Nov 182011

I recently had the good fortune to attend a GeoDesign workshop presented by Bill Miller, who is the Director of GeoDesign Services at Esri, and one of the people credited with coining the term. It was a fascinating morning, and it was a reflection of how important this topic is becoming that Alex Miller, president of ESRI Canada (and no relation to Bill), attended. I had been hearing more and more about GeoDesign, but only had a vague notion of what it was, and wondered if it was just the latest buzzword.

While it may be true that it is relatively new and trendy, as I listened to Bill’s presentation the concept just “clicked” for me, especially when he put it in the context of Carl Steinitz’s GeoDesign framework (previously called the model of landscape change). I instantly saw the value of using this as a framework for teaching problem solving to my GIS students.

After the workshop, I realized that there has been an explosion of activity related to GeoDesign, which made me feel a bit late to the party. If you’re like me, a great place to start is the GeoDesign Summit website, which has a number of recorded presentations from the conferences. As I watched them, I was struck by the sheer number of examples of GeoDesign given by the speakers. I think there are several reasons for this: the definition of GeoDesign is still evolving, and it is easier to define it by example; these examples provide dramatic proof of the relevance and power of GeoDesign and each presenter wants to make that clear; most speakers tend to talk about what they know, and so approach the topic from their own area of expertise and how they are using GeoDesign; and, by providing so many examples, each participant is hoping that others will see overlaps with their own discipline, which will then promote cross-fertilization of ideas. It is fascinating to watch as all of these big thinkers hash out ideas. Another great resource is the comprehensive GeoDesign Bibliography created and maintained by Matt Artz.

From what I have seen and read so far, I have found some useful nuggets. Tom Fisher, Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, said that “Geography looks at the way the world is and the way the world was. Design looks at what could be” (The What and Why of GeoDesign). I think GeoDesign is still many things to many people, but I’m struck by the number of definitions and explanations of GeoDesign that mention the words “integrate” and “collaborate”. This seems to get at the heart of it, as exemplified by Kimon Onuma’s presentation Getting Real with GeoDesign and BIM and the concept of “BIM Storms” where a group of people collaborate in real time to design one or more buildings in a short period of time through the integration of a number of tools, including GIS.

The appeal of GeoDesign as a teaching concept stems from its grounding in high-level, conceptual thinking. When teaching GIS/GIScience, it is easy for students to lose sight of the forest for the trees; we spend a lot of time discussing specific tools and how they are used to solve small, specific problems (“How far away is it? How many are found in this area?”). GeoDesign provides an opportunity to show students how to approach a problem at a conceptual level, how to evaluate the process, how to include different types of reasoning (e.g., inductive, deductive, abductive), while also providing opportunities to drill down at each stage of the process to examine what tools should be used, how, and why. One of the best quotes I’ve seen about GeoDesign was from James Fee, who contends, “I think we’ve all been doing GeoDesign…for years, even decades, but not as a whole concept to implementation practice” (ESRI, 2010).

I find it interesting that, what is now referred to by Bill Miller as Carl Steinitz’s “GeoDesign Framework”, was originally created as a framework of theory for education (specifically for landscape architects) (Steinitz, 1990). Bill Miller mentioned during his talk that students need to learn methods for problem-solving, and that the GeoDesign framework is one such method. I agree, and I’m sure that many instructors, such as those at Northern Arizona University who have recently started a blog GeoDesign in the Curriculum, are contemplating how they might incorporate GeoDesign into their curricula. Many students will be excited by the possibilities of GeoDesign and its potential for integrating, collaborating, and connecting the past, present, and future.


ESRI 2010. Changing Geography by Design. Geography. Redlands, California: ESRI Press. 

Steinitz, Carl, Peter Rogers, Garrett Eckbo, Anne Spirn, and Angus Hills. 1990. A Framework for Theory Applicable to the Education of Landscape Architects ( and Other Environmental Design Professionals ), Landscape Journal 9 (2): 136-143.

Simultaneously published at V1 Magazine with thanks to Matt Ball, co-founder and editor, Vector1 Media.