Year in Review

Derek’s 2016 Reflection Part 2: Production

While Part 1 of this 2016 reflection was a systematic review of various forms of information and art media that I enjoyed throughout the year, Part 2 will be a bit more free-form. Here I want to talk about what I have worked on in 2016 that I hope has impacted society positively, where I think I was successful and where I think I failed, and how these lessons have influenced my plans for my work in 2017. In particular, as a direct request to you, the reader, at the end, I would like to connect with more interesting people in 2017 on projects, or even receive ideas for meaningful projects to work on, and would greatly appreciate any and all such feedback.

There of course isn’t too fine of a line separating what I’m calling “consumption” and “production” in these essays. I think in the past I’ve thought about this simply as the difference between what you take in and what you put out into the world, but that distinction doesn’t take into account the gray area that is the experiences we create, the relationships we build, the ideas we refine. I’m not sure this improves on my definitions, but I’m starting to think of the difference more as what provides personal fulfillment, versus what impacts society as a whole. So perhaps “fulfillment” and “purpose” will be better labels in the future.

As quick contextual summary, before going into individual projects: Since graduating with my Master’s Degree in Structural Engineering from Stanford University, I think I can safely say that my path has been unconventional. A combination of passion for building my own personal design practice and ideology, as well as disdain for the idea of working for a big company without personal agency, has pushed me towards this tightrope juggle of multiple part-time jobs, where on any given week this year I was supervising a project-based learning class and/or participating in a meeting at Stanford, and/or teaching an architecture class at the Nueva Upper School, and/or meeting with a client for an upcoming Cloud Arch Studio project, and/or supervising construction on the Common Ground project in the Mission, and/or working at the SF Public Library just to have a convenient workspace near home. For the entire year I also made a conscious effort to not work on weekends, to put a hold on emails and social media, and to spend the time enjoying life with my girlfriend and/or friends. The significant commute time required to shuffle back and forth from all these commitments, instead of being a burden, simply blocked out reliable times for personal consumption of books, podcasts, occasional work, etc. (see Reflection Part 1).

Stanford Sustainable Urban Systems

My work at Stanford has, so far, felt the most impactful, given that the goal has been to take the concept of a holistic urban education and turn it into a formal reality as a graduate degree program with a full-fledged curriculum. I’ve been working on this more or less since 2012 when I first started prototyping my own project-based learning courses, alongside undergraduate coursework and eventually the Solar Decathlon project, because I had had a formative experience with that type of education as a sophomore and had believed that more of college curriculum should be project-based. Jump ahead to the 2014-15 academic year, after I had returned from my gap year abroad, and I was prototyping urban project-based learning with real clients like my new friend Michael Tubbs from Stockton, and the successes of that endeavor led a faculty member, who shared my advocacy for an urban curriculum, to hire me as a part-time lecturer to keep the prototype going. Essentially the last year of work since then for our Sustainable Urban Systems Initiative has been to implement another solid prototype of a graduate-level project-based learning curriculum, but now positioned as the core of a proposed program called Sustainable Urban Systems which had been around as a concept but had not yet been pushed forward by faculty in the Civil & Environmental Engineering Department, at least until our peripheral activity. And so a lot of my work in 2016, besides finishing up the prior round of student projects and gearing up for this Fall’s iteration, has been behind-the-scenes politicking and evangelizing to rally support for SUS, including putting together a series of white papers to the Dean of the School of Engineering and to the faculty leadership of CEE.

To make a long story short, we were a sideshow barrelling forth with this bold idea of a whole new graduate degree within CEE, somehow picking up the right pieces of support by contriving far more confidence than we really had, until the whole department had to acknowledge our inertia and re-commandeer the ship from us, given that ultimately we were headed for a shipwreck at our speed. In the last few weeks I have looked back at this strange journey and wondered just how precedented/unprecedented it really was for a 24-year-old recent alumni to be on the front lines of developing a program that he had absolutely no business implementing, but simply cared passionately about. Or how likely/unlikely it was that SUS would ever happen if not for the very nontraditional and long-cut path we took it through. Perhaps this is in fact a good lesson, as many of my colleagues have tried to convince me, that passion and perseverance can move mountains, and perhaps this is the lesson I should be attempting to impart to the reader, but I can’t seem to bring myself to fully believe this at the close of 2016. For this major portion of my mindshare and timeshare this year, as a lecturer/outlaw at Stanford, I think I was simply naive and lucky.

Next year I will definitely keep working in this capacity as lecturer, because I wouldn’t miss the actual first incoming graduate class of SUS students in the Fall. But I am also hoping that my role can transition away from the bureaucratic necessities to the much more fulfilling work of guiding students through exciting and impactful projects around the Bay Area, and building a skunkworks of even more ambitious incubation projects, something that I would gladly be involved with to some capacity for the rest of my professional life.

CORE Project

I worked on another major Stanford-related activity during the summer as an advisor for undergraduate students who chose to work with me on sustainable design for the developing world. I had planned to make substantial progress on my CORE side project, which dates back to the Solar Decathlon, by collaborating with a research team in the Department working on indoor air quality and other health issues in Dhaka, Bangladesh, because I wanted to see if a pilot project there would be possible (having surveyed conditions in El Salvador and Indonesia last year), and had thus set up this summer activity. Unfortunately, just a few weeks before we were scheduled to travel there, there was a gruesome terrorist attack in Dhaka targeting foreigners, and the research team decided to cancel all the trips, leaving me to work with talented students with nonoptimal resources and guidance on campus. Nonetheless they produced valuable work, and the CORE project continues to lumber along. At a point this year I also considered getting involved in a few private enterprises that would allow me to advance some of these concepts of industrialized construction, but I was never really able to commit enough time to the expected commitment of these companies, even in a consultant role, to make meaningful progress. It still remains to be seen how much time I can commit to this project in 2017, but I certainly want to, especially by repositioning the short-term goal towards designing self-sufficient homeless shelters.

Stockton

Another project related directly to my SUS work brought me back to South Stockton, the site of my 2014-15 project-based learning course in partnership with Tubbs and the South Stockton nonprofit community. By coincidence or causality, the City had decided to release a Request for Interest for local developers to submit proposals for what they would do with two City-owned sites along Airport Way, where my students had done a master planning exercise a year before (and where I had strongly advocated for release of City-owned sites in a separate meeting). I lent my services as a schematic designer to produce an initial concept for the RFI, and a few months later the local nonprofit STAND was selected as the developer to enter into an Exclusive Negotiating Rights Agreement with the City for the 8th & Airport Way 1.6 acre lot which is right at the heart of the neighborhood. I have since supported them as much as I can as a consultant to help them get to the end goal of a community center with a public market, medical services, and maybe affordable housing. It’s been a joy to work with these wonderful people again, on a problem where the value of compassion and design is so apparent, and where I’ve been able to spend more of my own mindshare thinking critically about the type of urban development I care most about, that which can revitalize struggling communities and is as holistic as our tools of science, design, and engineering can realize. I had some Stanford students work on this project in the Fall and will mentor another team in the first half of next year, but all the while I will continue to personally support the Stockton group in as impactful of a way as I can, and likely focus on this as my core Cloud Arch Studio project.

Nueva Architecture

One of the hardest decisions of 2016 was to commit to teaching at Nueva a second year. In the summer of 2015 I was recommended by a few people to consider a teaching job at this new high school, and I took the opportunity mostly as an experiment, because I have been personally fascinated by the challenge of designing an effective high school curriculum in architecture, or more generally an effective curriculum in architecture for any new student, and really liked the idea of having full control of the pedagogical method. I ended up really enjoying the experience and grew as a teacher, mentor, and thinker, especially enjoying our final hands-on project of an exhibit built out of milk crates at the Maker Faire. But compared to the educational work I was doing at Stanford, I couldn’t really justify the time spent teaching, grading, and managing logistics at the high school in terms of scale of impact. Instead, the reason I ended up deciding to stick around for a second year was because I just really enjoyed working with the kids, and because Nueva was entering its 50th anniversary year and first graduating high school class, so the sentimental value tipped the balance for me. It has been incredibly fun the second time around, and certainly easier than the first time, but still not quite justifying the time spent, so I have to think seriously about how to conclude my time at Nueva while sustaining the legacy of my work.

Common Ground 3

The biggest project of the year for my personal LLC, Cloud Arch Studio, was the third iteration of my concept for revitalizing public streets in big cities, and a headliner project for the second San Francisco Market Street Prototyping Festival. Coming off of the second iteration which ended quite disastrously in the early removal of the project from the Tenderloin area due to complaints of drug dealing and undesired behavior on the installation, I was incredibly cautious of the challenges of the project and spent a lot of time just proactively working with the City to solve problems, such as ADA accessibility, community stewardship, and permitting for Common Ground’s interactive features. As an incubator project I really benefited from having a dedicated space to work and build at Gray Area in the Mission, and also benefited from having a dedicated team of supporters, including an intern from Ohio State University and a few star students from Nueva. Over the summer we started to build CG3 and basically made steady progress all the way to the festival in October, with the exception of just a few hiccups on our end (screwing up a paint job) and on the City’s end (asking us to change our handrail design literally one week before the event, as if any contractor in the history of public works has been able to deliver on that timeframe, let alone an underfunded ‘artist’). But we installed successfully, and the project succeeded my expectations for those glorious three days of the Festival, which even my parents were able to come up from LA to see. If you haven’t already seen photos from the Festival, you can see them on my Cloud website.

Unfortunately, my optimism was, yet again, much too great. A few weeks ago I received the unexpected news that Hyatt Regency and Philz Coffee, the property owner and storefront business that had signed a stewardship agreement with the City and me, wanted the project removed (which was their right as part of the agreement), citing homeless encampment as the issue. There were, of course, issues with the project itself, most significantly the crappy handrails which were constantly deforming, as well as the lack of signage to instruct the average pedestrian on how to activate the domes, but these were all problems solvable by iterative design, which of course was the point of the entire exercise. Homelessness, unfortunately, is not a problem solvable by design. It’s systemic to a city plagued by wealth inequality and, I’ve decided, the fundamental reason we can’t have make improvements in public space. I’ll be moving CG3 to a new location in the East Bay at the start of 2017, and unless the City demonstrates that it has learned its lesson from these prototyping activities and is willing to hear my recommendations as an experienced and undervalued designer, I simply do not wish to entertain them any longer.

—–

A few final activities and thoughts on 2016 to note:

Under the Cloud brand I worked on a few smaller residential projects for friends, each stimulating in its own way, but I will have to think critically about how to manage my time better on small projects as the logistics tend to take a longer time than I expect. I worked on an RFP for a tiny home village in Santa Clara County which we didn’t win but got me thinking much more critically about homeless shelters as impactful work. I also worked on one high architecture competition this year with some colleagues for Eleven Magazine’s Tenderloin Competition, which we didn’t win but allowed me the refreshment of a direct involvement in bold design that I typically don’t have time to do, ironically.

I also wanted to note that, after watching Before the Flood, Leo DiCaprio’s spiritual sequel to An Inconvenient Truth, I was inspired to take part in the survey on Carbotax.org and donate $200 to offset my personal carbon ‘production’ or footprint. I decided it was necessary for me to do this as part of my commitment to environmental sustainability, and highly recommend you consider paying your dues as well.

Related to sustainability and to my Stanford work: I have also gotten quite engaged in thinking about the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, particularly in relation to the Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s (SDSN) work with US cities to pilot localization of the SDGs. Because we have worked with the City of San Jose in Stanford SUS, I got connected to this network and even got to meet the SDSN team during my trip to NY. I’ve been interested in using the SDG framework as a fundamental part of the SUS pedagogy, i.e. evidence-based decision making, and by continuing to represent Stanford as an academic partner to SJ on that exercise, even got an invitation to go to Washington D.C. a few weeks ago to participate in a roundtable producing recommendations for the U.S. Department of State’s SDG Open Data Roadmap for 2017-18. The timing couldn’t have been better, in relation to the election and its impact on my thinking, as I really welcomed the opportunity to return to DC after 15 years and be up close and personal with this political machine in which I am slowly losing trust.

On the arts side, I once again severely disappointed myself, writing no short stories and only mustering a few dozen daily poems at the start of the year. For the second half of the year I started feeling the urge to write an essay about secularism, but never got around to finishing the first draft, such that when the Election happened that essay somehow morphed into an essay about political philosophy, which also never quite materialized, leaving me with scraps of difficult ideas and an existential crisis of morality and purpose at the end of this year. But despite not producing as much writing or art as I would have liked to, I do feel like year was full of valuable conversations about important ideas that will yield meaningful work in the years to come, and I am grateful to everybody who has spent time in deep discussion with me.

As a final note of emphasis, I really enjoyed the amount of time I spent this year investing in relationships, not just with Boanne but also with high school friends and college friends who could have faded away into the background of adult life. I went to three weddings this year, each of which was filled with nostalgia and joy, as well as organized many other fun adventures with friends in the Bay Area and beyond, and that type of creative work should never be undervalued.

Looking Ahead to 2017

Back in 2014, when I went on a 9-month Eurotrip with Dylan, the most memorable nights were spent wandering for hours by foot through cities like Sofia, Mostar, Istanbul, or Berlin, exploring the equally uncharted space in our heads. We came up with this concept of a Moral CV, a personal manifesto that one should write in his or her twenties in which one examines and justifies a full set of principles to live by. We both felt that a moral education was something sorely lacking in both of our undergraduate educations, and imagined that such a Moral CV, one day, would and should be more important than the professional CVs we currently value. The following year, we tried to host and facilitate a small group forum online on moral and ethical topics, but the effort slowly faded into the background behind the daily grind. Alas, even the Moral CVs we so ambitiously envisioned for society couldn’t make it past our own tests of will.

This year there has been plenty to think about, from my growing immersion in urban systems to the reality check that was our 2016 US Presidential Election. In the immediate days that followed I suppressed the urge to share any thoughts, for fear of betraying some deeper understanding I had yet to find. (The only post I shared, on Facebook the day after, was a message of sincere ambiguity.) Many of the posts I did see on my feed, in fact many of the posts I’ve seen all year, bothered me in nonobvious ways. And it wasn’t just conservative triumph; it was also liberalized martyrdom that seemed to miss the mark. It is as if our society has collectively elevated righteousness over honesty. The world has been painted in unnatural shades of left and right, the kind of flavors that leave a sickening taste in your mouth. So in the heat of political and cultural battles of which I felt no strong allegiance to either front, I felt instead the pull to think, to turn ideas over and over like a pebble in my hand, to read and to observe and to converse. I felt the yearning to achieve moral clarity, and found myself returning to that concept of a Moral CV.

Next year I want to spend a significant part of my timeshare and mindshare working on a project of intellectual honesty. I am not quite sure exactly what form it will take yet, but I will start off with more personal blogging on this site, with a focus on morality, ethics, philosophy, and politics. My first hypothesis is that if I can successfully ‘think in public’, which is to say my intellectual reasoning can withstand the test of public scrutiny, then within the span of the year the process will substantially improve my intelligence and aptitude for persuasive communication with others. My second hypothesis is that, through this process, I will have produced a series of rigorously rational and empirical views on important policy issues (of which I suspect there will be no shortage of in 2017) which will be readily accessible and useful for my readers. I would eventually like to engage as many intelligent people as I can in this activity, growing it perhaps to a community blog or a think tank or someday a political movement. If you are interested in this endeavor, the best place to start is by following this blog so you can receive my blog posts as they are published, and to reach out to me for discussion (I’m always up for deep talks over beer in SF).

This existential crisis has led me to rethink my overall timeshare. I am certain I will spend 50% of my time on Stanford in 2017, continuing to develop the SUS curriculum and working with students. After this last semester at Nueva I will document my curriculum and find somebody to pass the baton to, perhaps spending a little bit of time supervising their work in the Fall; I will put the time commitment overall at about 25%. I will set aside 25% on the Stockton project, 25% of my time on this Intellectual Honesty project (yes, I know I’m going over 100%, which corresponds to 40 hours/week), and 25% on miscellaneous Cloud or other projects, including possibly the formation of a nonprofit entity to formalize some community development work. With the rest of my time, of course, I will maintain my own health and wellbeing and maintain meaningful relationships with people I care about. One idea I’m going to try, as a sort of life hack, is to set up a shortlist of about 25 people I care about, and to use a weekly Google Calender invite to remind myself to stay in touch with each of them.

I would also like to actively seek out new and interesting people to collaborate with in 2017. Perhaps this is in fact the most important reason I’m writing this, to enlist your help, as a reader, to connect me with (you perhaps, or) people you know who share the same values as I do, and who are open to collaborating on meaningful work.

  • I’m looking for people who are aspiring young designers and engineers who are tired of being a cog in the wheel and want to work on improving sustainable urban systems, possibly as a student, researcher, or lecturer at Stanford.
  • I’m looking for people who are knowledgeable about and interested in working on reducing homelessness or generally community development in the Bay Area, or in developing countries.
  • I’m looking for people who have recently finished a degree in architecture and are interested in refining and teaching a high school architecture curriculum as opposed to working in a traditional architectural practice. I’d like to work with them immediately to see if they are a good fit for Nueva.
  • I’m looking for people who aspire to intellectual honesty and would like to work on something to change the dangerous course of politics and policy in our country.
  • I’m looking for people who are just as passionate as I am about books, podcasts, film, music, or all of the above, and would like to just meet up to talk about these topics more, and maybe even want to work on art projects together.

And finally, if you have followed me for this long, I hope you will give me honest feedback on how you think I should spend my time and think about 2017.

The year that has passed has been fraught with disappointment for many of us who believed in liberal values and common sense in our nation. The temptation may be to shrink even deeper into our enclaves and to stick to the personal lives we have so much more agency over. I hope you will join me in rejecting that choice, and coming out with compassion, reason, and honesty in 2017.

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