The raging creeks and still snow-packed peaks of Aspen, Colorado don't outwardly suggest any hints of a global water crisis, but it provides a reflective backdrop for design students who arrived here this week to tackle what is certain to be the greatest challenge currently facing the planet: Water conservation.
As the finalists for the global INDEX: AIGA Aspen Design Challenge, these students designed campaigns and product concepts to solve issues around water use, safety and awareness. But the competition doesn't end with a trophy and a handshake: After intense workshops with design and business leaders in the idyllic alpine setting, they'll leave Aspen with business plans meant to bring the ideas to market.
Here's one example, from Ceren Bagatar of the Umea Institute of Design, Sweden: Emergency Water Purifier for Flood Conditions, a purification system made specifically for the days after floods when clean water is nearly impossible to come by. (You'll find links to more of our favorite projects from the competition at the bottom of this post.)
INDEX: AIGA Aspen Design Challenge builds upon the legacy of the International Design Conference at Aspen, which lured the world's biggest design stars high into the Rockies for decades starting in the 1950's to discuss the role of design in improving well-being. The current competition, which is co-sponsored by international journalism and science network Circle of Blue, came after a discussion at yet another mountaintop conference, the 2007 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, when the panel named Designing Water's Future determined water to be the most far-reaching problem for the planet. Five million people die each year due to contaminated drinking water, and two-thirds of the world's population will live in areas of water stress within the next 20 years.
Branding guru Brian Collins was among those at the World Economic Forum two years ago who began incubating this idea. "The reason I joined INDEX: and AIGA to do this was to show how young designers can really tackle important social and ecological problems, and develop smart, workable, real-world solutions," Collins said between sessions.
The students are also learning from advisors like Deborah Adler, whose ClearRx prescription system redesign, created while she was an MFA student at the School of Visual Arts in New York, was eventually adapted by Target. The focus on real-world execution also demonstrates a shift in the paradigm for traditional concept-driven competitions. "Frankly, while I am a big champion of the ambition the expression represents, it's time to move beyond 'design thinking,'" says Collins. "Given the challenges now facing the world, it's time for 'design doing.'"
The finalists—after being sufficiently prepped by their new mentors and, we hope, at least one hike to see the Maroon Bells—will travel to Copenhagen for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in December.
View more INDEX: AIGA Aspen Design Challenge winners:
Oli: Products That Reduce Water Consumption Behaviorally
Every Drop Counts: A Low-Cost Monitor That Tracks Water Usage
Rethink Your Green: Helps Californians Reconsider Their Landscaping
VeggiePatch: A Low-Impact Way for Households to Grow Food