Rethinking design with a focus on restoration and regeneration

Founded in 2013, by Kendall College of Art and Design (KCAD) of Ferris State University's Wege Center for Sustainable Design, the Wege Prize competition is focused on advancing local and global solutions for a healthier planet.

With a goal of encouraging interdisciplinary teams of college/university students to collaborate and develop innovative solutions to complex social and environmental issues, the Wege Prize is open to students from all over the world. Not only does the competition provide these opportunities, but it also awards prizes totaling $65,000 to be dispersed amongst the top teams.

Focusing on creating a circular economy, teams were required to develop a project proposal as well as a plan for implementing their solution in a real-world context. For KCAD professor and Wege Prize leader Gayle DeBruyn, the topic is timely and impactful.

“The circular economy allows us to rethink the way we produce and consume, moving us from a linear economy — in which we take, make and dispose —  to an economy that is circular, restorative and regenerative by design. New products made that eliminate waste, closing material loops to enhance water and nutrient availability. It is a powerful way to address climate change, resource scarcity and social concerns,” she says.

Taking place over a 9-month period, the students are able to start with ideation and fully form their ideas, based on feedback, research and collaboration.

“Students self-select their diverse teams of five, identify a project, pitch their proposed solution and gain expert iterative feedback from our judges. They use a design thinking process to create innovative, real-world solutions. In the end, they solve complex, ‘wicked problems’ by creating new, transformative products, services and business models that can actually work today!” DeBruyn says.

In this context, KCAD uses the term ‘wicked,’ not to refer to something that is inherently bad, but rather to a “problem that is considerably resistant to resolution.”

For the students, this experience has been very rewarding.

One student team, Cellucoat, was composed of students from four countries at the University of Calgary. Their invention was a biodegradable, antimicrobial replacement for plastic packaging and pollution.

“This competition has allowed us to make iterative improvements upon Cellucoat, and has challenged us to think critically about our next steps in taking the idea from the lab bench out into the world. With our prize money, we hope to fund further prototyping of our packaging and compete in other competitions around the world,” says presenter Zainab Hakim.
Courtesy of Tyler Herbstreith.
Unwastewater, made up of students from four U.S. and European universities, focused on tasking microbes to convert wastewater supplies into raw materials for use in both industrial and commercial products.

Despite the distance, which made time management and efficiency crucial, seeing their idea through was worth it.

“The most memorable moment of the competition came when we were assembling our first prototype for phase 2,” says presenter Kelvin Green. “Several long nights of work eventually panned out when our electrochemical cell began to draw current. It was a supremely gratifying moment.”
Courtesy of Tyler Herbstreith.
This year’s winning team was Banana Leather, taking home $30,000 at the May 19 event. They seek to produce an alternative leather material from banana plants that is vegan, cruelty-free, sustainable and circular. This alternative material is made from banana crop waste sourced from India. Not only does it address agricultural waste issues, but it also provides an additional source of income for farmers. Unlike other vegan leather alternatives, Banofi Leather (Banana-fiber leather) aims to become a 100% biobased and biodegradable product.

Team leader, Jinali Mody says, “having a framework like the Wege Prize to kind of streamline our idea, look at it a lot more realistically, think about it from not just the problem and solution, but beyond that — the business model, the feasibility, the down-streaming impact, the social impact — has just been a way that we’ve had to develop this and forced us to think things that have been really helpful and instrumental in propelling this business forward.”

Using the same framework as the Wege Prize, KCAD has another initiative underway. Wege Prize High School Collaborative Studio is an immersive, two-week summer workshop that challenges participants to solve the same “wicked” problems “through the lens of whole systems design thinking, sustainability and the circular economy.”

Looking ahead, DeBruyn sees ongoing potential for those seeking to create a more sustainable future.

“The world has wicked problems. We need more of these game-changing solutions for a future that is equitable and flourishing for all,” she says. “Companies and organizations who openly collaborate across disciplinary and cultural boundaries to redesign the way we think about material use, systems and structures that create bias, and instead, work together to create a restorative future.”
Courtesy of Tyler Herbstreith.
For students interested in participating in the Wege Prize High School Collaborative Studio, applications are open until June 26 and the cohort will run July 24 through August 4. More information and the application form can be found here.

From furniture to shoes, from arts to education to even policy creation, design is everywhere you look. Designed in Michigan, a new story series coming out of West Michigan, is devoted to sharing the expansive role design plays in Michigan's past, present and future. It is made possible through the support of Kendall College of Art and Design and Landscape Forms.

About Leandra Nisbet: Leandra Nisbet, Owner of Stingray Advisory Group LLC and Co-Owner of Brightwork Marine LLC, has over 15 years of experience in leadership, sales & marketing, and graphic design. She helps businesses grow and assists with: strategic planning, marketing concept development/implementation, risk management, and financial organization. She is actively involved in the community, sitting on several Boards and committees, and has been recognized as one of the 40 Under 40 Business Leaders in Grand Rapids.

Contact Leandra Nisbet by email at [email protected]!
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