elevate Energy, Alliance for the Great Lakes, Fresh Taste, USG, Abbvie, Chicago Community Trust, and Calumet Collaborative

I also got to see the multitude of museums that Chicago has to offer, from the Museum of Contemporary Art to the Museum of Science and Industry, enjoying and taking in everything that I could.

Finally, everyday after work I got to run along the shoreline of Lake Michigan and dive in. When I got out of the water, I always made sure to sit and look out over the lake and the green spaces dotted along the Chicago shoreline and think, “That is what this work is about. It’s about making sure everyone to come after can have this same beautiful interaction with nature and they in turn can pass on the message of stewardship and compassion to whoever will listen.”