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G-Sync: West Michigan comes out for design

Hugh Herr

Each month publisher and lifestyle editor Tommy Allen checks in with Rapid Growth to share his thoughts on a topic trending in our region. This month he is all about the power of design to inspire a new way of working here, and West Michigan Design Week's stellar 2nd annual event has him geeked.
It is hard not to get a bit giddy at the recent wave of "Made in America" enthusiasm being spread all over the nation. Open any newspaper or magazine and you'll discover that, while there are many aspects of society still needing critical attention, one area, manufacturing, is hot.
Whether it be an artisanal, handmade product like something on Etsy or a Shinola watch or something far more sophisticated like modern high-performance batteries or the state-of-the-art electronics affixed to your car, Michigan is finding new ways to position manufacturing for a new generation. But if we are to fully take advantage of this moment in time, then we need real dialogue about how we fashion a new culture of opportunity that works for the many and not just the few. We need to understand what this future will look like and who needs to be at the table if we are to see truly sustainable advances.
For starters, it is important to understand how to listen, then engage in honest conversations about what we have to offer and then play to these inventoried strengths. One person who understands the art of listening to a community is GR Current's Executive Director Stan Samuel, who spoke with me last month about the advances they are experiencing in their accelerator emerge Xcelerate.
Samuel and his team are seeking to leverage an area they believe holds the key -- and it is not necessarily in the development of the next big app or the fastest electronic gadget. Samuel sees a break for West Michigan within the realm of medical manufacturing.
If you are like me, then your mind immediately went down a rabbit hole of ideas from big pharma meds to the next wave of designer teeth braces for teens. But Samuel is talking about those products that we market to the medical facilities and not the consumer market.
According to Samuel, this area of manufacturing is not driven by the typical consumer model tied to the lowest price point, but by a different set of values with safety being the top goal, followed by efficacy and durability. Cost is actually a fourth-tier consideration on the list.
"Since arriving in Grand Rapids [from Ann Arbor], I have observed two very important areas of strength on the west side of the state," says Dr. Samuel, who is a Biomedical Engineering scientist as well as executive director. "First, this region has a rich and diverse history of manufacturing but equally important is the role design has played out over the years in sustaining it."
And he is right in that design has been key, from those early "Furniture City" days right up to our present boom of craft beer. Design is still a big part of who we are.
So how do we create this ecosystem from which opportunity can spring? How do we elegantly and efficiently bring the worlds of design and manufacturing together?
What Samuel finds very exciting is, within the accelerator culture of our emerging startup ecosystem, when these two areas are harnessed together, we can produce a collaborative set of variables where alignment on value and mission occur, producing the right climate for greatness to emerge.
This design marriage happens not just at the concept stage but also within each step, from the visualization of the idea, the drawing of the design, to the final prototyping. Design is at the heart of all these steps of the scientific journey.
And while many of us are at different points on the design spectrum, from comfortably aware to the "I have no fricken clue what design is" crowd, next week we have an opportunity to engage as a community on the topic of design and how it can integrate in many areas of our society to produce wicked good results.
Taking a 30,000-foot approach, it is very clear when viewing the impressive programming of the 2nd West Michigan Design Week (WMDW) that our local team of organizers wish to engage more than just the design audience on this topic. WMDW asks that we all join them on this global view of design that touches on three distinct areas: design thinking, diversity, and equity.
Right out of the gate, Design Week welcomes MIT Media Lab's Associate Professor of the Biomechatronics research group's Hugh Herr as the keynote speaker on Monday, Apr. 6, 6 p.m. at Grand Rapids Civic Theatre.
Over the last 15 years Dr. Herr, a double amputee himself, has opened the world's eyes to what is truly possible with nearly 100 new inventions and 70 issued and pending patents. His work in the area of human extensions has not only challenged our view of what disabled means but his research and discoveries are actually harnessing our human capability via MIT's Center for Extreme Bionics in bold new ways that was once the stuff of science fiction. As a result he has earned numerous awards, a TED talk, and the American Ingenuity Award in Tech from the Smithsonian Institution in 2014. 
His lecture at Civic Theatre will engage the audience as to how, through ever-increasing technological sophistication, human disability will largely be eliminated in the 21st century, setting the stage for innovations that will ultimately benefit all humanity.
Also celebrated this week will be a Women In Design panel organized by the Grand Rapids chapter of the Ladies That UX, which will address topics like inclusive design, female visibility, and how to craft community balance in an area often dominated by men.  
Cheryl Durst"Women can drive change in culture by taking the positive aspects of the deficit as a chance to move it forward," says Christy Ennis-Kloote, who co-founded with Kim Wolting the Ladies That UX Grand Rapids chapter. "The life experiences of women bring a unique perspective, approach, and process to design. Women need to go beyond constraints (perceived or real) by not waiting, but giving themselves permission to run with an opportunity."
The Design Thinking for Social Impact panel, led by John Berry of GVSU's Design Thinking Initiative, will dive into the life experiences of three remarkable panelists on the topic of equity with Ellen Carpenter, VP Marketing for United Way; Ryan Kilpatrick, MEDC, Region 4; and Brewery Vivant and local B-Corp cheerleader Kris Spaulding. 
Also worth checking out will be an Empathy workshop devoted to the power of using human-centered, design thinking's power to enable the right conditions for real life solutions for our complex problems. This powerful (and very hot) method is based on the art of observation and empathizing with the people who are impacted by the problem. The workshop will be conducted by New North Center for Design in Business' Jason Kehrer and will walk attendees through the process, finding insightful patterns, generating multiple solutions, prototyping solutions, and, finally, testing them.
"I think outside of our area people still only think of Detroit when they think of Michigan and how the economy is doing," says Sara Klele, AIGA West Michigan Design Week Chair, whose team, led by Design West Michigan's Ken Krayer, is charged with the task of changing that. "We want to create conversations and build awareness about how ready our design community is to support forward-thinking business opportunities. We have the talent and the passion to support them."
Tucker ViemeisterWe need to, pardon my timing, design our way out of this old thinking of place. We need to, as GR Current's Samuel reminds me, come together and leverage our strengths to stand out. If I have learned anything from design over the years, it is that never before have the tools of our trade been so democratized and available to so many. It time for us to design our way forward into a new maker era.
And as always…The Future Needs All of Us (a lesson Indiana has yet to learn)
Tommy Allen
Publisher and Lifestyle Editor
Check out the best in place-making events with G-Sync Events: Let's Do This!
Editor's Note:  West Michigan Design Week is a collaboration among a variety of design organizations including AIGA West Michigan (The Professional Association for Design), Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD), American Institute of Architects - Grand Rapids (AIA), Industrial Designers of America (IDSA), International Interior Design Association (IIDA), American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), Interaction Design Association (IxDA), and Design West Michigan.
In addition to the events mentioned above, WMDW welcomes industrial designer Tucker Viemeister; Liz Sanders, founder of MakeTools; Cheryl Durst, Executive Vice President and CEO of IIDA; and Claudia de Almeida.  Visit: www.wmdesignweek.com
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