Wege Prize

Grand Rapids, MI 49506

Gayle DeBruyn: Helping solve wicked problems is a prize in itself

Toxic products, big problems
Designing for a better world

Living in a disposable society built on a linear economy means wicked problems for future generations.
That was the message of a TEDx talk given by Michael Werner, senior sustainability engineer at Holland’s Haworth, last fall, which prompted the idea for a transdisciplinary design competition dedicated to more sustainable design practices good for the economy and ecology.
“We’ve incentivized behavior on short-term thinking and short-term rewards,” Werner said, who eloquently explains the dire consequences of continuing on the same path in his TEDx talk. “We end up forfeiting the future for short term, present day profits.”
Wege Prize, an initiative of Kendall College of Art and Design with financial support from The Wege Foundation, aims to inspire students to tackle a wicked problem and design a product, service or business model that can function within and contribute to a circular economy.

A circular economy provides a tightly looped, restorative economic cycle where resources can be reused or recycled and re-adapted with social responsibility and revenue in mind.
In essence, the yearly design competition challenges teams of five students to use interdisciplinary collaborations, critical thinking skills and creative design and business principles to tackle problems that seem unsolvable.
Another goal of the competition is to bring students together from different backgrounds, disciplines and schools to understand the complexities involved in addressing such lofty issues, said Gayle DeBruyn, assistant professor and chief sustainability officer at Kendall. It’s important for colleges and universities to bring awareness to big design problems, but also provide a platform for students to find workable and innovative solutions, she said. 
“We have to learn to work together in this world to really get the hard stuff done,” she said.

“We take resources from the earth, make them (products), ship them around the world, use them, and then throw them away,” said Michael Werner, lead judge. “Only a small fraction of materials is kept. This is fundamentally unsustainable and there are a number of consequences of this design and economic paradigm. We need to design products in closed-looped cycles that don’t toxify the earth and people.” Michael Werner, Wege Prize lead judge
Organized in a matter of weeks, the first Wege Prize concluded in early March, with team FusionGRow winning $15,000 for an indoor food growing system using hydroponics technology and recyclable aluminum in an attractive, sculptural design.
The Wicked Solutions team members won the second-place $10,000 prize for their idea to make plastic grocery bags out of PLA, a plant starch found in potato wash, charging a small deposit to ensure return and recycling. Wicked Solutions also took home $5,000 for winning the on-line Public Vote.
Toxic products, big problems
As a chemist and senior designer, Werner’s work involves chemicals and examining molecular structures of common products. He has been privy to trade secrets and recipes used to manufacture furniture and household goods—and it’s shocking, he said.
Werner’s talk on the long-term health and environmental hazards of chemicals used in everyday products—most of which are thrown away, some of which are recycled but remain toxic—caught the attention of David Rosen, former president of Kendall College of Art and Design.
With the help of KCAD staff, Werner as lead judge, and a grant from The Wege Foundation, they organized the competition to encourage future designers and leaders to think about wicked problems that cross continents, cultures and class systems—and laugh in the face of capitalism.

Think landfills brimming with trash, thrown away products leaching toxic chemicals into the ground; dead fish found with indigestible plastic in their gut, or floating in rivers polluted by oil spills; water supplies and food sources linked to cancer; skin rashes and chronic illness from industry contamination and manufacturing processes; children playing in recycled tires, breathing fumes from rubber, carbon black and other chemicals. Such “wicked” consequences – air and water pollution, widespread illness, climate change and environmental degradation – are not inherently evil. They are complex issues that often create other problems when people try to solve them, or they seem so big, countries and companies and consumers may look the other way.
“If we are going to live for another millennia, we need to change our behaviors, change our design decisions,” Werner said. “We are also part of this discourse that ‘We don’t have enough, it’s not going to be profitable, we can’t change.” It’s simply not true. This idea is pervasive and it paralyzes us. We have reached record highs for corporate profits. And so, I think we have to really ask ourselves not if we can afford it, it’s whether or not we want to.”
The linear economic model of extract-manufacture-dispose relies on vast reserves of expendable resources and an environment that can absorb unlimited waste. But simply reducing waste and the consumption of limited resources is not enough because it’s fundamentally unsustainable, not to mention toxic to people and the larger ecosystem, Werner said.
The time is now for manufacturers and product designers to create a paradigm shift towards a circular economic model, developing products healthy for humans and the environment. This involves using better materials safe for re-use and structuring business models so manufactures can also benefit from refurbishing or redistributing products they make.
“It not just food and the water; our products don’t support healthy lives either,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s design products with high value, that don’t give us cancer or do reproductive harm and are recyclable.”
And such was the impetus for Wege Prize, which will expand to a national platform for the 2014-15 school year and internationally in 2015-16.
Designing for a better world
For 2015, the competition will revisit the same wicked proposition: How can we create a circular economy?
“One thing I was impressed with was how excited and enthusiastic the teams were to tackle this problem and this dilemma, how much they cared about designing for a better world,” Werner said.
The judges that participated this year will return in years two and three, Werner said. They also have partnered with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in the United Kingdom, the global leader in circular economy issues, to help engage participants as the competition expands.
Organizers plan to use social media campaigns and networking events to spread the word to campuses across the country, DeBruyn said. The competition is already underway and teams can begin working on their project, she said. More details will be announced this spring and formal deadlines set for fall. There is no cost to students and some travel expenses will be covered for finalists the next two years.
Requiring students from different majors and schools was intentional. Emphasizing a multi-disciplinary, collaborative approach to solving real world problems is also the basis for the new bachelor of fine arts in Collaborative Design at KCAD, said DeBruyn, who teaches collaborative design and served on the competition’s leadership team.
“We wanted fine art and design students to have a way to engage with students in business and science and humanities to work on these wicked problems,” she said. “We knew we wanted to look at those tangled problems of climate change, food security—challenges that many people have to come together to solve.”
Kendall came up with the concept for Wege Prize and tied it to a sustainability initiative funded through a grant from The Wege Foundation, and it made sense for the college to oversee the competition, said Ellen Satterlee, the foundation’s Chief Executive Officer.
“Our next generation, Mr. Wege’s grandchildren, had talked how exciting it would be to have a Wege Prize somewhere in the future,” she said. “We weren’t in a position to really choose a location or a school or a specific area to focus on, so when Kendall came to us, we were really thrilled.”
The competition fits well with founder Peter Wege’s driving principles and the organization’s interest in environment, education, ecology and economy. Wege coined the word economicology to mean balancing the needs of the ecology with those of the economy.
Both DeBruyn and Werner said there was a learning curve this year, and they are eager to see how the competition unfolds—growing exponentially and maybe continuing indefinitely.
“It is a fact that we’re going to need to be able to figure out how to work across cultures and communities and countries to solve some of these really difficult problems,” DeBruyn said. “If we are going to make systemic change, we need as many people as possible.”
Our future depends on it.
“We often don’t realize that we depend upon the external environment for everything,” Werner said. “We are downstream from all design decisions we make. I happen to believe we can do a whole lot better than the current design today.”

Marla R. Miller is a social activist, entrepreneur and freelance writer for UIX Grand Rapids. Learn more about her background and work at  

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